2001 Detroit Show: Euro Hangover

January 24, 2000

Back in Royal Leamington Spa, a town where the last big event was when Queen Victoria came to take the curative waters, I’m able to look back on a visit to the first week of the North American International Automobile Show.

To someone used to European auto shows, it’s quite a stunning, strange vista. The amazing thing is that having been in Detroit for six days, I left on the first day in which the show was actually open to the public. Over here in Europe, we are used to shows that open up to the paying customers after one or two press preview days.

Detroit undergoes the longest gestation period of any. When the show first went international, in 1998, it followed the usual pattern, with two, maybe two and a half, press days, but now it has four official ones plus one extra, which has grown out of Chrysler’s idea of introducing its concept cars on the Sunday. Chrysler did it first in 1999, and this year the other two of the big three joined in, ensuring that most of the international press has to be in Detroit by Saturday.

Chrysler seems to have led every move that has turned Cobo Hall in Detroit into the Las Vegas of the Midwest. It was first with concept cars, first with the big-stage spectacular press ‘events’ and now it has taken away the press’s weekend. The latest DaimlerChrysler trend in media extravaganzas is the mammoth party. The company started it last year, and this year it had another — so GM had to have one too. Next year expect Ford to join in, with a monster finger buffet for six or seven thousand of the company’s closest friends. That’s the number of media representatives at the show this year, and they were all invited to both the DC and GM bashes.

Standing (and shoving) room only

Unfortunately, the press presentations at the show are so good that if you don’t get in half an hour early, you probably won’t see them. From where I stood at the back of the crowd for the Chrysler concept show, all I could see were a group of ninja aerialists shinnying up and down ropes. Because concept cars are usually low and sleek — and DC’s were — they were totally invisible. Fortunately, since I was at the back, I was close to the table where the press kits were to be given out — but "not before the presentation was over," as the lady in charge told us forcibly.

Once the presentation was over, the lady disappeared under a welter of pushing, grabbing hands, all seeking a kit to tell them all about the cars they couldn’t see in the crush. A good proportion wanted two kits (one for the files, one for eBay) and that probably explained why after the Ford concept unveiling the latecomers couldn’t get a press kit in any other form than as a CD. But at least at Ford you could see the cars — if only because the event was held in the remote Cobo arena.

And so it went on, for three more days. More smoke, more mirrors, more executives proving they could read balance sheets better than they could read an autocue. Although not every manufacturer can keep up with the Big Three Joneses, it’s become the rule that they should all at least canter along behind. This means that every year more and more stands start their lives during the press days as temporary theatres, with banks of seats, platforms for the TV cameras, and banks of mixing desks to control the microphones and lights.

The problem for journalists is that once the stand’s twenty minutes of fame is over, it has to be converted into the display the public will see on Saturday. This means that a post-conference arrival is likely to find chaos surrounding the cars he or she wanted to see. This year the worst example of this was Mitsubishi, where all that was to be seen for the whole day after the unveiling was three interesting but unlit concept cars and nothing else.

Amphitheaters and clichés

Ford did it best, but only by the expensive means of building a complete theatre within the vast stand that covered all the company’s brands. Ford had taken over Cobo Arena for its concepts, which were pretty ho-hum and overloaded with the dot-com Internet overkill that seems, to European eyes, to have taken over the U.S.A., but on Tuesday it used its in-house mini-amphitheatre to launch two of the best cars of the show. The Escape SUV-ette and the Jaguar F-Type concept will both be remembered long after the 24.7 — how cliché-ridden can you get? — Internet concepts are forgotten. And the nice thing was that they were unveiled not by Miss America, nor by the entire cast of Hello, Dolly!, but in the case of the Escape by the people who would be selling it and in the case of the F-Type by the people who designed it. From a press point of view, that’s the way we prefer it.

But of course the Detroit press and preview days are unlike any others because the Detroit show is unlike any other and the press are not the most important people on press day. The shows in Frankfurt, Paris or Tokyo are all about a nation’s car industry, but the Detroit show is about a town’s industry, and the whole town turns out so that once a year they can stuff it to the East and West coast towns that always look askance at it. Half the folk at the press days are wearing the blue admission badges that mark them as car company employees or hangers-on, and Thursday and Friday are the days when the industry’s suppliers — most of whom are from the same town — have their day to walk round. Friday evening is the time when the wives and girlfriends get to walk around, and everybody in town gets to show how much they can spend on formal attire.

It’s not until Saturday that the ordinary folks of Detroit get to come in, and then the show reverts to what it was before somebody had the stroke of genius to get it accredited as an officially-recognized International auto show. From Saturday morning on, it’s a show where the organizing body — which is, after all, the Detroit Auto Dealers’ Association — goes about its business of selling cars to its neighbors.

Ask any of the international press and they will prefer the relaxed, showbiz-free atmosphere of Geneva press days. But they will still come to Detroit, because thanks to the energy and money that has been spent on the show over the last decade, it’s one place where time — as well as money — is always well spent.

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