Does the Detroit Auto Show matter anymore?

Recently a coworker of mine in New York expressed an interest in going to the North America International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit this year and suddenly I was reminded what time of year it was. Were it not for his reminder, the show would have passed me by without notice. How could I have forgotten about the largest Auto Show in North America? One I religiously attended for over a decade? Let me tell you.

The NAIAS has in the past been the Mecca for US car enthusiasts and exhibitors. A day trip (and I mean a full day) would allow the general public to see past, current, and future models from every marque you may or may not have heard of – and for many of these models, the exhibition hall of Cobo Center would be their first step into North America. A quick jaunt through some of my photos reminded me of the treasure trove of knowledge I would gain each year. Rumors and concepts like the R8, the LFA, or the Evo X were at the show years before production. The Rolls Phantom Drophead, Bentley Continental GTC, Aston V8 Vantage and multiple Ferraris were appearing long before going on sale to the public (undoubtedly much of the US allocation was being distributed at this show). And let’s not forget the services and perks offered by the dealers and exhibitors. Chris and I were invited yearly behind the ropes of some “off-limits” exotic displays, or up the stairs to the reception areas of the German Werke. In addition to climbing through most of the cars others would only look at, we would get the latest from the dealer owners and (at times) set up spring-time appointments to sample the cars that particularly caught our eye. Services like these made the NAIAS a special event, not merely a walk through the world’s biggest car dealer. There was so much to do, in fact, that Chris and I would have to carefully plan the day just to be able to see what we wanted.

But along came a recession and with it the horrible realization that Detroit was by no means king of the automotive world. In 2008 there were a few new and interesting things appearing, but not enough to get me on a plane from NYC for a day trip. In 2009, much of the exhibition alumni that Chris and I would frequent had drastically reduced their involvement with the show or simply bowed out all together. In 2010, the online floor plan of exhibitors is notably missing Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Nissan and Mitsubishi (save a stand for electric cars), Rolls Royce, Spyker, and Porsche – ALL of which have dealers present in the metro Detroit area. If you would like to see SOME of those cars, you can make your way to the MGM Grand casino and pay $25 a head for a gallery show of selected models (which I gather will be pulled from dealer showrooms or gracious local owners). Ironically, the reason some of these companies have given for removing themselves from the Cobo Hall floor: ‘we feel it is no longer economically viable.’

Really?! Not economically viable? I certainly don’t doubt their reasoning because the NAIAS is a true red carpet affair (Ford has been known to spend 9 figures on its pavilion). But it highlights a sad reality. Every one of these companies has respected, successful dealers a short hop from downtown Detroit. And isn’t the US still the biggest commercial market for all of these companies? Now I’m forced to travel to shows piecemeal from New York to LA in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the latest from the companies I care about?

No I’m not forced to do that at all. Because I can get an exclusive and personal tour of the 2010 exhibitors and the conspicuous absentees by simply driving to the Troy Motor Mall and spending the day in some showrooms. Starting at one end of Suburban Highline I can take in Hummer, Bugatti, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, and Maserati (while at the same time seeing some exceptional examples of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Spyker). I can jump the hedge and walk into Aston Martin of Troy and get an up-close of their full range while sipping a Coke at the wet bar. I can take a train ride from my NY home to the Ferrari Maserati Showroom in midtown and see the latest from Italy before they hit the sales floor. I can cross the street to Mercedes of Manhattan and see the most exclusive offerings from Maybach and AMG. A little piecemeal? Yes, but it’s everything and (sometimes) more than the NAIAS offered and it’s free. The staff at all of these dealers (ok not Mercedes of Manhattan) have treated me with the utmost respect and they all thoroughly enjoy a good conversation among enthusiasts whether you are interested in buying or not.

Given this alternative, the largest automotive gathering in North America that I’ve been attending since I was a teenager no longer has anything to offer. And I’ve lost interest.

In short, the NAIAS is no longer economically viable for me.


Chris said...

Ouch. Gotta say this is a subject close to my heart for all the reasons Boz has mentioned. He and I have had some remarkably fun times at that show, but this commentary really got me thinking.

What he hasn't mentioned, and may not be as aware of since he's in NYC, is all the political wrangling and nonsense that has occurred around Cobo Hall is wearing on everyone in the Metro Detroit area. It's grown tiresome on the public, and undoubtedly the manufacturers too.

Worse, while everyone was jerking each other around about what to do with Cobo Hall, the LA Auto Show was stealing Detroit's thunder. Now, this is what happens. Major, prominent automakers have bowed out. Exotic car makers - at least one of which who didn't even have to pay for their space! - no longer want to be bothered.

Personally, the last time I went was three years ago, when Ferrari was unveiling the 599. Boz and I went, got an up close and personal tour of this amazing machine, and went about our way through the rest of the show like we had so many other times before. I don't remember what happened the following year that kept me from attending, but last year is when the major pullouts began. My interest waned. This year - same thing after scanning the exhibitor list. It didn't help when Chevy was bragging about showing off their new Aveo and the Volt - two "who cares" cars if there ever were some. I mean, if that's supposed to be a highlight, I can see more interesting cars driven by attendees as they're pulled into various parking lots around metro Detroit.

And it really is too bad. As a resident of metro Detroit, this is a crying shame. I'm not one to bring more rain on Detroit - goodness knows there's already enough problems. But losing the luster of this auto show is yet another black eye for this region which has already been beat about as badly as you can imagine during this recession.

When even car nuts decide they have better things to do than go to "Mecca" (as Kevin put it) - something is seriously wrong. If it doesn't change, Detroit will permanently lose the title and prestige as the Motor capital of the world.

Barret00 said...

Its interesting this subject came up, my wife just asked me this morning if I was going to go to the show this year. I told her no and she asked "why, i thought that was your guys(Chris,Boz,Adrian...) thing." I told her, in my case anyway, that there was nothing for me there anymore for the same reasons Chris and Boz have already stated.

I did the same thing Chris and Boz did, look back on the good memories of past auto shows, and although I never had the same in depth access Chris and Boz had(one day you guys will have to tell me how you REALLY got behind the ropes), I look at the auto show now, and it looks like a big irritation, way too many cars I dont care about and not enough of the car makers that I do. And regretfully, many others may feel the same and i think we will see that by the attendance numbers this year.

I think what chris mentioned at the end of his post has already happened, Detroit is no longer THE moter city, its now one of a few(see New York and LA).It now has competition, which would have been unthinkable even 10years ago.The "Motor City" is now known more for the number of jobs lost and bad car companies than for the next years whatever coming of the assembly line. We went from waiting for the new mustang to waiting for the new econo/electric something.... that sucks!

Its a shame.... Ill look at the pictures of the cars i want to see online without the lines.....

Anonymous said...

it's funny to go back in time to see how simple is to make a automobile work,today all of the junk they put on,is really ridiculous ,and the cost is simply outrageous ,under no circumstances worth the money paid ,there is simply nothing worth the price paid ,for the product cost ,price gouging was lost a long time ago ,if you are rich ,and you buy a overpriced automobile ,you just wasted a considerable amount of money ,as soon as you drive off of the lot ,simpler putt ,buy an inexpensive automobile and get the same use without throwing away $800,000 are more ,its just not practical ,logical ,are sensible .thank you Zefrey

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