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William Maley

Afterthoughts: The Sad Trombone of the 2019 Detroit Auto Show

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This year was to be the final Detroit Auto Show to take place in January before the big move to an indoor/outdoor festival of sorts next June. Despite a number of manufacturers announcing they would not be at the show, there was some hope for there be to a surprise. Something that would allow the current incarnation of the show to go out with a bang.

That did not happen.

It was thought that Chevrolet would roll out the long-awaited and rumored mid-engined Corvette. But those hopes would be dashed as rumors came out that the project would be delayed up to six months due to a problem with the electrical system. It also gave Toyota a sigh of relief as the Supra wouldn’t be overshadowed by the Corvette - see the Ford GT eating up the attention from the Acura NSX a few years back.

Even with the anticipation of the Supra coming to Detroit, there was nothing that could be described as being memorable. Most of the vehicles that were revealed seemed to be somewhat phoned in.

  • We knew a lot about the Supra including how it would look and what would power it before it arrived on stage. CEO Akio Toyoda actually mentioned in the press conference that it was “one of the industry’s worst kept secrets.”
  • The refreshed Volkswagen Passat was eclipsed by news that a second plant and 1,000 jobs would be added at Chattanooga, along with becoming a sponsor for U.S. Women’s, Men’s, and Youth National teams.
  • Infiniti’s QX Inspiration concept didn’t actually appear at the presentation. It was stuck in the lobby of Cobo Hall due to some sort of malfunction.
     
  • The announcement talking about Ford and Volkswagen’s new alliance? The stage appearance was canceled late on Monday. Instead, we got a conference call and press release providing the details.

The big talking point at the show wasn’t about the show. Over the weekend, a water main broke which put most of Downtown Detroit under a boil water advisory. This caused a lot of headaches for visiting media and automotive executives as would have to use bottled water to brush their teeth or wash their hair (this was something I heard a few people mentioned on the show floor). Luckily, I saw this new before heading down to the show and brought a couple liters of water with me to use for tea and brushing my teeth.

But the water main break serves as a good metaphor for this year’s Detroit Auto Show. It felt a bit discombobulated with a number of manufacturers being MIA and organizers trying to figure out what to do. There was also a noticeable lack of energy surrounding the show. Going into the media center at Cobo, I was expecting to be filled with various journalists and other media. To my surprise, it looked and felt the second day of the show where there was a surprising amount of open space to sit down and begin working. Being on the show floor was the same story. I was amazed at how easily I was able to get photos of cars that had been unveiled only 20 to 30 minutes without having to fight a number of people to get a decent shot.

There is a lot riding on the move to June next year with organizers planning something like the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the U.K. There promises to be the ability to ride and drive various new vehicles, self-driving vehicles being demonstrated on public roads, “dynamic vehicle debuts,” and much more. A number of automakers and executives have praised this move.

"I always thought it made sense for Detroit to showcase itself when the weather's nice. All the international press comes here in perhaps our worst weather month of the year. I don't know how many rodeos we can have coming down the street in January,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford earlier this week.

I wished that shared the same enthusiasm as a number of people with the show moving to June. Call me skeptical or cynical, but I get the feeling that the move will not solve the issue that face a number of automakers; making the case to spend the money to attend another show. A recent piece in Wards Auto says it costs more than million dollars to hold a 25-minute press conference according to sources.

“…due to exorbitant rates for sound and video production, lighting, drayage, special effects, food, drink and union labor to set up chairs, lay carpet and build ramps for drive-on vehicle unveilings.”

The past few years have seen more and more automakers hold their own events off-site as they are not only cheaper but allows them to control the message.

“We can go and create an atmosphere on Sunday night at the Garden Theater for less money and for what we think is an equal or better return on our investment,” said Terry Rhadigan, executive director of communications at General Motors to Wards Auto.

I think back to a conversation I had last year on the show floor with a friend. I was mentioning how I was feeling somewhat bored and he asked how many Detroit Auto Shows I had attended.

“I think this is my fourth or fifth,” I said.

He paused for a moment before saying that was usually around the time someone begins to feel burnt out and wanting something exciting to happen. This popped into my head while walking around the show on Monday as nothing really grabbed my attention in terms of new debuts. There were some bright spots such as Kia Stinger GT police vehicle from Australia and the Toyota Yaris WRC on the show floor. But aside from these and few other vehicles, I felt a bit down. Maybe I had grown weary of the show itself and the noticeable departures of various automakers only compounded it. Or maybe this was the manifestation of a trend that the auto show I had come to know was coming to an end and was only beginning to realize it.

2020 will be an interesting year to say in the least as organizers begin a new chapter in the auto show’s legacy. Whether it works out or not remains to be seen.

Pic Credit: William Maley for Cheers & Gears


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"Sad trombone" is putting it nicely. 

*old man mode - engage*

Back in my day,.... I remember having to be up at 5 am to make it to a 6:30 am press conference and press conferences didn't end until 4:30pm and still continued the next day.

This year, the first conference was at 8:40 and the last one ended at 2:05 with nothing on the second day.

Plus Mercedes, Volvo, Tesla, BMW didn't even bother to show up, so the floor felt empty.

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