Detroit auto show scouts UK fest for way forward

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
The 2019 Mustang Bullitt rolls alongside the 1968 Mustang fastback, used in the Steve McQueen film "Bullitt," at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed held near Chicester, England.

Goodwood Estate, United Kingdom — Flashy Mustangs grinding up a hill. Race car drivers signing autographs. Food tents serving up bacon sandwiches. 

This is the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a four-day celebration of British motoring that could serve as a possible inspiration for transforming the North American International Auto Show.

As traditional auto shows from Detroit to Paris struggle to stay relevant, auto show organizers are looking to this annual event in West Sussex for ideas on creating their own citywide celebration of the automobile.


The Detroit Auto Dealers Association, organizer of the annual show at Cobo Center, dispatched floor manager Andrea Trudeau to Goodwood last weekend to scout out the festival.

“It’s a celebration of cars as opposed to a display of cars,” said Steven Armstrong, head of European operations for Ford Motor Co., which had a major presence at Goodwood this year. “A lot of people come here to see the latest GT go up the hill, but while they’re here (we get to) engage the next generation of buyers.

A classic Porsche car is polished during the Goodwood Festival Of Speed at Goodwood on July 12, 2018 in Chichester, England.

Marking its 25th anniversary this year, the Goodwood Festival was set up like a music festival for cars: For four days, automakers brought out their fastest, loudest and most expensive vehicles to race up a hill on a mile-long track that bisected the festival grounds. Others fought for position around a rally track.

Spread throughout the estate were food stands, vendor tents where companies showcased new technology, and towering stands erected by global automakers where attendees kicked the tires of new cars and took them on test drives.

Engines roared. Cars churned dust from the lawn as they clipped corners approaching the hill-climb. Professional drivers did burn-outs or ripped doughnuts in front of the estate before rocketing up the hill.

With experiences like that, Goodwood attendance has grown steadily to more than 200,000, with millions more watching online. The expansion has come even as Detroit and other mainline shows lose manufacturers who no longer consider them "must-attend" events — and as car buyers look to the Internet to research vehicles.

The downward trend for traditional auto shows is so unmistakable that Detroit planners have decided to move their 2020 event from January to June. It's part of an effort to reinvent the Detroit auto show after several global automakers — including Germany's "Big Three" of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz — decided to join the exodus from the January 2019 show. Their defections follow other carmakers who have skipped the past couple of shows.

Classic cars go on display during the Goodwood Festival Of Speed at Goodwood on July 12, 2018 in Chichester, England.

Held every summer since 1993, the Festival of Speed on the grounds of the sprawling Goodwood Estate two hours south of London combines racing with a car show that brings together historic vehicles, concept cars, motorcycles and supercars that most drivers could only dream of owning. Automakers erect outdoor two- and three-story displays around the grounds.

It's a loud, fast event that attracts enthusiasts from around the world to eat, drink and cheer as famous drivers pilot cars up the hill and around the track.

“Goodwood has become the U.K. auto show,” Stuart Dyble, a long-time auto industry public relations executive and CEO of London-based Influence Associates, said in an interview here with The Detroit News. Dyble headed Ford Motor Co.’s European product launches and auto shows in the late 1990s before becoming  vice president of public relations for the Blue Oval's now-defunct Premier Automotive Group.

“There is absolutely no doubt that all the major auto shows are struggling,” said Dyble, whose firm assisted nine brands at Goodwood this year, including Jaguar Land Rover, which built its Goodwood stand around a three-story tree. “They’re all in the process of reinventing themselves. Automotive enthusiasts and consumers can get every bit of information they want about a new car online.”

At the same time, the Festival of Speed, originally inspired by the Indianapolis 500, is becoming a force in the global auto scene. It's become more important in the U.K. since the British International Motor Show died in 2008. 

Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, McLaren, Jaguar Land Rover and others last weekend used the event to showcase top-of-the-line cars most people could only dream of driving.

A spectator looks on from the Ford Motor Co. stand as a speedster rips up the hill climb track at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

This year, Ford raced the eye-catching GT supercar, performed stunts with an F-150 and Ranger Raptors, and launched the 2019 special-edition 475-horsepower Mustang Bullitt on the hill-climb alongside the original Mustang fastback that Steve McQueen famously drove in a car-chase through San Francisco in the groundbreaking 1968 movie. At the 2018 Detroit auto show, those vehicles were largely stationary.

Looking for inspiration

The Festival of Speed would be impossible to copy, say North American International Auto Show organizers and those running events for major automakers. But they say there’s a template for auto show success here that could be adapted for a reimagined Detroit show.

Detroit Auto Dealers Association spokesman Max Muncey told The Detroit News that while this was the first year his crew sent a representative to Goodwood, he and his team have kept tabs on the event through livestreams, media coverage and by talking with carmakers who've attended.

Classic racing cars line up ahead of a race during the Goodwood Festival Of Speed at Goodwood on July 12, 2018 in Chichester, England.

"The festival-like atmosphere (at Goodwood) with dynamic vehicle debuts are something that would play well for us in warmer months," Muncey said. "What we look to deliver in 2020 and beyond will be unique to Detroit and showcase not only our great city, but the global automotive leadership this region holds."

Details on changes could come Tuesday when the Detroit show officially announces the date change from winter to summer.

Ed Laukes, group vice president for Toyota Motor North America, believes changes are needed. "It would behoove all shows, including NAIAS, to look at all the new elements they feel are successful in attracting attendees and coverage. Festivals like (Goodwood) are a great example of success... some experiential elements would add value and shimmer to auto shows."

At its core, the Goodwood Festival of Speed is a celebration of cars, motorcycles and racing that offers consumers an “experience,” Ed Foster, deputy head of Goodwood’s motorsport content, told The News in an interview. The Formula One speedsters, drift cars, luxury sport cars, supercars and muscle cars — some piloted by famous race drivers — launch from the starting line of the hill-climb track nearly every 30 seconds. All day long.

The No. 43 STP heads to the starting line of the hill climb at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Add to that a historic estate hosting the festival, food stands pushing British fare like bacon-and-butter sandwiches, and appearances by some of the most storied vehicles in European racing history.

Goodwood embraces its British identity, and that’s part of what’s clicking with attendees.

“You don’t get any show that has absolutely everything,” said Jack Burgoine, a 22-year-old who traveled to the show from Bedfordshire with his brother and father. “It’s definitely better when the car comes to life. There’s more to do than just look at cars.”

Every vehicle that races at Goodwood is parked in a paddock between runs for fans to come take a look. Drivers hang around for autographs. When cars fire up for a run, crowds flock to the sound.

Julio Checchi, 14, and his father traveled from Argentina with their family for this year’s festival. On the second floor of Ford’s stand, father and son grinned as they rounded the corner to encounter the Bullitt Mustang.

The boy had just seen his favorite Lotus supercar race up the track. That alone meant Goodwood overshadowed any South American auto show he’s attended.

“You get to see the cars in action,” he said. “I’ve seen the car before, but it was just sitting there. Here, I saw that just 10 minutes ago fly by on the track. It’s amazing.”

Displays stands often included live music or performances.

Ford had a ledge for visitors to jump about one-and-a-half stories onto a cushioned pad. Every hour, Ford had an acrobatics team put on a brief show using that same feature.

Land Rover allowed people to drive SUVs on an off-road course. There's was a half-hour waiting line the entire weekend.

Changing business model

That kind of active consumer traffic is resonating with automakers.

The presence of several brands, including Jaguar, Land Rover, Ford, BMW and Porsche has grown significantly in recent years. Automakers declined to comment on how much they spend at Goodwood compared to other auto shows.

Patrick Friesacher of Austria talks with fans during the Goodwood Festival of Speed at Goodwood on July 14, 2018 in Chichester, England.

But some companies that are pulling out of Detroit for 2019 — namely Mercedes and BMW — footed the bill to build multiple stands at Goodwood. Even Tesla, the Silicon Valley automaker that says auto shows are not part of its marketing plan, operated a stand here featuring all three of its cars, including the new Model 3. 

Ford, meantime, juggles both old and new. Armstrong, Ford's head of European operations, said the company looks at Goodwood as a chance to show off performance vehicles in a more dynamic way.

“All of us are having to look at our business models” for auto shows, Armstrong said. Auto shows and automakers, he said, need to figure out how to “move with the times."

Cars take center stage

Goodwood’s growth in recent years is a product of authenticity, said Dyble, the London-based public relations executive. Organizers play to the history of British motorsports and British brands by bringing out storied vehicles for the hill climb. But they also nod to the future.

The Jaguar Land Rover stand at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed housed a tree, along with the brands product lineup.

Self-driving vehicles raced up the hill throughout the weekend. Vendors set up stands on the sprawling lawn to showcase drones, autonomous technology and mobility-related ventures that have become front-and-center at the Detroit show. A man in a jet pack flew up and down a stretch of track each day.

But those were ancillary features. The main focus of the Festival of Speed seldom wavers from the cars — and the history. Detroit, the birthplace of the modern automobile and the moving assembly line, could do something similar by drawing on its own unique history, Dyble believes.

“Detroit gives you a tremendous backdrop on which to draw,” he said. “People will buy into that. There’s a real chance here, isn’t there? Detroit needs to get back to leading again. This is where the auto show leads again."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau