Hollywood, Motown collide for Detroit auto show debuts
A herd of overly excited cattle, a Jeep smashing through a glass wall, Cirque du Soleil acrobats doing backflips: They’re just a few of the spectacles automakers stage when premiering new cars and trucks at the North American International Auto Show.
And if any company has been king of over-the-top debuts, it’s been Chrysler, now known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
In 1992, the automaker wanted to make a grand entrance for its all-new 1993 Grand Cherokee. So it orchestrated a stunt that has become legend: Then-Chrysler President Bob Lutz and Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young hopped in a Grand Cherokee at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant. With Lutz at the wheel, they headed to Cobo Center with a police escort.
As the crowd waited for the premiere inside, Lutz bounced the SUV up the steps of Cobo and crashed it through a wall of “movie” glass rigged with small explosive charges. As the glass crumbled and the Grand Cherokee stormed into the hall, Chrysler introduced an era of stunts that hasn’t been topped.
At that same show, Chrysler revealed the 1993 Concorde, the first generation of the full-size sedan, with “living artwork.” The introduction – using human models portraying pieces of famous art, including a nude woman with breasts covered only by an arm – was a mixed sensation.
“As you can well imagine, being a bit unconventional and risk-oriented myself, I welcomed my role in these productions,” Lutz wrote in a recent email to The Detroit News. “I was worried, justifiably, by the living female statues, as they involved exposed breasts. Sure enough, several women journalists went postal over the issue.”
Lutz was at the center of many of Chrysler’s auto show stunts. To introduce the new Town & Country in 1995, Lutz and Chrysler Chairman Bob Eaton dressed in Mr. Rogers-style cardigans. From giant storybooks, they told the tale of the new minivan. Then as the crowed watched, a Town & Country with Kermit the Frog in the driver’s seat soared over an artificial pond. It was Chrysler’s way of giving notice that the new minivan would “leapfrog” all competitors.
Similarly, in 2006, the automaker staged a blizzard of artificial snow as it showed the world its first Chrysler SUV, the Aspen. Bits of paper “snow” were still falling from the rafters at Cobo a year later.
Public relations veteran Jason Vines oversaw many of Chrysler’s spectacles from the early 1990s to late-2000s.
“I always thought of Chrysler as the junkyard dog,” he said. “We’re the smallest of the Big Three, we’re scrappier, we’re quicker — but we need to fight for attention. We’re the little brother, but we’re the little brother that’s going to break your nose.”
The last outlandish stunt Vines led was a 2008 cattle drive with 120 longhorn steers to introduce the 2009 Dodge Ram. What could go wrong?
There’s an old show business adage that goes: “Never work with children or animals.”
As observers chewed on Dodge-brand beef jerky, Chrysler Vice Chairman and President Jim Press touted the new pickup: “If you think that our truck is all hat and no cattle, keep an eye on yonder horizon.”
Some of those cattle – caught up in the excitement of the moment – began to mount each other on West Congress as astonished members of the news media looked on.
“Oh, look at that,” Press said as the longhorns stole the show. “Well, let’s not watch that.”
Since then, other automakers have attempted over-the-top debuts.
In 2013, Infiniti unveiled its Q50 sedan with the help of Cirque du Soleil performers twirling and flipping to a thunderous soundtrack. That same year, Ford lowered its Atlas F-150 concept from the ceiling of Joe Louis Arena. The following year, it debuted its 2015 F-150 during an elaborate presentation at the ice hockey arena.
But nothing in recent years has quite lived up to the standard Chrysler set.
Vines said he hopes automakers — particularly Chrysler — return to the attention-getting debuts of the past. However, the automaker declined to comment on any fanfare that might accompany the unveiling of its next-generation minivan in Detroit next month.
“The Chrysler unveilings, the spectacular ones, we always had a message in it,” Vines said. “It wasn’t just show business for show business sake. The show business had a theme to it, which reflected in the vehicle.”
Top Detroit debuts
1992: Chrysler’s first generation of the Concorde debuts in Detroit with the help of “living artwork” with barely covered breasts.
1992: The 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee makes a smashing entrance as Chrysler President Bob Lutz crashes the SUV through a glass wall.
1993: The Dodge Ram drops from the ceiling of Cobo and onto the stage.
1995: The new Chrysler Town & Country, with Kermit the Frog in control, leapfrogs a pond.
2006: The Chrysler Aspen arrives through a blinding blizzard of artificial snow.
2006: Chrysler reprises its 1992 smash when a Jeep Wrangler crashes out of Cobo through a plate-glass window and up a snowy hill.
2008: The debut of the Dodge Ram is upstaged by a herd of unruly longhorn cattle.
2009: GM opens the show with a road rally of 16 new and upcoming vehicles, including four global premieres.
2010: The Ram 2500 HD takes to the ceiling at Cobo.
2013: A Vegas-worthy performance by Cirque du Soleil precedes the debut of the Infiniti Q50.
2013: Ford lowers its Atlas pickup concept from the ceiling of Joe Louis Arena.
2014: A parade of Corvettes drives from GM Warren Tech Center to Cobo to introduce the high-performance Z06.
2016: Anybody’s guess.