Auto show guests fight cold, look forward to June move

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Cristiano Vittorini, 5, left, and his brother, Valentino Vittorini, 6, of Rochester Hills climb out of the bed of a Denali using the GMC multi-pro tail gate at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 20, 2019.

Detroit — Sunday's weather, which struggled to reach double-digit temperatures by noon in downtown Detroit, is the kind of issue the North American International Auto Show is trying to avoid by moving the show to June in 2020.

Visitors on the second public day of the show might have decided to fight through arctic temperatures to look at cars, some of which will never be sold commercially. But they weren't sad about the prospects of trading in winter coats for T-shirts, or trading in sub-zero wind chills for a cool breeze off the Detroit River.

The first day of the auto show, which opened to the public Saturday and runs through Jan. 27, drew 83,916 people, according to organizers. Sunday's total of 101,310 brought attendance for the first weekend to 185,226, show organizers said.

That’s down from last year’s 218,516 visitors during the opening weekend, organizers said. This year's total translates to a 15.2 percent drop in attendance from last year.

“Despite the snowstorm and slick roads, the kickoff to the 2019 NAIAS was a great success,” said Bill Golling, 2019 NAIAS chairman. 

It's not just automakers and car dealerships who see opportunity in the move to June. Auto show guests did, too.

Rosemarie and Gary Bonk, of Sterling Heights are longtime auto show regulars.

They would attend the auto show annually no matter what, regardless of the temperatures.  Still, they saw great possibility in the move to a June show.

"I'm looking forward to the June one," Rosemarie Bonk said. "I think that's going to be something great for the Detroit area. Afterwards, people can go around and eat at the different restaurants. Now, you go to the show and you leave."

Gary Bonk said he "doesn't know it needed to be moved," but thinks the move is a good idea, one that might allow guests to see more of not only Detroit, but the region.

A summer show might let visitors venture out and explore the area's love for automobiles beyond just downtown, he said.

"If you look at the (summer) schedule, you've got the Harper Cruise, the Woodward Dream Cruise, the Gratiot Cruise. If you look at the calendar, there's something happening almost every week."

Those cruises take place in August.


Going forward, the show envisions big outdoor debuts, test rides, demonstrations of robotic cars and off-road events. Hart Plaza, Detroit RiverWalk, Campus Martius, Woodward Avenue, Grand Circus Park and Belle Isle are possible venues.

Several automakers, including representatives of the Detroit Three, have applauded the decision to move to a warmer month.

Historically, auto shows roll out vehicles onto stands, where they sit for a week. And in January in Detroit, that's all the automakers had any hope to do.

But in June, automakers and show organizers can think a bit more creatively. Some have pointed to England's Goodwood Festival of Speed as possible inspiration. There, automakers race their fastest, most expensive cars, and show off the rest of their lineups on interactive two- and three-story display stands. 

Scott Thompson, 41, hails from Lambertville, just north of the Michigan-Ohio border. He's a manager at a Toledo car dealership. As stepdaughter Ellie York, 15, and wife Samantha Thompson, 34, checked out vehicles, he held steady a stroller containing twins Lennox and Lexi, 3.

Weather wasn't a factor in the family's decision to attend the auto show on Sunday. Samantha said she wishes it would have been.

"She tried (to bow out)," Scott Thompson said. "But I said no."

"I wasn't very happy about it,"  said Samantha Thompson, as her husband  reassured her the show was moving to a warmer time of year in 2020.  

"I'd be more excited about it if it was warmer," she added.

But this year's auto show had a special purpose, as Ellie is car shopping. 

"We're here this year to see if (York's favorite choice last year) is still true, or if we need to find something else," Thompson said. 

"I like the Chevy Blazer," York said.

Beyond his wife's enthusiasm for it, Scott sees both sides of the move to June.

"One, I'm scared, because a lot of manufacturers like to launch their stuff early in the year," Scott said. "But as a normal person, I think it's great. You can actually make a day of it. After driving an hour (north to Detroit), we can get lunch and go catch a Tigers game or something. In the summer it's going to be a whole day. It's going to be fun."

Through the doors to Hall A at Cobo Center is one of the auto show's most popular attractions this year: a Chevy Silverado made of Lego pieces.

Gil Bromm, 54, stands guard over the work, which is comprised of exactly 334,544 Legos, which was constructed by 18 bounders, which required some 2,000 hours of work.

Bromm is as quick to rattle off those stats as he is to warn "don't touch" to guests who get a little too close. Bromm can tell from the spring in someone's step whether they'll put on the brakes before extending their hand out to touch the work. 

Some people seek souvenirs. Some just want to touch it, to make sure it's not some type of optical illusion that just looks like Legos. Whatever their reasoning, it's imperative they be held at bay, Bromm explained. For two reasons.

First, pieces do come off, intentionally or not. Second, the human hand transmits oils that stick to the Lego pieces. Those oils make it easier for the dust in Cobo Center to land on the work. 

Bromm joked that he "drew the short straw" in being put on Lego watch, but relished protecting the vehicle as much as he did the interaction with guests. He smiles as he tells them about the steel plate installed underneath the work to lift it and transport it. 

The kids give him no problems. It's the adults he has to watch out form.

"They can't believe that it is what it is," Bromm said. "The kids believe it. The adults want to see for themselves."

Erin Carpenter, 34, came from Davison. She and her son, Bryce, 3, spent several minutes admiring the Lego creation.

"My husband (Sean, 34) is a big car guy, grew up coming to the Detroit auto show, and both of our kids love the show," she said. In addition to Bryce, the couple has Brooklynn, a 5-year-old girl.

"It's all about the experience," Carpenter said when asked why they'd braved the cold to trek to Cobo. "Our daughter knows a lot about cars as a 5-year-old. It's kind of unreal."

Asked his opinion of the Lego Silverado, Bryce indicated his approval. 

"He thought it was a real car," Carpenter said of her son. 

She said the move to June would "draw more people out," but she actually likes the January timing. 

"It gives us something to do, some reason to get out of the house," Carpenter said. "We weren't going to do anything else today."

Joshua Holman, 36, made the short trip downtown from Livonia.

"You kinda go when you get the time," Holman, an attorney, said. "I don't have an issue with the cold. The roads were fine. It's nice to be inside when it's cold outside."

Holman said he and his wife Lindsay, 35, discussed the June move on the ride up. They brought along with them children Kieran, 3, and Adelaide, who is nine months old.

He's been coming to the auto show for about the last 15 years, since arriving at the University of Michigan from North Dakota in the early 2000s. 

"It does just kind of seem like a January thing to me," Holman said. "This is what you do in the winter when you've got cabin fever and you want to do something and look around. I probably wouldn't be doing anything else (if not for the show)."

In recent years, Holman has been in the car-buying market, so the show hasn't just been window-shopping for him, but a chance to do some in-person research. Last fall he bought a Ford Ecosport after seeing it at the 2018 auto show. 

"This does seem like a convenient time of the year to have it," Holman said. "When they do move it to June, it seems like it'll be competing with a lot of other things that we're out doing in the summer."

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed to this report.