Howes: Steers, cars and big personalities define auto show

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda drives a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon through a Cobo Center window at the 2006 Detroit auto show -- yet another smash hit product reveal by the No. 3 automaker that pioneered the genre.

Less than a year before the heads of Detroit's three automakers began begging Congress for billions in taxpayer money to avert uncontrolled bankruptcies threatening to devastate the industrial Midwest, talk in the Motor City turned to steers.

Gathered in a vacant downtown lot stood a herd of longhorn cattle, escorts for the all-new 2009 Dodge Ram pickup. Wrangled by cowboys on horseback, they lumbered up Washington Boulevard as one particularly randy steer mounted another, his horns rising above the rest in a nod to the vagaries of Mother Nature.

"Look," Vice Chairman Jim Press quipped to Chrysler's grumpy CEO, Bob Nardelli, "that cow's trying to get a better look at our Ram."

Dodge ushered in the 2009 Dodge Ram truck with a cattle drive featuring long-horn steers and cowboys on horseback down Washington Boulevard to Cobo Center.

Jason Vines, an auto PR veteran with stints at Chrysler, Nissan Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co., isn't the only one who remembers that epic auto show reveal so vividly: "Bob Nardelli hated that" plan, he recalls, laughing, "and wanted to kill it so bad."

Shows what Nardelli knew. The Ram cattle drive proved yet another auto show coup for the PR team at Chrysler Group LLC, a traditionally close-knit crew whose members changed over time even if their mojo mostly didn't: their hometown North American International Auto Show demanded statements.

The folks at Chrysler obliged — repeatedly. In '92, the legendary Bob Lutz drove a '93 Jeep Grand Cherokee through a sheet-glass window of Cobo with legendary Mayor Coleman A. Young in the passenger seat. A few years later, Tom LaSorda drove a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon out of Cobo, mounting a faux rock hill built alongside the Ponchartrain Hotel.

Thirty years after Detroit's auto dealers re-imagined their sleepy regional show into an international industry gathering held in the grip of Michigan winters, the show is poised to reinvent itself yet again. In June 2020. Into a sort of Autopalooza anchored by an auto show expected to give consumers the chance to experience the rides and the advanced technology up close and personal.

Is it too late? Automakers are abandoning auto shows all over the world, preferring to launch new products on their terms, at sites of their choosing, with budgets and messages they control. And the Detroit show is changing, belatedly, because it's long since reached the point where it can't keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.


It's not at all clear whether declining industry attendance at established shows can be reversed. Talks to persuade Germany's luxury Big Three of BMW AG, Daimler AG and Audi AG to return to Detroit are continuing, says the auto show's vice chair, Doug North, but none of the three is prepared to commit to returning to Detroit in 18 months. 

One thing's for sure: notoriously unpredictable Michigan winters aren't likely to be a problem during June, not like they most famously were in January 1999. That blizzard stranded arriving jets on the Detroit Metropolitan Airport tarmac; claimed bags and valuable time; left sidewalks unshoveled and streets unplowed, exposing Detroit's municipal dysfunction.

"It was utter chaos," Jaguar's director of design, Ian Callum, told Automotive News five years ago. "All we saw was the most incredible pile of snow I'd ever seen."

Lobbying to move the auto show to a more hospitable time of year is not a recent phenomenon. Too often, weather fouled travel plans, limited options for innovative launches anywhere outside the floor of Cobo Center, fueled complaints that reality outstripped the vision of organizers.

But not always. Detroit's international-era auto show traces a global arc of the industry, an awakening of the Motor City to mega-competitors in Germany, Japan, Italy, South Korea, China and, yes, Silicon Valley. The NAIAS would come to define an era marked by transnational mergers, technological rivalry and ignominious bankruptcy.

A year after the famed Ram cattle drive, the Detroit show reached its lowest point in those 30 years. General Motors Corp. and Chrysler looked headed for federally induced Chapter 11 because they were. A lifeline extended by the departing Bush administration was temporary, and the incoming Team Obama would demand tough downsizing moves and a change of control at Chrysler that would put the Italians of Fiat SpA behind the wheel in Auburn Hills.

The 2009 show resembled more funeral than celebration. Chrysler, known for its rollicking antics, displayed what's known around town as "cars on carpets." At GM, employees waived signs saying, "We're still here," though there was no assurance they would be a year on. It was embarrassing and downright scary to whoever took a moment to consider the implications if it wouldn't be. 

There was a time when the annual January confab was a can't-miss event for the industry's most powerful CEOs — when Volkswagen AG CEO Ferdinand Piëch himself revealed to the New Beetle in '99, when DaimlerChrysler AG CEO Jürgen Schrempp co-hosted a party at a warehouse on the edge of downtown, when the Toyota Motor Corp. CEO-of-the-moment toured the show floor with an entourage befitting a president of the United States.

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn routinely hosted wide-ranging press conferences. His annual performance was second only to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's inimitable Sergio Marchionne, never shy about his opinions or his assessment of the competition — especially the Germans.

All of that is gone now. DaimlerChrysler is defunct, a monument to failed empire building. Ghosn is languishing in a Tokyo jail on charges related to under-reporting income. Marchionne died last summer. Piëch's leadership at VW has been largely discredited by the German automaker's costly "Dieselgate" scandal.

And the hometown companies are fighting a new battle, turbocharged by the relentless speed of technology and its masters in Silicon Valley. The next generation of Auto 2.0, the mobility, autonomy and electrification promising to transform the industry, already is transforming auto shows as we've known them.

Writing the next chapter already has begun.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.