Column: Detroit’s auto show delivers at every level

Mark Lett

Back in the day, I was auto-labor editor of this newspaper. Among other things, that meant guiding coverage of the Detroit auto show and editing a weekly section about autos.

Those two responsibilities collided on a winter morning during an auto show more than 30 years ago, putting me on thin ice as a newsroom editor. I had been persuaded by a colleague to let him write a review of the auto show, the idea having been pitched as “you know, the same way we would review a movie or a restaurant.”

The review — published in an autos section largely supported by advertising paid for by Detroit-area car dealers — was critical, clever, accurate and — in hindsight — snotty. Auto dealers were steamed.

On this biting-cold day, I found myself called on the carpet in the office of Executive Editor William E. Giles, who demanded icily: “I want to know why we did this, and there is no excuse.”

I had no good answer, except some mumbo-jumbo about fair comment and blah, blah, blah.

I survived. Let’s call it a learning experience for a young editor.

Today, I have an answer: We did it because we thought Detroit deserved a world-class auto show. Granted, there could have been a more polite way to make the suggestion.

Not that the show was a bummer back then. It was a gabfest for gear heads and some fun for car lovers eager to review new models and concept vehicles. The show disrupted the winter doldrums and gave folks a reason to come downtown. For some, it was their only visit to the center city all year, and it meant wheeling into Cobo, then driving back out to the burbs without stopping anywhere else in the city proper.

The show, while serviceable, lacked the big-bang showmanship and big-think gravitas that now distinguishes the North American International Auto Show, which Detroit News auto writer Henry Payne describes as “the global auto industry’s unchallenged blockbuster.”

With a fresh view of the show, these old eyes endorse Payne’s description. The North American International Auto Show — celebrating its 30th year with that worldly title — is the show we hoped for so long ago.

I left Detroit in 1996 and worked as executive editor of newspapers in Indiana and South Carolina until my retirement last year. I’ve not set foot in a Detroit auto show in more than two decades. Until last week.

What confronts me is a world-class show. I understand why Rod Alberts, head of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, calls the event “six shows in one.” There are new cars, concept vehicles, a show-inside-a-show featuring the world’s ultra-luxury brands, a gathering of vintage vehicles, and some truly remarkable interactive displays.

The annual charity preview has always given the show style and heart, and has raised more than $41 million in the past decade. It remains a vital event to be valued and credited.

The cars are still the stars of the show, but what strikes me as most significant is how the brains behind the event have nurtured the show into a thought leader and thought facilitator.

During the press previews and the run of show, the world’s leading auto executives, analysts and observers will share views about an array of issues shaping the industry. It is heady stuff that goes to the very relevance of the industry — from electric vehicles to driverless cars and trucks, to the uneasy, cooperative-competitive relationships among car companies, suppliers, tech giants and energy providers.

The stakes are high. Daniel Howes, a columnist for The News, speaks to the importance of the task with this admonishment: “It will take leadership, and a clear-eyed recognition that the quickening global competitive metabolism threatens to leave Michigan behind if it refuses to shift into a higher gear.”

Keith Crain, editor-in-chief of Automotive News, gets it right when he says “no one may know what exactly lies in store for this industry, but all the ingredients will be in Detroit.”

As a born-and-bred Detroiter (Downriver, for the most part), I am seeing an auto show and a city that is moving ahead with a velocity and a sophistication that is more visionary than what I saw in my rear-view mirror two decades ago.

As auto-labor editor, I edited and reported on an auto industry that sloughed through import competition, fights over federal mileage standards, a Chrysler bankruptcy, war and peace between the UAW and the auto companies, the death of AMC and the birth of Saturn, outsourcing, K cars, minivans, oil embargoes, Firestone 500s, odometer rollbacks and joint ventures with mixed results.

There was a lot of heavy lifting that made for a weary auto industry, reflected in an auto show that had grown tired.

Much has changed in the industry and its host city (although it seems the Ford F-150 has the endurance of a sub-atomic particle).

The city I left was in rough shape, battered by drug trafficking, shootings, abandoned and torched homes, and carjackings. Detroit is a different place today. Like the auto industry, it is facing challenges with leaders who move ahead at a relentlessly positive cadence.

Mayor Mike Duggan noted with pride and validity that the auto show brings suburbanites to a downtown where it is desirable to see the show and linger at nearby venues.

More than 5,100 media types will cover the auto show — making it competitive with the number of journalists credentialed for the Super Bowl. More than 700,000 visitors are expected before the show closes Sunday. What they will see, in my opinion, is what was merely aspirational three decades ago: a world-class event befitting a world-class city.

Congratulations and well done.

Mark Lett is a former reporter and assistant managing editor of The Detroit News. He retired last year after 19 years as executive editor of the (Columbia) State, South Carolina’s capital city newspaper.