Now that the dust has settled on the 2014 North American International Auto Show, a little background on how the infamous “Motor City” extravaganza evolved might be in order. However before getting started it should be noted that this year’s attendance exceeded 800,000 for the first time since 2003. In fact total ticketed attendance was 803,451, still shy of the 2003 record of 838,066 visitors, and the previous benchmark of 802,301, set in 2000.
“This was a special show, and everyone knew it,” NAIAS Chairman Bob Shuman said in a news release. “The industry is healthy, the products and technology are spectacular, and confidence is high. It would be difficult to find a more exciting or more important two weeks than what we just experienced in the auto industry here on Detroit’s world stage.”
This year’s event featured 50 vehicle debuts with the majority being worldwide. It was uniquely positioned to be four shows in one - a media preview, an industry preview, a charity preview and a public show with a 9-day run. Besides automotive manufactures, large and small, more than 34,000 suppliers, designers, engineers and others in the industry from 28 countries had a presence at the show. 13,826 went to the Charity Preview, which raised $4.8 million for children’s charities. Show’s organizers estimate a total economic impact of $365 million from the event.
The world’s first automotive show was held in Paris in 1888. Construction on the Eiffel Tower had begun a year prior for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a World's Fair to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. Chicago would be the first venue in North American in 1901, despite that Buffalo, New York hosted the Pan American Exposition (i.e Worlds Fair) that same year. Six years later, in 1907, Detroit hosted its first ever show, which turned out to be a relatively low-key; the venue held in Beller’s Beer Garden at Riverside Park.
As the automotive industry in Detroit grew into prominence, so did the city’s annual new motorcar show, moving to successively larger venues: Wayne Gardens in 1910, Grindley Field in 1917, and the sprawling Detroit Convention Hall on Woodward Avenue in 1924. The show remained at the Convention Hall until World War II, when it was put on hiatus to allow the industry to focus on war production. After a decade, between1941-1953, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association revived the show at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, and after two years the event was then moved to the cavernous Detroit Artillery Armory. Cobo Center, which opened in 1965, became its permanent home.
The idea of crafting conceptual cars for public viewing didn’t really take root until the 1950s, and that was largely inspired by General Motors’ famed Motorama. Debuting as the Transpiration Unlimited Autorama, in 1949, in New York City and Boston, GM’s traveling road show was conceived to tease customers with futuristic show cars, prototypes and concepts unveiled with live introductions. The show officially became known as Motorama when it began to travel around the country in 1953. That year more than 1.4 million visitors saw it; Motorama's opening day in New York drew 45,000 visitors. There was a revue, with orchestra, singers, and dancers.
Because of the widespread interest in the Motorama shows, GM made an annual film, which brought the show to audiences unable to see it in major cities. In 1956, GM sponsored a 10 minute, futuristic fantasy Motorama promotional film (16mm Anscocolor). This particular film, Design for Dreaming, introduced the new 1956 car lineup, Frigidaire's Kitchen of Tomorrow, dream cars and the electronic Highways of Tomorrow. It was filmed at the 1956 General Motors Motorama show that featured 63 exhibits and 26 production cars and occupied 26,000 square feet of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria ballroom space, plus adjoining rooms. That year, the Motorama also traveled to Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston. The original music was by George Kleinsinger. MPO Productions produced this video and followed it up 5 years later with a GM sponsored film sequel, A Touch of Magic, for the last Motorama in 1961.
After the glitzy Motorama era ended a more down to earth version was applied to annual events held in Detroit, Chicago and New York City. And that’s the order the rotation maintains today; being that the Detroit show is held early in January, with the Chicago following in February, with the Big Apple show happening around Easter.
The 1957 Detroit show saw the first import brands; among them being Volvo, BMW-Isetta, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Porsche. Surprisingly missing from the fray where popular manufactures such as Volkswagen. However it wasn’t until the 1970s that imports starting being taken seriously, and that was exacerbated by the 1973 Middle East oil embargo.
The Detroit show continued to gain popularity and momentum during the 1970s and 1980s. But compared to the larger, so-called international shows in Frankfurt or Paris the “Motor City” show was still seen as a minor event. But that was soon to change. In 1987, the Detroit New Car Dealers Association learned of a planned doubling of Cobo Hall. To coincide with the now larger venue, the local dealer group decided to make the annual event not only the top auto show in the nation, but one of the premier shows in the world.
In addition to domestic automotive and business industry journalists, show organizers recognized that the key to obtain global media attention required even more emphasis on imported brands. Toyota and Nissan were in the early stages of launching their respective U.S. exclusive Lexus and Infiniti premium luxury brands in late 1988. An official Detroit debut would almost guarantee attendance of international media, which in fact it did. After assurance that both new luxury brands would debut at the 1989 Detroit show, event organizers were than able to get commitments from Hyundai, American Isuzu, Mitsubishi, and Honda, with its then three-year-old Acura division, to also make their North American show debuts.
As planned, the 1989 Detroit Auto Show officially became the North American International Auto Show. While 5,000 to 6,000 media from around the world now attend annually, that year, organizers were thrilled to have 850 journalists showed up, 60 of who were international media. At this year’s show 5,169 journalists from 60 countries and 39 states attended the press preview.
The next quarter century would be considered the golden age of the Detroit show. The unabated growth of the American economy, the influx of brands from around the world into the booming North American car market, and the need by automakers to create new categories of vehicles meant the show in Detroit became a hotbed of the latest and greatest, not only from the domestic brands, but also from European and Asian automakers.
Presentations at the show became a game of one-upmanship between automakers, sparked in 1992 when then Chrysler President, Bob Lutz, “crashed” a Jeep Grand Cherokee into the front doors of Cobo Hall, shattering through fake plate glass as a way to introduce the vehicle.
By 2005, the U.S. auto industry was in a state of decline, which was beginning to take the luster off the annual event. The domestic automakers were suffering staggering losses, with masses of unsold vehicles piling up on dealer’s lots. The result was a dramatic drop in fanciful fanfare and concept cars. With the dearth of any truly “conceptual” vehicles, the focus switched to cars that customers would be able to purchase sooner, rather than later. Despite that fact the media kept coming. In contrast to the number of media that showed up in 1989, the 2006 show attracted 6,647 journalists from 62 countries on six continents.
Despite the hangover from 2005’s constant announcements of declining market shares, impending layoffs and factory shutdowns from the domestic automakers, the 2006 Detroit event showcased resurrected nostalgic models from Chevrolet and Dodge of their Camaro and Challenger pony cars.
2008 may go down as the last Detroit show in some time where “fun” was a priority. Back-to-back hiccups to the automotive industry in the form of the fear of over four buck a gallon gas, not to mention the economical meltdown known as the Great Recession. The effect resulted in both GM and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy in 2009. The restricting resulted in the loss of stalwart brands, such as Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn and Saab. For Ford Motor Company it meant the death of the Mercury brand, which was tied to the struggling Lincoln premium division.
With general decline of the economy and the fact the Detroit show was more about American iron and less about imported, many foreign automakers decided to take a temporary hiatus, for this as well as the other major car shows. However in the past few years, not only has the Detroit show returned to its former glory it has quickly grown to become one of the greatest automotive spectacles on Earth.