Many of you reading this slogged through the ice to the Detroit auto show and saw that amazing display of new and future models. I'm writing this as the show opens. It will be long closed when you read it.

We've got short deadlines in this monthly magazine. But I want to write about this show, anyway. It's that important.

This was the best auto show I've ever seen, and I've been from Frankfurt to Birmingham to Paris to Tokyo. The foreigners whip us on girls. Sorry, this is true. I'm asking Toyota to send the Toyota Pretties (that's the name, honest, and they live up to it) to the next Detroit show as a sort of cross-cultural exchange, showing us what we're missing. Wish me luck.

But when it comes to cars and trends, no one beat the Detroit show.

This was The Greatest Show on Earth.

First, the trends at the show:

Design: Neo retro is riding high. DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser (out next year) rides on a 1930s look, the future Ford Thunderbird goes back to the 1950s, as does the Jaguar S Type (coming this spring). The General Motors Chevy Nomad show car, and Nissan's Z car dream were neo retro, too.

There are limits to the trend; designers hate retro, and even if they didn't, it's tough to get a really good look. Most Chrysler leaders were against the PT Cruiser's retro, and it took 18 months to find a design that worked.

Also, no one knows how successful neo retro will be. The great test is the New Beetle, but we don't know how big it will get, here and in Europe, and if there's staying power. Right now the Germans are arguing about the where and how much to expand production in Mexico or Wolfsburg.

Strategy: A new kind of annual model change is here, building a variation of an existing model to skim the cream (meaning top dollar, no rebates) off the market before the competition crowds in. When they come, it would be a good idea to get out, kill the variation and go on to something new.

Examples: The Explorer Sport Trac, the Lincoln Navigator Blackwood, both Ford SUVs with a pickup box attached; the PT Cruiser, which is on the Neon platform. These variations aren't billion-dollar projects.

Why kill them when the competition arrives in force? Because the profits will disappear, getting down the model count is still a good idea, and redoing them every few years will make them terribly expensive.

Also, as noted above, we're in a great unknown. Are there really 50,000 people who want to buy that Explorer pickup each year, or 10,000 to fork over $50,000 for a Navigator pickup? How many will buy that PT Cruiser? I say it will be hot, but no one knows. But this is a strategy for adding excitement and profits to the industry, and gets out of the overcapacity trap.

Missing: Any Detroit answer to the Toyota Lexus RX300, the luxury car-based AWD (BMW did have an answer, its coming X5).

When Lexus gets its new IS models ($30,000 to $35,000) here late next year, it will have enough muscle to outsell Cadillac and Mercedes, say in 2001.

Now company by company:

GM: The Good News is that GM finally realizes that its products are behind the times and it must compete. Dumb brand slogans (yes, they are dumb) aren't enough. GM's dream car show was the proof. Welcome to the fight, GM.

The Bad News is that GM's dream vehicles were the weakest in the show, although the Chevy Nomad wagon was liked, and Cadillac's Evoq roadster won much praise. No "understated elegance" here, just in-your-face Detroit steel. But Cadillac wouldn't give any Job 1 date.

The talk is that it could be two or more years away.

One more Cadillac note: This writer predicted that Lincoln would outsell Cadillac last year. Cadillac's startling December sales numbers pushed its '98 total above Lincoln. So I was wrong. Good luck Cadillac.

The word was that the quirky yellow Aztek showcar will become a production Pontiac in 18 months. Let's hope GM doesn't go to its parts bin for the interior, as I've heard. That "common parts" system will take the fun out of anything new.

Ford: The two SUV variations, the retro T'bird, the small Focus coming this fall, plus what wasn't there, the smallish car based SUV (which will sell for less than the Toyota RAV4/Honda CR-V price), coming late next year, will keep Ford the hot company over the next few years. GM may pick up a bit of market share in 1999 (from the new Saturn and the big pickup), but after this year look out!

DaimlerChrysler: The signs are better than good. The PT Cruiser, in production next year, and the Dodge Power Wagon dream pickup, probably the best looking pickup ever seen, show that the design team still has a hot hand. I can't wait until next year to see what else they come up with.

Frankly, everyone looked good, everyone had good stuff, not only Detroit, but the Germans, the Swedes, the Japanese and the Koreans.

Believe me, exciting cars make for fun times, and there are fun times ahead. o