Adozen years ago, critics were telling Detroit auto dealers to “kill the annual auto show.” Most critical were the media — Automotive News Publisher Keith Crain and Ward's Auto World Editor David C. Smith. But, there were many others, including the manufacturers, who felt the show lacked the luster the auto capital of the world deserved.
Dealers agreed that the earlier shows were ho-hum. In kinder words, mega-dealer David T. Fischer, 1987 president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. (DADA), categorized the previous presentations as “nice shows that weren't what they could have been.”
What began as a program to compete with the top domestic offerings — Chicago, Los Angeles and New York — emerged as a full-fledged international event capable of matching or surpassing any auto event on the globe.
Reaching that level of supremacy demanded and received a solid effort from the DADA with virtually unanimous support from its some 200 members. “We learned that Cobo Hall was in the process of a major expansion to double its size,” Mr. Fischer recalls. “That convinced us to expand our show.”
Several dealer teams were formed to visit the global giants of the auto show world — Frankfurt, Tokyo, Geneva and Paris. “But, our first stop was, and we met with Chairman Roger Smith and President Robert Stempel to see if they even wanted to do this,” says Mr. Fischer. “They were very supportive.”
The teams also went toMotor Co. and Corp. and enlisted support there.
The DADA chief says he did not discuss an international show with thenChairman Lee Iacocca but adds, “I'm sure he was for it. It was like Chrysler was waiting (for a better show), but nobody thought to ask for it.”
Early on, Chrysler appeared to be getting more out of the show than the other domestic giants. The corporation hit page one in 1992 when its president, Bob Lutz, “crashed” a Jeep Grand Cherokee into Cobo Center and shattered through what looked exactly like plate glass. His passenger was the late Detroit mayor, Coleman Young. Actually the real pane was removed and substituted with special glass used by Hollywood for such stunts.
One of the first items on the agenda was the name of the show, and for 1989 it became the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). “We were the only true international show on this continent,” Mr. Fischer says. “What you soon heard around the country were cities calling their shows international, but none of that existed before we renamed the Detroit operation.”
A critical key for international recognition was the attendance of foreign media as well as a horde of domestic auto and business writers. The new Lexus fromwas six months away from public introduction in late 1988. A Detroit debut was a guarantee that the Japanese media would arrive en masse. Kenneth Meade, a Detroit Lexus dealer, called Robert B. McCurry, executive vice president of Toyota U.S.A.
It's no secret that Mr. McCurry, a former Chrysler vice president, relished the idea. Mr. McCurry concedes it was a coup forand Lexus to “steal the show in the hometown headquarters of the domestic industry.”
“We weren't through,” Mr. Fischer recalls. “We were well aware thatwas about to introduce its own luxury line, Infiniti.” Thomas Mignanelli, president of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A., quickly gave his blessing to a Detroit unveiling.
The first cadre consisted of Mssrs. Meade and Fischer, who chaired the event, Chevrolet's Gordon Stewart,'s Robert Thibodeau, Buick's Carl Fischer, Chrysler's Richard Mealey and supplier Heinz Prechter, head of American Sunroof Corp. Their task was to learn all they could about international shows.
“We learned what was good and what was bad at the European shows,” Mr. Fischer says. On the negative side, he notes that the Paris press room was about the size of a closet “and not a very clean closet.” The first NAIAS press facilities measured 12,000 sq. ft. (1,100 sq. m).
At the 1988 Frankfurt show, Mr. Thibodeau and others met in one room with a dozen high-rankingpeople. The German executives sought precise details of the DADA plans and then promised a spectacular Detroit presence. That prompted rival Mercedes-Benz to go full tilt for 1990, and it sent several Europeans to Detroit to build an exhibit that included parquet floors.
The Detroit dealers still needed assistance in setting up press facilities. A call from a public relations staffer at Michelin North America Inc. proved to be a blessing. Michelin brought in a dozen people from New York City to set up a media center, complete with telephone, video and computer facilities. The group, arriving three days before the first press day and staying well past opening day, served 1,200 press attendees.
Dealers were concerned over what the foreign press would write about Detroit and feared the visitors would ride the People Mover train and see the derelict state of many downtown buildings. Mayor Young was alerted and promised he would take care of that. The beat-up buildings were covered with colorful awnings and appeared to be thriving. That kept press eyes focused on the show.
Cobo's top auto show attendance was 1,403,873, set in 1960 when the Hall officially opened. The show was a national event sponsored by the Automobile Manufacturers Assn. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at an industry pre-show banquet. Attendance at the 2000 show was 802,301, a DADA record.
The very first auto show ever held in Detroit was in 1907 at a beer garden. A total of 17 exhibitors showed 33 vehicles. America's original offering was held in New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1900. It was strictly a blue-blood affair with about 6,000 paying guests.
The current Detroit and Geneva shows are the only internationally sanctioned events that run annually. Tokyo, Frankfurt and Paris operate on alternate years.