The Detroit auto show has come a long way from the first one at Beller’s beer garden in 1907 as part of a gun expo.
For decades later, the auto show was but a regional affair that the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. staged to highlight vehicles currently in their showrooms.
I went there as a kid with pals, checking out cars – dream cars every one since we were years away from driver’s licenses – and seeing how many freebie giveaways we could collect at the various display booths.
It was the Motor City’s annual event for the hometown crowd.
But in 1989, four visionary dealers and Keith Crain, the head of Automotive News, decided to turn it into an international affair.
“They traveled the world going to auto shows – Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, Geneva – and said, ‘We can do this here,’” says dealer Doug Fox, co-chairman of the show that currently is underway.
What happened after their return home sounds like a resurrection story of sorts.
“They said, ‘To do this, we have to kill the Detroit auto show. It has to die,’” recalls Fox. “So they announced the death of the Detroit show.”
Well, that woke the town up, anyway. Seventy-two hours after that obit, they heralded the birth of the North American International Auto Show.
It’s a pretty big deal now. Thousands of auto journalists from around the world attend unveilings by auto makers from around the world. The Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, a Paris-based alliance, sanctions the event. Ooh-la-la.
Yet some locals think it’s time to change the name back to just the Detroit Auto Show.
“It will and should remain a pivotal show,” says automotive commentator Peter DeLorenzo.
But organizers should now kill the mouthful that is the North American International Auto Show, he says. “Every major show in the world goes by the name of the city it is in. It’s time to come back full circle and call it the Detroit Auto Show or the Detroit Motor Show.”
The latter sounds too British for an American event, but I see his point.
Others don’t. A colleague claims “Detroit” is toxic as a brand, what with the city’s reputation for urban dysfunction and decay. (Some of it true, much of it not.) Putting “Detroit” in the name of anything would scare people off, he says.
But DeLorenzo, whose father was avice president years ago, says that if Detroit comes back, “and we hope it does,” one way to start is by reclaiming the name of its legendary auto show.