I’ve now endured 28 Detroit auto shows and every one of them was in the context of winter doing what winter does best. This year wasn’t actually horrible as it was only a bit cold. Since it’s January, that’s OK. If the auto show was held in, say, June, as it will be from now on, and the temperatures were in the 20’s and 30’s, that would not be OK.
Personally, I enjoy the winter and secretly took great joy when journalists from warmer climates would crab about having to put up with a bit of snow, ice and that awesome frigid wind off the Detroit River that freeze-dried one’s bodily fluids when stepping from the parking garage to the Cobo entrance.
In 2020 the North American International Auto Show moves to June. We’re told it’ll be bigger with far-flung locations in downtown Detroit, giving attendees more “experiences” outside the Cobo Center walls. That sounds like progress.
But as the show’s last winter run kicked off with media days this week, I couldn’t help leaving the floor for the last time feeling let down. I started covering the show in 1990 for CNN. That was the second year it held the prestigious “international” designation making it one of the world’s major auto shows. Automakers from around the world took the wraps off their new vehicles and, as the auto show organizers liked to crow, attracted “more than 5,000 members of the international media.” It was absolutely show time!
For a few years, we produced hour-long specials for CNN from the floor of the show, and in other years we did any number of recorded pieces and live shots. When I moved to the Associated Press in 2001 I ran around grabbing as many executive interviews as I could to fill the wire and as General Motors beat reporter for The Detroit News did my best to find some scoop that might land on the front page. For almost 11 years I ran the digital communications team for DaimlerChrysler/Chrysler LLC/FCA where we were on the forefront of livestreaming our reveals so the consumer could see, firsthand, our product reveals and interact on social media.
Yes, the show got only bigger and bigger except for the down years of 2008 and 2009 during the recession and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler when vehicle sales caved.
But then it got smaller. Foreign automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mini, Porsche, pulled out. They said the auto show didn’t serve their “core” markets or were too expensive or myriad of other excuses. The “international” auto show has become a lot less international.
I caught my breath for a second as I approached a black hole on the massive Cobo floor. Instead of a high-tech, interactive display stuffed with shiny new vehicles, I found a dark swath of show floor real estate occupied by food vendors and some older exotic vehicles parked under the banner of a business called Envy Auto Group, which I learned is a Detroit-area dealer that sells very high-end pre-owned vehicles. Huh? But something had to fill the space once occupied by the automakers that abandoned Detroit. That black hole drilled a hole in my heart as I knew the Detroit show had regressed dangerously close to its old days as a regional event.
As I’m semi-retired and right now filing just a few stories a month for Forbes.com, I’m not certain I’ll be on the beat when the North American International Auto Show returns in June, 2020. At the least, I will probably attend the show not only out of curiosity but out of love for an industry that remains one of the most dynamic, fun, important and confounding in the world.
My real hope is the automakers who froze out Detroit these last few winters, will warm up to the idea of returning to the Motor City…a city that sits on the banks of an international border, and whose International auto show offers a valuable showcase in the town that lives and breathes that ever-changing, wonderful invention called the automobile–in every season.
I’m a little out of sorts today. My family thinks I’ve actually descended into a deep cognitive hole. Here’s what’s going on. Early this morning I got out of bed, put on business clothes and really ugly, but comfortable shoes. In the dark I rummaged for a lanyard with some sort of badge attached that might have my name on it. I found one from 1998. Sure, why not. My name hasn’t changed although I’ve changed jobs four times since then. Who cares?
I slipped the lanyard over my head, got in my car and looked for a gathering of similarly dressed humans. I found them at a nearby Tim Hortons, although I didn’t know that’s where I was. Thinking otherwise, I held out the canvas shopping bag I toted and gamely asked the person behind the counter if they were giving out free lattes and danish, and maybe a press kit. Some sort of swag might be fun too. A tchochke I could later sell on eBay. Also…did she know where the free lunch was. I then started averting my eyes to the barista’s midsection. No, I wasn’t looking at that. I was searching for her badge because her name escaped me. Fact is, I never knew it. The bewildered young lady didn’t call the cops but the muscular manager gently led me to the door, quietly suggesting I was either lost…or deranged. Oh no…I protested. I’m at work. Right? Uh, no. The manager, being proactive, directed me to the Urgent Care Clinic across the street.
The on-duty shrink, Dr. Fucocktah, sat me down, asked pointed questions, some of which revealed I’m a long-time auto writer. I then went on to tell my story thusly.
My recent knee surgery is preventing me from covering the show for the first time since 1990 in the waning years of the last century. I begrudgingly gave up my credentials, thus breaking my 37 year string. My employer assigned them to someone else, which is like someone simply handing over your soul..or MoviePass. Some kid..by that I mean someone under 60, would use my badge to snag all the free cappuccinos, tote bags, finger sandwiches, pastries and dust-collecting swag I was totally entitled to. Cars? LOL! The stories have long been written before the show courtesy embargoed info provided by the automakers weeks in advance. The media preview days exist for grabbing an auto company bigwig for an interview in hopes of breaking a story, networking for your next job, catching up with old friends..in hopes they can help you get your next job and always, always, always, free stuff.
Without being there I would be confined to home, following coverage online and pining over the Maserati-shaped lasagna I’d be missing, along with the swell BMW backpacks stuffed with releases I’d never read. Doesn’t matter. It’s free. You just want it. But now I am bereft without my annual ordeal of attempting to find a parking space within seven miles of Cobo, breathing in the luscious propane fumes spewing from the forklifts whizzing down the aisles, playing chicken with photographers trying to get their shots.
I will miss the mind-numbing roundtables and endless scrums where, as a short guy, get a spectacular view of my competition’s asses.
But it’s what I do, and have done for so many years. Second, third week of January each year, it’s where I am. Doesn’t matter where I’ve worked, CNN, AP, Detroit News, FCA, Automotive News..I have my badge, my comfy shoes and 90 pound bag with my laptop and other reporting stuff. I’m ready to do battle…and win. It’s show time but not this time for this lame-kneed scribe.
He quickly diagnosed my malady.
“You, my pathetic patient, are suffering from a common condition we call COBO-NO-GO,” he pronounced. “It’s occurs when veteran auto writers, for one reason or another, aren’t able to cover the Detroit Auto Show but blindly go through the motions anyway. There’s no known cure.”
I know. I thanked him…and asked if he could set me up with a free espresso. He couldn’t…but handed me an attractive tote bag. It’s a first step.
Until next year.
Last day of the Detroit auto show and I needed to pop in one more time to shoot a standup for a story for Automotive News. Being a Sunday morning I wanted to get in and out quickly and go on with my day. I was accompanied by my wife who’s not only great company, but very helpful in carrying a light gear bag and hit the “record” button while I did my thing in front of the camera. Yes..one man band, with the help of one very good woman.
From where we entered the show floor, it was a long, diagonal walk to the location I needed in the upper right-hand corner, deep in the FCA stand near one of their concept vehicles. I’d seen all the cars before during my four other trips covering the show and the adult show-goers all looked like one amorphous ski jacket. What caught my attention was what I saw and heard from kids only old enough to be passengers. One kid breathlessly told his parents, “this stuff is unbelievable!” Another exclaimed, “So, so beautiful!”
In one very expensive car a little girl got cozy behind the steering wheel, touching it lightly, lest the stationary sedan suddenly veered off into the hot roasted almond stand. Perched high in the driver’s seat of a full-size pickup truck a young man whose voice has yet to change affected a confident lean as if, at age 10, he was ready to cruise for chicks in his manly beast.
At one point I could only hear joyful screams and shouts without seeing the sources of the oral wonder, but there was no doubt the children were imagining what it would be like to actually pilot the mechanical and artistic creations that would provide them with individual mobility and freedom, perhaps a little one-upsmanship among their pals, and yes, horsepower.
While the adults were there considering purchases based on need, budget and perhaps requiting a mid-life crisis, for the kids not yet able to reach the pedals or adequately see over the steering wheel and certainly not old enough to earn a license to drive, it’s all about simple dreams. Oh sure, they have their toys and smartphones and electronic time wasters, but there is no other toy that can provide the sheer joy of getting behind the wheel, firing up the engine, placing your hands on the steering wheel, grabbing the shifter, placing the vehicle in gear… and going wherever the hell you want to go. In time, sweet children, in time.
Photo credit: The Detroit News
I’ve worked every Detroit Auto Show since 1990 for four different employers: CNN, AP, The Detroit News, Chrysler, and its variations. Next week I’ll be back for a fifth. The difference is, for the first time since the 2005 show, I’ll be covering as a journalist once again, for Automotive News, after 11 years indentured as a PR guy for DaimlerChryslerChryslerFiatChryslerAutomobiles, or DCCFCA.
While at the Auburn Hills chameleon I headed the digital communications team, which handled social media, video production, webcasts and broadcast media for DCCFCA’s PR department. Oh, I’m sorry…Corporate Communications. I almost never left our stand, except to grab a mint from the young people just inside the show entrance offering them to obviously foul-breathed writers and flaks. I also hosted a broadcast-only session with our CEO. That was in another room far from the show floor. Soft drinks were available, but no mints. It was a fun job, for the most part but I quickly learned that asking an actual question of your own executives will earn you the same look I imagine Tippi Hendren gave Hartz Mountain birdseed ads. I simply asked a question that was on my mind and that any reporter might ask and got an answer that would make some news. My boss pulled me aside and barked, “Don’t you ever attempt to make news again!” Jeez…old instincts are hard to sublimate.
Well…..for 11 years I had to swallow my curiosity, or at least, not act on it. Not anymore. I retired from DCCFCA at the end of July and took a part-time job at Automotive News on their video news team. They bought me a tiny video camera and associated gear and gave me a list of important executives and analysts to interview…with the hope of making some news. They also told me to take my little camera and blast away at anything that catches my eye and turn it into a story. I’ve been flexing the part of my brain I wasn’t allowed to use for more than a decade to the point of asking anyone I see some sort of challenging question…just to get in shape. Questions like, “How long have you been shorting customers on french fries and skimming the rest for your own pimply self?” Or “I’ve seen you waiting at this bus stop every day for 3 weeks. What’s going on between you and the driver…are you having an a-fare?”
I think I’m ready now. I’ve been doing my homework, boning up for my interviews and I’ve made the mental leap from lobbing softballs to DFFCA execs such as “just how freakin’ great are we?” to firing darts at captains of the auto industry that will make them beg for mercy, or at least decaf coffee.
I’ll be so proud to wear a “Media” credential again and scam all the free food and coffee I can from the press room I was not allowed to enter as a PR guy. I’ll once again worm my way into scrums and lurch through the crowds of writers clawing their way to the automakers’ tables offering swag which will find its place in my basement, or eBay.
Yes, I’m excited to be back in the game again, returning to a profession I dearly missed on the best beat in the world. Now, who’s giving out free cappuccino?