The Detroit Auto Show’s Last Winter At Cobo
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.