Dan Gurney signing autographs for members of the the media at the 2008 New York Auto Show
The big OEM car show season is over and now that summer is here, it’s time for car shows, meets and cruises. For the people who work for marketing in the car companies and in the aftermarket it’s really a year long season. I see some of the same faces at the NAIAS, the Detroit Autorama, the Hot Rod Power Tour and the Woodward Dream Cruise..
I’ve attended press previews of some of the big auto shows since 2002. I’ve worked Detroit every year since, Chicago every year but ’09, and Toronto a couple of times when it didn’t conflict with Chicago. A car show media preview is not the same as the public car show and not just because there is staging and seating for the press and the displays are not in their final form. In a word the difference is access. During the public days, some of the cars are locked, and the ultra luxury and exotic rides are completely roped off from the unwashed masses. If you have a question to ask, there are trained product spokes men and women who will tell you about the floor models or give you a shpiel about a concept vehicle. There may be some sales reps from local dealers as well who will gladly give you a business card. You never see an executive from an automaker on the show floor during the public days. If there are celebrities, like racers, athletes and entertainers making personal appearances, they too are usually behind ropes and if autographs are available, the lines are long.
The media preview is completely different. Aside from its utility to journalists, for a car guy or gal it’s an auto show on an exponential scale. Yes there are models and product specialists on the turntables and around the displays who can try to answer you questions, but more important there are all the executives, product managers, engineers, designers and marketing people involved in making this year’s tangerine flake streamline babies. I like to talk to pretty ladies as much as the next guy so the models and booth professionals are fine with me. If I have a question or comment about a car, though, I think the chief designer could probably answer my question better than someone who’s learned a script. If you had your choice of people to talk cars with, wouldn’t you pick Carroll Shelby over someone hired by a talent agency?
The same goes with access to the many politicians that attend major auto shows, particularly in the last couple of years as the US government involvement in the domestic auto industry has increased many fold. Over the years I’ve spoken to about a half dozen US senators, 10 or 12 members of the US house, along with county executives and state legislators.
The media, of course, has better access to the cars themselves. Almost none of the cars are roped off from the media, certainly in terms of getting up close looks for photography, and the vast majority are available to sit in, even some of the concept cars, though that is rarer of course. If a model on display is locked, you can usually get someone to open it up. Any questions you might have are immediately answered, and if that person can’t answer it, they’ll find someone who can.
There are press conferences and product revelations every hour or so. Typically a press conference has a speech or two, maybe some entertainment or special effects, vehicle intros, and when it’s done they invite everyone onto the stage to get a closer look at the cars and then work for interview opportunities. Folks like Alan Mullaly will immediately be surrounded by 20 or 30 (or more) reporters (and sound & camera operators). Usually journalists from major news operations like the AP or Detroit radio station WJR get the first questions in, and then you hope to be able to get a few words in, maybe when the PR folks start dragging the exec away. There is, after all, a pecking order in most situations. Though Bill Ford’s or Alan Mulally’s handlers will eventually intercede, the engineers, designers and marketing folks will hang around for some time. Sometimes, too, you do just run into execs without their handlers. I recall talking with Jim Press when he was running Toyota in the US when something else was happening at the Chicago show and we both happened to be walking across the Toyota display. Another time I asked Roger Penske about the financial viability of racing while we shared an the escalator.
Sometimes the press events are pure publicity stunts. Li Shufu was the owner of a little known Chinese car company when he signaled that he wanted to play in the big leagues by being the first Chinese car company to display at the NAIAS in 2006. Today Geely is known as the company that owns Volvo. Malcom Bricklin held a press conference in the lobby of Cobo Hall, Li Shufu got some attention from the media that year at the NAIAS, but then Malcolm Bricklin’s press conference in the lobby of Cobo Hall that year may have had even more reporters. After all, Bricklin is at least as much of a self-promoter as Li and he’s got much better English skills. Bricklin may be better able to schmooze a reporter in English but Geely will probably be selling Chinese made cars in North America before anything imported by Bricklin will. At the time Bricklin was hyping a deal he said he had with Chery to build cars for the US market with a price 30% lower than the competition by the end of 2007. It’s now more than 5 years since Bricklin’s announcement and he’s still no closer to making a deal with a Chinese supplier. The Chinese car market matured so quickly that Chinese car execs know that they don’t need a hondler like Bricklin to crack the US market.
After the pressers are over, in addition to the aforementioned physically attractive product specialists hired for the event, there are marketing and communications folks in the displays to help you with answers or help schedule interviews with the appropriate people. Remember that pecking order? Journalists from the traditional buff books always have an easier time snagging interviews with higher-ranking car company people than mere car bloggers, though that has started to change as the car companies become more adept at new media.
There is usually lots of food and drink for free at the previews. It was pretty austere the last few years due to the auto industry’s crisis but in 2011 it started to pick up again.. Here, too, there’s a pecking order. There are invitation only events both on and off premises. Some (many, most? – I’m a relative bottom feeder) of the displays have private lounges where the level of service and victuals is a notch or two higher than what is served out front. Members of the lucky sperm club like Keith Crain (his family publishes the Automotive News among other things) or Dutch Mandel (who inherited his father’s position at Autoweek,which Crain’s family publishes) walk around like pashas and get invited back for single malt in the Bentley stand, or cappuccino in the Lamborghini display.
There are other journalists who are notable. You see local newscasters, people from major networks, automotive writers whose work you admire or criticize, and the like. Plus, there are scads of other kinds of celebrities. Though there may be an occasional NASCAR, NHRA or IndyCar racer making a personal appearance during the public days, there are lots and lots of racecar drivers at the previews. Some are there to jazz up press conferences. Other times they are there for newsworthy reasons like when the Deltawing Indycar concept was revealed at Chicago last year or when Bobby Rahal announced a while back that his team would be racing M3s for BMW in American Le Mans Series’ GT2 class.
Also occasionally jazzing up the press conferences will be other kinds of celebrities like athletes or entertainers.
True story: I was walking down the main aisle at the ’07 Detroit show and a pretty woman approached from the other direction. I didn’t know who she was, just another attractive blond at the show. It’s not just the various models and product specialists, there are many other pretty women at the big shows. Marketing people, like pharma salesfolks, tend to be good looking. Plus there’s on-air talent from tv (and there’s no question that foreign language stations even more so hire talent based on looks), former models working for talent agencies, etc. So pretty ladies are very common at the car shows, and that’s usually what I’ll say to them. So as she walked past me, I told her, “there is no shortage of attractive women at car shows”.
Now I have as little game as can be had concerning women. I’m the anti-Jack Baruth when it comes to the distaff side, like Kryptonite to Supergirl. I believe that my old shrink used the word “repel”, but that remark about women at the auto show usually gets a friendly response. It’s a non-creepy way of saying “you’re a babe”, and face it, pretty ladies don’t mind being reassured that they’re not ugly. It also says, “you’re not the only pretty face around here”, which I’ve since found out can be disarming to pretty women. I believe that in PUA-speak, it’s a “neg”.
She paused, smiled a genuinely warm smile, put her hand on my arm and in a slight Cherman accent said “Oh, thank you, that was so nice” and we both went on our ways. Meanwhile, my son, 22 at the time, started freaking out. “Dad, do you know who that was??!!”
“I dunno. Some spokesbabe?” I knew it wasn’t Jill Wagner, Linda Vaughn or Jungle Pam.
“No, Dad, that was Heidi Klum!”
It turns out that the supermodel’s hubby, the singer Seal, was performing at the Audi presser.
Many of the celebrities, entertainers and athletes you see during the media previews are often A listers, while others are lower down on the list. I think it was Kia that brought in TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan to one show. Sometimes there are celebrities also notable as gear heads, like Jay Leno, Patrick Dempsey, or Jesse James.
Then there’s swag. Mostly press kits, but some freebies. Scion gives away plush toys of their cars, sometimes from a car with a claw crane built in to the cargo area. I always take some home and give them to the babies and grandbabies of friends (my kids are grown and my granddaughter is a bit too old for plush toys). I still have a couple of Acura branded Etch-A-Sketches™ left from a Toronto show, and some folding chairs from Honda, Mazda and Jaguar. My day job is a small embroidery business. I was once waiting to get some kind of t-shirt and said to myself, “self, this is absurd, you make your own damn t-shirts and baseball caps”, and then I thought it was so silly that I decided to do it on purpose. I guess I’m easily amused. My younger daughter, now 22, still gets a big kick out of it when I bring home one of those shirts vacuum packed into small shapes.
Some of people attending the previews sell the swag they get. To begin with, the press kits are pretty cool and contain more info than you can find anyplace else as well as the high end photography and CGI stuff, but also just about anything that is not available to the general public can be collectible. As a result, sometimes the communications people can be niggardly with the press materials. The high end marques even ask for business cards and check your credentials to make sure you’re media and not an exhibitor or working on the show. The companies say they don’t want the press kits to end up being sold as collectors’ items. That must be why Ferrari puts holographic authenticity stickers on them, and why other press kits sometimes come with limited edition x of y numbered die cast models. One year, Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George was appearing on behalf of Bridgestone and before giving out signed footballs, he even joked about them ending up on eBay. So you get a lot of stuff that you have to carry around.
When you get to the media center, one of the first things you do is get one of the large tote bags they give out. At some of the shows like SEMA or Geneva, they actually give out rolling luggage. It’s changing to thumb drives and cds/dvds, but there are still hard copy press kits and paper, cardboard and plastic are bulky and heavy. There’s less stuff to shlep, but still enough to make your sore from lugging it around.
At the 2005 NAIAS in Detroit Ford showed the Shelby GR-1 concept, conceptually based on the Shelby Daytona Coupe. Carroll Shelby was there for the occasion. He was sitting at one of the tables they set up for interviews, and talking with his friend Hoot McInerney, a long time Detroit Ford dealer. I heard Shelby tell McInerney, “Hoot. I’ve worked with a lot of people in this town but if I was ever in trouble and needed to talk to somebody, you’d be the guy I’d call.”
I wanted to get Shelby’s autograph on a press kit. The people at Ford’s media information booth wouldn’t give me another GR-1 press kit, so I handed Shelby a Sharpie™ and asked him to sign my big canvas tote bag that the NAIAS was handing out back then. Carroll proceeded to sign the bag with that distinctive signature that he will put on anything in return for a contribution to the Carroll Shelby Foundation ($250 for car parts, $150 for die cast, posters, etc, + $15 shipping). Again, the media has special access. Everybody knows how he likes to make money personally and raise money for his charitable foundation with of his name, but Shelby doesn’t charge for his autographs when he’s at a car show media preview. In fact I’d already gotten his moniker on a Shelby Cobra Concept press kit he year before. Of course, he’s already getting paid by Ford for the use of his name, and charging reporters for his autograph might seem greedy and unseemly to even Ol’ Shel.
So I had an autographed canvas bag. Then the light bulb went on. I always have a bag like that at the car shows and there are always autograph worthy people there. Some famous, others not so famous but important car people like designers, so I started getting the bag signed. Remember what I said about A listers? The racers at the big car shows are usually champions and winners of major races. The other athletes are also generally very successful.
After Shelby, I think the next really notable autograph I got was Richard Petty who was appearing with Kasey Kahne when Chrysler introduced the current NASCAR “Charger”.
One I had those two, they were like magnets for others. When you ask a car guy, or in the case of Danica Patrick a car girl, to put their name next to Mario Andretti’s or Jackie Stewart’s they take it as a compliment.
Regarding Sir Stewart and compliments, Jackie Stewart has a distinctive and elaborate autograph. It’s very legible with flourishes above and below. After I got Stewart’s signature I was playing with Google and found a sweet story by Eoin Young about that very autograph.
” In what I consider to be the “Good Old Days” of the 1960s, a driver’s signature was a work of art, something instantly recognisable and a mirror of the man. Thus Graham Hill’s signature was done with a swashbuckling flourish and Jim Clark’s signature was almost that of a shy schoolboy, both of which fitted the men with the pen. Jackie Stewart’s original signature was probably much like Jim’s, but he felt that if someone granted him the honour of asking for his autograph, it should be worthwhile, and he practised his copperplate autograph. No disinterested squiggle, looking away, talking to someone else, here.”
Almost everybody has been approachable and affable and nobody’s refused to sign it. Mario Andretti was a little bit brusque when I approached him, but he warmed a bit when I asked what Colin Chapman was like (“A very special, one of a kind, guy.”)
As I write this, the bag currently has over 60 names. Some are squiggles. Others are clear, legible, and distinctive. Designers autograph like they’re signing one of their drawings and often date it. Racers and athletes add their car or uniform number. Evander Holyfield just signs his last name and a New Testament verse ciation. Malcolm Bricklin’s is big and bold, a little out of control. Next to Bricklin is Sergio Pininfarina. The designer’s signature is precise, but spare, with a flourish that almost looks like an automotive profile. John Lieberman added USS (United States Senate). Tom Matano, the Miata’s designer, left “Always Inspired”. Some people are asked so frequently they carry their own Sharpies with them, others are surprised to be asked, like George Gaffoglio, whose family runs Metalcrafters.
Speaking of families. There are some brothers on the bag. Designers Ian and Morey Callum. Paul Teutul Jr. and Mikey Teutul of Orange County Choppers. Paul Sr. is on there too. Actually, I made it onto an episode of American Chopper when the Teutuls made a bike for Lincoln-Mercury (with really sloppy welds, btw). The Teutuls aren’t the only father-son combination. In addition to Mario, I got Michael Andretti’s graph at the DeltaWing reveal. Though his dad’s mark is one of the squiggles, he quickly spotted it. There are cousins too, with Bill Ford Jr. and John Firestone IV (Billy’s mom is a Firestone, that’s thing with Explorers rolling over was kind of embarrassing to him personally). Another family business represented is Harley-Davidson with Willie G’s autograph. There are people no longer in the public eye like former Chrysler design head Tom Gale, and emerging automotive magnates like Geely chairman Li Shufu (most likely the first autograph he signed in the US). There are even some Kanji characters courtesy of Shiro Nakamura, long time head of Nissan design, along with Akino Tsuchiya who worked in Chrysler’s Pacifica studio.
There is a World Series champion, Detroit Tiger Dave Rozema, a NBA champion, Detroit Piston Rip Hamilton, along with the aforementioned boxing champ Evander Holyfield. There are even a couple celebrity journalists like Brock Yates, and David E. Davis Jr. Recent additions have been racers Derek Bell and Rhys Millen and Ford GT designer Camilo Pardo.
A couple of years back at the Detroit show I couldn’t find the bag in my working tote (I’ve long since stopped using it for anything but autographs), and I thought I lost it. I mentioned it to Denise McCluggage, the accomplished racer, rally driver, photographer and writer. Knowing what was on it, she tried to comfort me. She was almost as upset as I was, what a classy lady. Then my son, my only son, whom I love, came up and told me he had put it in the car for safe keeping.
I’m able to identify almost all of the signatures. I suppose I should document all of them just in case one of my grandkids takes it on whatever Antique Roadshow’s or Pawn Star’s equivalent will be a generation hence, for their sake, but I figure the provenance is already pretty good.
Actually, I have no idea of its value. It’d be fun to hear what the Best and the Brightest of TTAC think of its potential value, but in any case it’s not for sale (well, unless someone offers me silly money, after all, it’s only a bag with some ink on it). Also, though I’ve identified most of the signatures, there are a few that I can’t recall or can’t identify. Also, there are are some that I’m sure I got, like Denise’s, but I can’t find them anywhere. So if you can spot one that you recognize and I haven’t identified it, or if you think I’m dead wrong, let me know in the comments.
It’s not for sale, I’ve never sold any autographed item I’ve ever had. I was reminded of that at the Chicago show this year. Over in the north hall at McCormick Place there was a display of historical photos from the show’s 100+ year history. One of the photos was of the Lincoln-Mercury Sports Panel, part of L-M’s “youth oriented” marketing in the late 1960s.
That panel included, among others, legendary racer Dan Gurney. I still have a postcard autographed by Gurney when he appeared on behalf of Lincoln-Mercury at the 1969 Detroit auto show.
Here’s the ones I can read, identify, or remember. Blow the photos all the way up and rotate them to see if you can identify some of the ones I can’t figure out.