In Defense of the Detroit Auto Show, What Chris Harris Could Have Enjoyed
You can put me on the list of fans of Chris Harris. As a car enthusiast, you’ve got to love someone who can get as excited about driving a Citroen 2CV as he is behind the wheel of Ferrari’s latest and greatest supercar. However, while I appreciate his perspective on things automotive his recent screed explaining why he’s so glad that he won’t be attending the North American International Auto Show this year was so one sided that I have to stand in defense of one of my home town’s most major annual events.
Almost everything that Harris said about Detroit and the NAIAS is (or was) true.
Cobo Hall is a beehive of activity as workers get displays ready for the big NAIAS media preview on Monday.
Yes, the city of Detroit is full of decay (though I genuinely think things have bottomed out, there are tiny tendrils of regrowth). Yes, it is cold in Michigan in January (though it’s colder and windier in Chicago when they have their auto show in February). Yes, Cobo Hall, the region’s main convention center, was getting a bit shabby and in need of updating the last time Chris came to the Detroit show in 2007 (though the building has since undergone a $250 million renovation). Yes, some of the exotic and ultra luxury brands like Ferrari and Rolls Royce, and even some of the mainstream auto manufacturers like Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover have opted out of displays in Detroit as the auto industry experienced wrenching financial turmoil, bankruptcies and bailouts since 2007 (though many have returned). Yes, the big auto shows on the European continent, like the one in Germany, dwarf even North America’s most *important car show (though I will point out that in the UK, where Chris Harris lives, they haven’t been able to sustain a big annual auto show for some years now).
All of those things, and more, are true, and I can understand how someone, like Harris, who has a love/hate relationship with Ferrari might be disappointed at not being able to check out Maranello’s costly toys after traveling almost 4,000 miles to go to a major show. I admit that it’s a bit easier for me to attend the NAIAS than it is for Mr. Harris. He needs a passport, a plane, a hotel room and local transportation. I just have to have gas in the car and make sure that I get downtown early enough to find one of the free parking spaces that I know about that are within a couple of blocks of Cobo. I usually apply for credentials late enough to have to pick them up at the show, so to avoid a big line I head downtown early, just before rush hour and it only takes me about 20 minutes to drive there. The NAIAS is situated so conveniently for me that one year, when I discovered after I parked the car at 7:00 AM that I had left my camera bag at home, I was able to drive home to Oakland County, grab my cameras, stop for a splash of gas because the needle was below empty, drive down the Lodge freeway in the teeth of rush hour and be back at Cobo before eight o’clock.
The North American Car and Truck of the Year finalists await the selection of winners.
Much as what Chris said about the Detroit show is true, there are a couple of valuable aspects of the NAIAS that Chris didn’t mention, aspects that make it worth going through the hassle of getting credentials, dealing with bad weather, all that hard cement under the D.E. McNabb company’s carpeting, and trying to survive the heard of ravenous autojournalists, general journalists and assorted hangers on.
To begin with, for a writer or journalist interested in cars and the auto industry, particularly one that doesn’t work for a large, establishment media organization, the NAIAS is an opportunity to ask questions of executives and engineers that would otherwise be mostly off-limits. Doron Levin, Dan Neil or Paul Ingrassia can get someone like Ford CEO Mark Fields on the phone but while TTAC is fairly influential and read in the executive suites of automakers (we’ve seen the IP addresses in the logs) I rather doubt that the switchboard at the glass house in Dearborn will put me through. While much of the “news” that is generated at the NAIAS is prepacked press releasese, I use the occasion to get answers to my own questions, creating the chance for publishing something genuinely newsworthy.
I hadn’t seen it announced, but at least one Chinese car company, Guangzhou, will have a display and press conference at the NAIAS media preview.
Then there is the social aspect of the NAIAS. Derek Kreindler and I exchange emails almost daily and speak on the phone every week or two. Jack Baruth and I are in contact even more frequently than that, since our friendship includes interests in things other than cars. However, just about the only time that I see them face to face is at the NAIAS. The same is true for other car writers that I know, even those based in Detroit. There are mentors of mine like Paul Abelson of Land Line magazine and the aforementioned Mr.Levin, currently at Fortune, and it’s good to see them. You also get to meet people that you might otherwise not meet. The only place I’d likely come across Chris Harris himself would be at the NAIAS, well, if he attended.
Besides writing colleagues and people who work for the car companies, over the years I’ve gotten to know some of the people working for the show itself, like Jeannie, the nice lady who runs the credentials process, and then there are the professionally beautiful women. For a beta geezer like me it’s worth a 20 minute drive just to hang with Caroline and Renee, though you won’t see me try to impress them trying to bust a hip hop move at Cobo. Nor anywhere else, though the ethanol (and otherwise) enhanced conversations at the Pink Palace in Allen Park are always fun.
Some Teamsters were delivering a Graham Paige “Sharknose” for one of the NAIAS displays. A pleasant surprise since I’m one of the relatively few people who know about the car, a personal favorite and likely the first Batmobile.
While I understand Chris Harris’ reticence about coming to frigid Detroit in January, for a car guy like me and likely you the NAIAS is an unparalleled experience. For TTAC writers it’s a great opportunity to cover a big automotive event with a perspective that’s not the same as what you’ll hear from the heard. Also, for Detroiters, the NAIAS is a Big Deal. There are going to be about 6,000 people with media credentials, many of them from the international press and broadcasting industries. Add in all of the people working at the show for car companies that are not based in Detroit. A few years back, Volkswagen flew in a Lufthansa culinary crew, not from New York’s Kennedy airport, but from Munich. Hotels are booked up, restaurant reservations are hard to come by.
From an automotive standpoint It’s going to be an exciting show. It’s been five years since the funereal atmosphere of the 2009 NAIAS. The industry is making money and the horsepower wars continue unabated even as hybrids and EVs proliferate. Things are going so well in the industry that some pundits caution against irrational exuberance. As important as it was to attend the show in 2009 when the industry was in crisis mode, it’s equally important to gauge the industry by the NAIAS when things are going well. We may not see huge shrimp cocktails per the New York Times’ cliche about the Detroit show, but people being people, profitable companies will put on the Ritz trying to impress.
One of the reasons why I was disappointed in Chris Harris’ slagging off of Detroit was that for a car enthusiast there are so many places of interest, museums and the like for them to enjoy, and not just for car enthusiasts. Over the past few decades a steady number of rhythm & blues music fans from Harris’ homeland in the UK and other parts of Europe have come to Detroit to see not just Motown’s Hitsville USA, but also the sites of other recording studios and night clubs where musicians like Jackie Wilson and John Lee Hooker played.
The Motor City has a legendary musical history and culture that includes great blues and jazz performers as well as the relatively better known rock and Motown acts. As a longtime music fan whose collection of over 1,100 vinyl and CD recordings along with about 400 hours of live tape, some of which I recorded myself, I can state unequivocally that you’ll be blown away by the talent you can see for free at open jams held just about every night of the week around the Motor City. Check out the Detroit Blues Society’s open jam and scheduled appearances for details.
On Sunday night, just before the press days, after I meet and schmooze with my friends and colleagues at the Pink Palace in Allen Park, I’ll be heading to the Blue Goose Inn way over on the other side of town in Ste Claire Shores to catch an open jam hosted by Jim McCarty. In addition to being a founding member of Cactus and the Rockets, Jim played a bunch seminal rock riffs as the lead guitarist in the Detroit Wheels, fronted by Mitch Ryder. Sock It To Me Baby. Jim’s such a great guitar player that there’s a false rumor circulating that Mike Bloomfield, who did a lot of session work, played lead on the Wheels’ hits. The rumor pisses McCarty off, and rightly so, but in a way, it’s a huge compliment to be mistaken for Bloomfield, one of the guitar gods.
Guitarist Jim McCarty, at the Blue Goose Inn, Saint Claire Shores, MI
More than likely, one of the other players at the jam will be a 14 year old kid named Brendon Linsley, who’s been adopted by the players in the Detroit blues scene. He’s homeschooled so it’s not unusual to see him, chaperoned by his parents, at a club on a school night. You can find lots of young teens with great musical chops on YouTube, but Brendon has an old soul, as more than one player has put it. He’ll play some unique riff and experienced professional players will perk up their ears and pay attention.
If you’re in town for the media preview and go to the Goose and want to say hello, I’ll be the geezer with the graying red beard and a fedora (not sure if it will be black or grey) with a faux “press” card in my hat band.
I’m not sure who all is going to be at the NAIAS, but The Truth About Cars will have at least three writers on-site at Cobo, Derek, Jack and myself, and our sister site, Autoguide, will have a crew there as well. If there is something particular you’d like for us to do at the NAIAS, a question you’d like answered or a newly revealed car you’d like details on, please let us know in the comments.
A clearer shot of the Sharknose, just because.
* I was going to say “North America’s biggest auto show” but the folks at the Chicago Auto Show have been very nice to me so I will point out that the CAS usually has more cars on display than the Detroit show, and attendance at the McCormick Place event is a little bit higher than the million or so people who attend the NAIAS. Detroit is the king daddy, though, when it comes to new product and concept reveals. About 1/5th the number of journalists attend the Chicago show as register for Detroit.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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I've felt similar to Chris, though it seems to be unpopular to say in car guy circles. As a Michigan resident, and fan of all the good things that can be found in Detroit (if you look in the right places), Cobo is a terrible venue considering what NAIAS is supposed to represent. Consider the alternative international shows on a global scale, Geneva, Frankfurt, Paris, Beijing and Tokyo for examples. I have been to COBO since it's "$250M renovation" and it still sucks. The bathrooms aren't updated and reek of 50years of poor aim, and hardly have capacity to handle the crowds. The parking is atrocious, again without capacity to handle the crowds, leaving inbound attendees scattered on one way streets ending up in random parking garages and walking in the fridgid cold through the forementioned decay. I love Detroit, and I am a car fan, but even I am amazed the event is still held at Cobo. It's a disgrace to the state of the US presence in the automotive industry. Even the utilization of waterfront is poorly thought out. They attempted to improve this with the renovation, but given the existing facility, it still presents as an afterthought. Even getting from the (limited) attached parking into the venue is confusing.
I think you do this anyway; but I always enjoy seeing what diecasts and other promotional material you come across during the show; since it is doubtful I would ever be able to attend one.