By on January 10, 2015

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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.

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.

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 will have a display and press conference at the NAIAS media preview.

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.

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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

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.

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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37 Comments on “In Defense of the Detroit Auto Show, What Chris Harris Could Have Enjoyed...”


  • avatar
    cargogh

    I remember that feeling of how wonderful it would be if one of my favorite people could visit, see where I lived, and meet my family. It was 1969/70 and I adored my first grade teacher, Miss Newton. I wanted all my best things to touch and connect, even if it was for an hour. If she could just eat supper with mom and dad and my brother and sister, it would be the best. It didn’t happen and your story brought back that yearn and disappointment with a smile. In the long run my life and family did all right without her attendance, just like Detroit is without his. But a little more excitement and richness never hurts.

  • avatar

    I went one a few years ago. I would have enjoyed it more for the architectural ruins aspect, but the weather was COLD and you couldn’t wait for the people mover to get back. Once we found someone with a car we went for dinner at Greektown which was outside the immediate area of COBO.

    The buildings in central detroit are great cathedrals to capitalism, but as all the white collar workers in them were replaced with a few Excel spreadsheets, have no current purpose for existence.

    The show was fun, but it was practically as if they’d done it on a desert island. Now, NYC, or Berlin, much more fun :)

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    ” 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.”

    When will the new Jeep Renegade go on sale in the US?

    When will we be able to configure pricing on the Jeep site?

    When will we realistically see the Renegade on dealer lots?

    Thank you

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Heheh. I see we have another Renegade fan here. I’m quite eager to get my hands on one myself. If its performance is anything like my Fiat 500 Pop, the thing will be a blast to drive, even if it can’t be a hard-core rock crawler. I would willingly trade in my ’08 Wrangler for a Trailhawk Renegade.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        After owning four Jeeps prior, in 2006 I left Jeep because they just didn’t have the vehicle I was looking for anymore. The Renegade Trailhawk comes closest to that, on paper anyway. I’m anxious to see if it delivers

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      Which is most likely to still be providing reliable service in 15 years: a 2015 Jeep Renegade, a Jeep CJ-7 Renegade, or Styx’s Renegade? I gotta go with the legendary 258 straight six, or Tommy Shaw’s awesome guitar solo.

      Never more to go astray, this will be the end today, of my fragile 9-speed automatic transmission.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        While I might agree with your overall conclusion, I personally believe it’s more due to the fact that relatively few cars survive to 15 years of age in the first place. Exactly how many CJ-7 Renegades are still on the road today compared to how many were built?

        Secondly, I think you’re underestimating that 9-speed automatic. There’s simply not enough data available to make such a conclusion. I know I’ve got a 6-speed auto in my Fiat 500 and it’s performing remarkably well so far and its essentially the same transmission used in Fiat’s Formula One racers set with more efficient programming (yes, it is a dual-dry-clutch transmission). The one thing I really like is the ability to easily control which gear the transmission is in, which means rather than complaining about how much a multi-gear automatic hunts on grades, you can do something about it and choose the best gear ratio for your taste.

  • avatar
    pbxtech

    Ronnie, I really enjoyed your little love letter to the NAIAS. It was cool to see it through the eyes of a fan.

  • avatar
    RHD

    Not mentioned at the show was the name of the first GAC model in the works to be exported to the US:

    The Guangzhou! Gezundheit.

    And seriously, Hyundai, NO ONE has an orgasm over a Sorento!

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Because of where I live, I typically visit two auto shows a year and the one time I attempted a third, my wife ended up with a mild concussion when she tripped on an uneven sidewalk and hit a planter. Those two shows are by no means as big as the ones in Chicago or Detroit, but they still offer the opportunity to see cars that may never hit the roads (I’m thinking of a certain Jeep concept about 7 years ago) and first time looks at new products that I now see daily (Smart4Two). I also get the opportunity to see what customizers come up with (and some are downright outlandish!) as well as historic cars few today have even heard about.

    That said, I rarely willingly miss either one of them regardless of the weather at the time. My problem is that I can’t get in on media days because I don’t have the connections to claim myself an automotive journalist and get in before the masses–making photography significantly more difficult trying to work around the crowds.

  • avatar
    bball40dtw

    I’d be more impressed with Chris Harris’ article if it was original or unique. Repeating the same, tired, “It’s cold in Detroit and it looks like Beruit in 1982,” meme, does not a decent article make. His opinion would have been served in a 140 character Twitter post. He would have at least sounded like less of a douche.

  • avatar
    colin42

    ” 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.”

    1. Chevy Volt. How many people with legs can seat. Does it have a rear wiper? How much will the gen 1 devalue with this new model. (My Volt come off lease at the end of the year and wondering if I should buy it / get another)

    2. Details on the Chevy 200 mile EV. Does it out Tesla Tesla?

    3. Nissan Titian (with the Cummins 5 ltr V8) can it compete with the Detroit?

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      On the Volt, will a 6.6 kw on-board charger be optional?

      Stats like range, battery charge time, miles per kWh in EV mode.

      Is the climate control heat pump based or resistive heat and conventional a/c?

      Will it have an available energy efficient sound system like the Bose low energy?

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      #2: Based on early reports from both Chevy and Tesla, I would say the answer is ‘no’. Supposedly the Bolt is more likely to out Leaf the Nissan Leaf by being slightly larger and doubling the Leaf’s range. The Tesla Model III is intended to have 350-400-mile range when it comes out at roughly the same price (supposedly about $5K more and probably all due to having more battery with access to the Supercharger network.)

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    I’ve made the trek from Pittsburgh more than a few times to Detroit for the show. Even if there wasn’t any magic, there was still something special to me about seeing new vehicles in the spiritual home of the automobile in the US.

    My Dad had his first airline mechanic job at Detroit City airport in the 60’s, where the little airline would shuffle people between all the factory towns along the lake that basically supplied Detroit. 6 times a day between Detroit and Cleveland alone!

    The Pittsburgh Auto Show is a joke anymore (though I still go, because kids now) but the Cleveland Auto Show is much more impressive. The so called “Cleveland Plus region” still has a fairly active big three presence, as well as a classic car show at the same time.

  • avatar
    balreadysaid

    The Nissan Titan Diesel is the most anticipated truck for enthusiasts as of now. Details on transmission and and engine options are the most important to me and many others right now. All of the hauling payload and towing specifications would be great too!

    Anything trucks!

  • avatar
    05lgt

    I’d like lots of pictures of new production cars and significant prototype/concept cars curated by a knowledgable enthusiast; so I’m very lucky you’ll be going Mr. Schreiber. Thanks for the teaching..

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    Blue Goose Inn, right from my old hometown. (Which, BTW, is “Saint CLAIR Shores,” no “e.” Although, one would think it belongs there. My typing teacher in eighth-grade insisted upon us NOT abbreviating the “Saint” as “St.,” which always seemed a little uppity. Well, IIRC, she was from one of the Grosse Pointes, after all! ;-) )

    The Blue Goose is just up the street from where my Dad grew up, and a block away, on Jefferson, there’s a BP station which used to be a family-owned Standard Oil (and later, Marathon), and where my Dad worked through high-school. Even into the ’80s, you could pull in, hear the bell ring, and they’d pump your gas and wash the windshield!

    Memories!

    Questions to ask: I have one — will the Honda Accord keep the V6 in the next generation?

  • avatar
    dougjp

    Interested only in “New Quick Gas Powered CARS”. As so little I’ve read in the show previews qualifies, and I’m not interested in that Lexus due to its appearance, I suppose what Ford announces will about it for this show. Hopefully its as good or better than the advanced hype!

  • avatar
    alexndr333

    Ronnie, here’s a question that I think can only be answered at a complete auto show like NAIAS: Which brand has the most consistently-focused line of vehicles to meet their brand image? I realize that this requires a determination of what the brand image of a certain marque is supposed to be, and then evaluating their whole line of cars / SUV’s / CUV’s / trucks, etc. But you all should be able to do this. So, who’s hitting their own target best, as determined from the floor of Cobo Hall?

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    There’s no reason a gearhead shouldn’t enjoy a trip to Detroit – I know I always do and I plan to be there for the NAIASORWHATEV this year.

    Yes, Detroit certainly has its downsides and Chris Harris outlined some of them. But visitors should take comfort that, statistically speaking, most of them won’t actually experience a shooting, carjacking, armed assault or any of the other vibrant experiences Detroit has to offer.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I used to think the sharknose Graham was obscure, until I went to a car show and spotted a sharknose Willys!

  • avatar
    streetparked

    Does the Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen TDI have an independent rear suspension or torsion beam?

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I look forward to reading more details from this show .

    BTW : where iS that Graham parked at night and who has the keys? . =8-)

    -nATE

  • avatar

    What I would like to know is why the meetup in Allen Park wasn’t announced this year???

    I would have came out tonight! I enjoyed my visit with all of you last year.

    -Richard

  • avatar
    xflowgolf

    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.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    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.

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