No Fixed Abode: Auto Shows In The Time Of Icebergs
I left Detroit at 4:51AM on Tuesday morning, pointed south for a three-hour drive that would terminate with the beginning of my workday. I could have taken the morning off, but I like to surround my auto shows with a little bit of deliberate misery, lest I inadvertently become too comfortable in the entirely artificial universe of public relations and journalist-pampering that seems to gain steam every year even as the rest of the event comes to resemble the petal-dropping Enchanted Rose in the spare wing of the Beast’s castle. Thus the 4 AM wakeup and the trudge out to the frozen parking lot, hunchbacked with suit bags and audibly creaking from every joint, Danger Girl trailing behind me with the wide-eyed stare common to prisoners of war and victims of spousal abuse, even if it’s mostly musical in nature.
We were not the only people starting our morning, and our truck, before dawn. Long-time TTAC readers may remember that General Motors and a few other automakers pay the travel expenses of quite a few autojournos in exchange for obtaining control of their narratives. Most of them arrive a few days before the actual show, all the better to maximize the free meals and curated experiences. On Saturday, while my son and I were driving up to a skatepark in Cleveland for an evening’s worth of BMX riding, I’d seen a former colleague of mine whining on Instagram about the less-than-five-star nature of his complimentary accommodations at the GM Renaissance Marriott. The only way I could think of to register my disappointment was to change my own hotel reservation to the absolute cheapest room available on Hotels.com: $47 a night for the Allen Park Motor Lodge.
The motel, and the room, turned out to be kinda-sorta okay, although the bed didn’t really make the grade for two people with a hardware store’s worth of screws and bolts in their bones. Here’s the interesting part: I’d expected that most of my fellow motel-dwellers would be engaged in some form of recreational depravity, but in actuality the bulk of them were construction and service-industry workers taking advantage of the weekly rates. They were early to bed and early to rise. Our work-truck white Silverado, parked in a line of pickups that stretched all the way across the motel’s road frontage, was notable only for being slightly newer than the rest. As we backed out of our spot, I saw a few Carhartt-clad fellows trudging out to the Colorados and F-150s and Rams, tool belts slung over their shoulders, rubbing their eyes and exhaling cloudy yawns of crystallized steam towards the moon.
Back to life, back to reality. But there was a bit of irony in it for me, because this Detroit show was the first one in a long time to acknowledge the connection between the polished artifice of the press-event turntable and the early-morning trudge to one’s truck.
I don’t have any insider information or evidence to support this assertion, but I’m going to make it anyway: Chevrolet probably didn’t want to show the 2019 Silverado at the Detroit show. I think that FCA forced their hand with the RAM reveal. If I had to guess, I would say that GM probably originally intended to show the Silverado at New York. There are a few reasons for this. To begin with, they were short on product at the show. The old trucks are still shipping, and they took up quite a bit of room on the floor. Furthermore, there was no equivalent GMC Sierra available, which means that they don’t even have the pre-production vehicles to show.
It’s marketing suicide to show a new pickup truck too far in advance. Personally speaking, I think Honda does it right. They show a “concept” about as far out as most automakers show next year’s model. Then they do the press events when the new cars are already on the haulers headed towards the dealers. They value the constant flow of metal more than they value the mostly imaginary PR boost from showing everybody the next big thing while the old big thing has six months’ of showroom exposure left. That’s smart business. What GM did is the opposite of what Honda does, which is typical for them and also typically wrong.
Surely the early Silverado reveal was an attempt to steal some marketing momentum from the facelifted 2018 F-150 and frankly spectacular 2018 RAM. “Don’t rush out and buy the new trucks from our competitors! We have this awesome new half-ton on the way!” It felt a little desperate, right down to the contrived nature of the Saturday-night reveal that was guaranteed to find a mostly sympathetic audience because GM had paid to fill the seats with its own travel-compensated bloggers and “journalists”. I’m not sure if the whole thing was made more or less pathetic by the fact that the 2019 Silverado is obviously a major revision rather than an all-new truck. Our own Bozi Tatarevic was on hand to take measurements of hard points, but it was obvious even to my liberal-arts eye that the new Silverado is going to be a lot like the old Silverado. Only uglier.
Shame, really, because the old Silverado is more than up to the task of competing with the new trucks. To begin with, it has better and more efficient engines. It’s also still more than competitive in all of the wacky metrics that get high-end truck owners excited. The one thing it lacks is some genuine bling, which the 2018 F-150 Limited and new RAM Limited have in absolute spades. The interior of the $67,000 F-150 Limited SuperCrew is astoundingly opulent, while the new RAM Limited looks like a cross between an S-Class and a Tesla Model S once you open the door. (Both of them look like ’73 Granadas next to the new Navigator Yacht Club, but that’s a story for another time.) But GM has the Sierra Denali to take the fight to those pimptrucks and the new High Country Silverado still obviously shows the Kerrigan-esque scars of deliberate crippling familiar to anybody who ever cross-shopped a Caprice Classic Brougham and a Ninety-Eight Regency.
Still, this was the first time in my memory that all the major players have shown new trucks almost at once. Which makes it the most truthful and most genuine auto show I’ve ever witnessed, because full-sized trucks are like the nine-tenths of an iceberg that you don’t see. I’ve been attending the Detroit show for more than twenty years, first as a Charity Preview participant and then as a journalist, and without fail it’s been the same thing. All sorts of hyper-hyped bluster and blather about cars that barely pay their own development costs while the show floor remains thick with the trucks that actually cover the bills. Not this time. Ford drove the point home with a nifty second-floor display that took you all the way through their crew-cab lineup, from F-150 XLT to Limited to Raptor to Super Duty. From the driver’s seats of the trucks you could look down at the Mustangs and the autonomous garbage with the same sense of self-assured superiority that the truck-line managers must feel when they report profits up the chain every year.
FCA had given as much space to the RAM trucks as they had to the rest of their products, and it was justified. This is a spectacular vehicle that pushes the limits the same way the that the 1994 predecessor did. Only this time the outrageousness is inside the cabin, not on the nose. It’s more than just a pretty face. There’s a ton of engineering underneath, including splayed octagonal front frame rails that will likely make this the best-crashing truck in history.
I will always remember 2018 as the year when the pickups got their full share of the spotlight. It was on my mind as I stopped at the Pilot station in northwestern Ohio at 6:30 Tuesday morning. The lot was filled with pickups, tired-looking men walking back to them carrying tall cups of coffee, ready to start the day. It made me think of a speech I read a while back where Neal Boortz says,
Speaking of earning, the revered 40-hour workweek is for losers. Forty hours should be considered the minimum, not the maximum. You don’t see highly successful people clocking out of the office every afternoon at five. The losers are the ones caught up in that afternoon rush hour. The winners drive home in the dark.
He may well be right. But if the winners are driving home in the dark, the workers are leaving home in the dark, part of that massive manual-labor infrastructure, the Morlocks who keep the world going and keep the power turned on so my increasingly-effete colleagues can blog about microaggression from the comfort of their gentrified loft. I’m not saying that I’m one of them – for Christ’s sake, I was wearing a set of two-tone Edward Green spectators as I stepped out of my Chevy work truck – but I’m saying that I’ve seen them. They are the nine-tenths of the iceberg. Just like the trucks they drive. And it’s the iceberg you can’t see that causes the problems. You ignore it at your peril.
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