Our Neighborhood Auto Show

American Driver

I don’t want to sound like a local booster, but my recent experience certainly would seem to indicate that Detroit’s North American International Automobile Show has taken command as the number one auto show in the world. The Tokyo show generally has more interesting future-tech displays, the Paris show has Paris right outside the doors, and the Geneva show is more fun than any of the others, but Detroit is the place to see a whole bunch of cars from all over the globe in a fantastic facility. Detroit is also the place to see a whole bunch of people from all over the globe, because everybody in the business seems to be there.

I have trouble understanding the domestic automobile industry’s relationship with Detroit. Detroit is that industry’s hometown, and a significant portion of the industry continues to do business here, but the city continues to look like the setting for the RoboCop movies (which it actually was). Well-traveled automobile show regulars make fun of Frankfurt, but Frankfurt is a garden of earthly delights compared with Detroit. Chicago puts Detroit on the trailer. Even if Detroit were a latter-day Athens or Rome, its streets and roads are as bad as any in the Third World. Hometown or no, the industry just doesn’t seem to notice that the city is dark, and ruined, and scary as hell, and that the roads are equally ruined and scary.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to dinner by one of Detroit’s most respected movers and shakers, who asked my advice about dealing with the Motor City’s “bad image.” I probably offended my host when I erupted, “Goddammit, Detroit doesn’t have a bad image; Detroit has a bad reality!” When I came to Detroit as a very small child, we lived in a little frame house in a factory-worker neighborhood on the city’s north side. That neighborhood is now a slum. When I was kicked out of college and went to work for a custom tailor in downtown Detroit, I made a thirty-mile bus commute every day through busy tree-lined streets with wonderful shops and restaurants and office buildings. All of that is gone.

The automobile industry didn’t cause this, but the automobile industry didn’t throw itself on the barbed wire to prevent it, either. Clearly, many automotive executives, most particularly the late Henry Ford II, have worked hard to help salvage something from Detroit’s half-century of decline, but the industry itself, working as a team, never really put its shoulder to that wheel. Everybody building and selling cars in Detroit ought to visit Wolfsburg, headquarters town for Volkswagen in northern Germany. It’s an automotive and civic tour de force, a city that really celebrates its role in the automotive universe. If you were the North American automobile industry, wouldn’t you want your hometown to be an absolute showplace, the best-case scenario for the automotive metropolis?

I fell in love with the Bentley Continental GT coupe at last year’s Paris show, and the Detroit show only reconfirmed the painstaking analysis and deep reasoning behind my passion, as you might expect. The Germans—being shameless Anglophiles—turn out to be wizard British-car builders. The Continental GT is the Audi TT in size 48 Long. It is exactly the sort of grand tourer that ought be driven by a genial gent who bought his first new Volkswagen product back in 1954 when the surface of the earth was cooling.

By the time you read this, I will have driven the new Rolls-Royce Phantom. I’m delighted that the BMW people chose the original Phan-toms as their jumping-off point in creating this new car. The Phantoms always were special, always a bit more Rolls-Royce than other Rolls-Royces. I’ve spent some very happy hours in a 1933 Phantom II owned by my friend Bill Davis of Charleston, West Virginia—built for the Paris Automobile Exposition and actually used by George V. I look forward to finding traces of that car’s heritage in the new Phantom. I like the scale and the proportions of the new Phantom body, although the massively wider grille tends to remind me of some Tier 2 parts manufacturer’s garage door decorated for the Christmas holidays. My grandmother Simpson once applauded my sister’s choice of a Polish husband, saying that the old Anglo-Saxon blood thinned out over the years and needed regular infusions of stronger stuff. Her theory seems to be working with Bentley and Rolls-Royce and their new German owners.

The Audi Pikes Peak Quattro show car, yet another fanciful German take on the SUV theme, was sitting front and center on the Audi stand at about seven o’clock one morning as I prowled the show floor, and parked demurely nearby was the current Allroad Quattro. If the Audi folks intend to sell large numbers of the Pikes Peak variant, I’d advise them to put the Allroad Quattro in some other part of the building. As I walked around the Pikes Peak, the siren song of the Allroad grew louder and louder. The world’s automotive industry finds itself in a kind of musical chairs competition. Every company on the planet wants to create one more highly profitable SUV entry before the SUV market collapses, but nobody wants to be caught standing there with a brand-new SUV the day the music stops.