Opinion

Panic in Detroit

Motown’s auto show in turmoil as automakers head for the doors

If your mother ever taught you anything, you know you can’t go to Italy and tell the people there that soccer sucks, Michelangelo was overrated and pasta makes you fat.  Likewise, if you’re going to England, don’t make fun of the Queen, or the business of drinking tea and driving on the wrong side of the road, at least not while your hosts are still sober. And by the same token, please don’t tell this American that the Detroit auto show—and by extension Detroit itself—is meaningless.

The idea that Detroit matters—as a vital place, landmark, center of automotive history (old and new)—is in fact a central tenet of patriotic American thought and our national pride. Or at least it used to be, for the number of carmakers choosing to stay away from what was once our premier show is increasing. In the weeks following the 2018 Detroit auto show, Mercedes-Benz and BMW joined the list of brands that have decided to give the show—a January tradition in the industry as long as I can remember—the old heave ho. That list already included Mazda, Volvo, Porsche, Jaguar and Land Rover. And I, as a resident of New York—which is currently holding its own show, no less—must cry foul.

Mercedes’ bruited departure is especially mystifying as for years it has fielded some of the show’s premier and most expensive to throw press events. Invitations to the Three-Pointed Star’s Detroit Sunday night show opening party—held, ironically enough, at the Book-Cadillac Hotel—were coveted tickets, for the fête has long exceeded all others for lavish provisions and genteel surroundings, with thirsty journalists arriving throughout the evening to represent most all the world’s nations by leaving less insightful than when they came in.  And only this past January, I was enjoying a sumptuous luncheon repast with Mike Guy, editor of The Drive, prepared by Mercedes chefs flown all the way in from Germany to serve those lucky few granted admission to its private upstairs dining room that’s erected each year at Cobo Hall (and all other auto shows, for that matter) at lord knows what expense. Private kitchens and fly in chefs seem to be a German thing, but who are we American puritans to argue when we could be complimenting our hosts on their good taste in wine while dining heartily?

Money no object? More like money is the object. When Daimler owned Chrysler, it took over a disused Detroit firehouse conveniently located directly across the street from Cobo Hall, where it served members of the fourth estate top shelf liquor as they left the show’s press days. Serving was literally handled by bar-tending executives including Dieter Zetsche  (now Daimler’s chairman) and Joe Eberhardt (now president of Jaguar Land Rover of N. America)—drinks, along with equally gratis, quality bar food, from 4pm till 2am the following morning—and it ran for three days! When asked at the time what my favorite launch at the show had been, I could only tell the truth—the Chrysler Firehouse. I even planned to return the following year better prepared with a sleeping bag and toothbrush, but then suddenly it was done.

The increasing frequency of major bailouts from their show has Detroit politicians and show officials scrambling. There is talk of moving the date of the show, which has long been scheduled to fall hard on the end of the Christmas/New Year’s, which is hard on industry watchers’ schedules and, excepting the full blown alcoholics, harder on their livers. In recent years, there’s been a growing sense that the show might be getting pipped by Los Angeles’, which falls roughly six weeks earlier and seems—along with the Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas—to be siphoning off some of the “world premieres” that are believed to underpin media turnout and coverage. For this reason, Detroit is looking to move its show, possibly to October, when people will be less likely to experience blizzards, bitter cold, and the enfeebled municipal snow removal fleet that together comprise what Detroit in winter is all about.  To me, that was always part of its charm. And just to be somewhere for a launch—meh. That’s what the internet is for. The characterful times come when you leave the show and hit the town.  And I would submit that’s where Detroit comes into its own. But I suspect the glamour factor and the chances of meeting movie starlets are better in Los Angeles and such shallow concerns may rule the day.

For now Mercedes is leaving. Or maybe it’s not. According to the Automotive News, a senior Mercedes executive had this to say:

“We have to look at whether a trade show like Detroit fits with the cadence of our launch calendar and whether there’s a more effective format for our needs…The G class was the perfect product to debut this year, but the likelihood we will be in Detroit next January is very slim. That doesn’t mean however we are ruling out a return in 2020.”

Way to keep a girl guessing.  And blah blah blah.  It reminded me of when Porsche offered as its excuse for bailing that they didn’t sell many cars in Detroit. Which was surely to miss the point.

You don’t bow to the King of Norway because you believe in his divine right to the throne. You do it because you’re polite.

So I say, as a matter of common courtesy, foreign automakers, come to Detroit.  Let us continue to dream our dream, where America leads the world, and Detroit leads the industry. You don’t have to believe in it, just don’t be rude.