Jean Jennings looks back at the North American International Auto Show
I'VE BEEN ATTENDING AUTO SHOWS ALL MY LIFE,
first with my automotive journalist dad (and brother) and then as an automotive journalist myself. But I will always love the Detroit show the most. The North American International Auto Show each January is in the pantheon of the world’s most important shows, on par with the massive Frankfurt show, usually better than Tokyo and ahead of Paris, although most of the world’s automotive press corps would much rather be in Paris than Detroit, even if it was snowing sideways.
The NAIAS wasn’t always this big. For seven decades, it was a provincial sellathon with salesmen working their show stands like the lot at the dealership. To anyone who loved cars, you could see everything in one giant parking lot, but it wasn’t exactly high class.
In 1988, its last year as a local auto show, I presented the Eagle Premier on the show stand for a story in Automobile magazine. I was the model, complete with a (tasteful) copper lamé gown and a memorized spiel. A beauty makeover gave me a gigantic see-through hairdo and so much makeup spackled on that it took a couple of days to scrape back down to skin. My husband didn’t recognize me from 10 feet, and neither did a high-level Ford executive, who leered at me.
With the change in 1989 to “North American International Auto Show,” the dream was to become the world’s most important show. Lamborghini unveiled the new V-12 Formula 1 engine, and the Lexus and Infiniti brands launched. It took a couple of years, but it got better from there.
People pour in by the hundreds of thousands to auto shows, and Detroit is no exception. What they don’t see is what happens during media preview days.
If there’s one thing you can say about automotive journalists, it is that they will take that free diecast model. And do you mind if I take one for each kid? And could I have two press kits so I can put one on eBay? And if it goes for a lot, can I sell the second one, too? You might laugh, but in 2004, English versions of the Ferrari Scaglietti press kits were gone immediately. I know people who got two. The Ferrari stand was the only place I ever saw fistfights over press material.
The same year, Chrysler PR reps were handing out Jeep press kits and small metal models. The retired head of Chrysler Canada public relations was shouting: “Take a press kit! Please take a press kit! How many models do you want? Take two! Take four! Take six!” He'd been retired seven years; they weren’t even his Jeeps.
One year, Chrysler handed out three-legged foldable campstools for its press conference, then told everyone to take them home. One television director chewed out a Chrysler PR lady for not finding him a stool from the press conference he hadn’t even attended.
This year, I brought home a Mopar jump drive shaped like a tiny manual transmission shift knob, packed inside a replica of a Mopar spray-paint can. The jealousy around the office was thick, and I made sure to place it where everyone could see it.
For some time, going to the auto show meant going directly to the Chrysler press event to see what insanity was afoot.
1992: Chrysler public relations genius Jason Vines engineered the first of many wild stunt reveals. Vice chairman Bob Lutz and Detroit mayor Coleman Young left the Jefferson Assembly Plant in a new Grand Cherokee, led by a police escort. They drove straight down Jefferson Avenue to Cobo Hall, then continued up the steps and on through a plate glass window. It was movie glass, but it seemed to be the only thing anyone remembers from that year.
2000: Chrysler used the rafters, and as the packed crowd waited for the show to start, giant metal pillars suddenly crashed from the ceiling. Followed by the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic troupe. And then a new Dodge Ram. Or was it the Ram and then the acrobats?
2003: Chrysler Group COO Wolfgang Bernhard roared onto the stage in full leathers, barely hanging on to the back of the 500-horsepower, four-wheeled Tomahawk V-10 concept bike. The following year, he unveiled the equally incongruous Chrysler ME Four-Twelve Prototype supercar.
2008: A herd of 120 Longhorn cattle, driven by 10 actual cowboys on horseback, escorted a Dodge Ram down Jefferson Avenue to the front of Cobo Hall. When it was all over, a trail of cowpies remained.
THE LIVE TV
I began covering Detroit for national television in the early 1990s, first for CBS This Morning, when my earpiece started smoking. I was distraught, but the producer tossed it off, saying, “It doesn’t matter. There’ll be another show tomorrow.” I moved to Good Morning America in 1994 and reported live every year until 2000.
There were 6,000 journalists from around the world covering a massive 40 new-car debuts. Good Morning America needed two days, but the Chevy SSR was the end of Good Morning America for me. The SSR was a prototype with (imaginary) nav, weather, and an onboard computer with Internet and email access, plus a very real 6.0-liter V-8 from the Silverado. Its style was a retro mash-up of El Camino and a ’50s pickup. “It’s bitchin’,” I said. Out loud. On the air. Cut to break. Back from break. “Your mouth ought to be
washed out with soap after what you said about that truck, Jean,” said the formidable Diane Sawyer. I insisted that it was a “perfectly legitimate California hot rod term.”
“What is the New York word for the California word?” she asked.
“You ought to get out of New York more often,” I chuckled. Out loud. On the air.
I moved to CNN.
At auto show media days, it’s always a golden era for food. There are private, invitation-only dining rooms on many stands.
Volkswagen had hot German meals catered by Lufthansa, which meant the food and the servers came from Germany, along with draft Beck’s beer. GM liked to bring in local favorite Athens Coney Island when the press was around. Among the standouts, Chrysler had a café, Mazda had sushi, and Acura had cappuccino and chocolate-covered pretzel sticks.
This year, Volvo flew in baristas from Sweden. Kia had a craft beer wagon. Ford had massage chairs, gluten-free veggie pizzas, fresh salads and jelly beans in Ford paint colors. But then, they had to feed the 150 bloggers, a.k.a. digital influencers, whom they flew in.
Mercedes-Benz is currently the hands-down meal ticket, with a corner of the stand designated for a sit-down gourmet breakfast (tiny poached eggs on little buttered toast rounds) and a menu of hot and cold small plates for lunch. There’s a full bar. There’s a wait staff. And a rare opportunity to feel like the biz.
THE CONCEPT CARS
Aren’t we all really here for the concept cars?
Blue-sky concepts aren’t as common as they once were, because they cost a fortune. The Dodge Viper was such a project, giving Dodge designers a much needed respite from a long string of K-cars. It took everyone’s breath away, from the assembled media to the crowds who mobbed it during public days in 1989.
It happened again in 1994, with the Volkswagen Concept One. At first glance, the show-goers shouted “Beetle” and loved it. It made the front page of USA Today. I got back to my office, and Jerry Seinfeld had called to chit-chat about it. Rattled, I returned the call without removing my hat, scarf, coat, mittens or boots. A month or so after the show, we met at the Volkswagen Design Center to drive the car. That’s when we discovered it was a true concept car, with only electric motors to move it on and off the show floor.
The VW New Beetle followed into production after it debuted at the 1998 NAIAS. The inscrutable chairman, Ferdinand Piëch, commanded my presence in his private room overlooking the show floor. There was a mob around the New Beetle. He was confused. “We wouldn’t see so much emotion in Europe,” he told me. “I think the car is right for here.” He then asked why Americans dressed so badly.
Hearing the critics making their initial comments is always fun, and at the auto show, everyone walking around is a critic.
Automobile magazine design editor Robert Cumberford, upon seeing the 1997 Pontiac Rageous (imagine an ugly four-door Firebird), carped: “Pity poor Pontiac. The marketers can’t spell. The stylists can’t style.” My journalist brother renamed it “The Diculous.”
In 2001, I was standing with GM’s worst president ever, Ron Zarrella, looking down at the busy show from his private room on the second floor of the GM stand, the year it looked like a bunker and seemed to actively discourage any journalist from wandering in. BMW’s MINI had launched and had been mobbed the entire day. “What’s the big deal?” he asked me, all grumpy and bewildered. “That car is going to cost $18,000!”
“Have you gone down and looked at it?” I said. “It’s astonishing. You don’t have anything like it!”
“Yeah, but it’s going to cost $18,000! I don’t get it!” It would be several years before GM got it.
He should have considered a career in automotive journalism.