Jamie Butters – Automotive News Chief Content Officer
You can have a Christmas in July, but it just isn’t the same.
A few years ago, I asked Sam Slaughter, the former Detroit Auto Dealers Association chairman, about the need for the show he once organized to reinvent itself and stop trying (and failing) to compete with CES for media attention in January. His reply: It would be easier to move Christmas.
His successors decided to move it anyway, which was a reasonable thing to do, given that so many automakers had been pulling out of the North American International Auto Show. They tried to reimagine what the Detroit show could be — or what any major auto show could be. But it didn’t work.
While the broader economy struggles with coronavirus limitations, the auto industry is thriving as affluent consumers pay record prices for a limited selection of vehicles. The bottom line is that automakers have money — they just don’t want to spend it on major, global auto shows.
Too few companies — perhaps fewer than one? — were willing to commit significant funds to make the new Detroit event a spectacular scene.
As one friend put it: The Motor Bella being planned for Pontiac’s M1 concourse may be little more than a glorified cars and coffee.
And hey, cars and coffee is great. It’s an important part of auto culture and a sweet slice of Americana.
But it isn’t a pop-up Vegas, where celebrities dazzle the cameras and national news is made by multiple leaders of global industrial powerhouses.
Auto shows were already in perilous decline, and I appreciate what the Detroit auto dealers and their professional staffs tried to pull off: an automotive SXSW that would highlight the best of Detroit, the future of mobility and the heart of American culture. They just couldn’t get enough buy-in to make it work.
Something is lost with the end of the global auto show — a lot, I would argue, in terms of human connections and the level-setting that takes place when everyone is on effectively the same stage. But those things can be hard to quantify. The numbers lean decisively toward holding one-off events for a single company or brand or a key vehicle. Or simply holding an online reveal that costs less and reaches more people.
The shame is that multiple technological revolutions are coming to the auto industry: EVs, automated driving, new forms of transportation. Institutions such as global auto shows present opportunities to educate shoppers where everyone can keep each other honest. Sounds quaint, right? But for big incumbents facing a slew of unproven upstarts, leaving the public’s education to chance seems like a foolish risk. I can only hope that the industry has some smart ideas for building consumer knowledge and trust instead of leaving it to those with less skin and soul in the game.
The last auto show I attended was Tokyo in 2019. It seems that Akio Toyoda is driven by a joyful strain of noblesse oblige that leads him to pour good money into the Tokyo Motor Show and make it interesting, culturally relevant and industrially educational.
Bringing in the Japanese equivalents of RuPaul and AJR drew enough lookie-loos to the Tokyo show to declare it a success. Did all 1.3 million people visit the arcadelike display of possible uses for Toyota’s e-Palette concept and seek out the redesigned Mirai fuel cell sedan and observe Honda’s curiously useful innovations and gawk at Nissan’s surprisingly gorgeous Ariya crossover? Of course not. But those products and the companies and ideas behind them were celebrated and planted into Tokyo’s psyche because of Toyoda’s vision and, frankly, his checkbook.
Remember: It was his company, along with Nissan, that made Detroit an international event with the 1989 introductions of their luxury brands.
Though in honesty, as interesting and exciting as the 2019 Tokyo show was, it was very much a Japanese show that no longer draws CEOs (or hardly anyone) from America or Europe or even South Korea.
Regional shows — that’s where the smart money is. There are a lot of people who like to come out and look at cars outside of a dealership: people who are enthusiastic about vehicles, people who are or will soon be in the market.
Those kinds of shows — without pyrotechnics, without breaking news — were thriving before the pandemic, and there’s no reason to expect that won’t continue. But seeing Detroit’s become one of them again is not the Christmas we grew up on.