Volvo XC60 concept
Volvo XC60 concept. Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery: 2007 North American International Auto Show

There’s no question that the auto industry is a global one: manufacturers once considered strictly “domestic” now operate in international markets, and “foreign” companies build their products on our shores. Likewise, auto companies consider the global stage when presenting their new vehicles, at shows in Paris, Frankfurt, Geneva, Tokyo and even China.

But no matter how far abroad the industry goes, for two weeks each year it all comes back to Detroit, for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). While the event has changed considerably over the years, and was temporarily discontinued during the Second World War, the first public auto show held in Detroit was in 1907, effectively making this year’s event the 100th anniversary.

Since 1965, the show has been held at the Cobo Conference Center/Exhibition Center, in downtown Detroit; it has officially been known as NAIAS since 1989. That year, of the 850 journalists attending, 60 of them came from other countries. By comparison, the 2006 version attracted 6,647 media from 62 countries on six continents; over 30 per cent of them represented the international press. Detroit is, indeed, the place to “be and be seen”.

General Motors Style event
General Motors Style event. Click image to enlarge

The public attends from January 13 to 21 this year, but the show has already been in full swing since January 7, the first of three days of press previews. Industry officials got their look during the following two days, and finally, on January 12, there was a charity preview before the doors were open to all.

The press preview days are the ones you see splashed in newspapers and on the evening news. The automakers hold press conferences, dubbed “reveals”, since a vehicle is revealed at each one. Each conference is held to a strict time limit, and they go in a specific order, with enough time for the press to get from one to another. Almost all of them are held in the company’s booths – Ford and its associated brands hold theirs in the Joe Louis Arena, adjacent to the Cobo Center, while Toyota uses the on-site Riverview Ballroom – on stages that are whisked away before the public days.

2008 Subaru Legacy 3.0R unveiling
2008 Subaru Legacy 3.0R unveiling. Click image to enlarge

The reveals range from simply pulling a drape off a car, to elaborate events with films, smoke machines and celebrities, the logic being that the more dramatic the reveal, the more likely it is to end up on the six o’clock news. As soon as the conference is finished, people swoop in to grab the press kits – which contain all the information on the vehicle, and sometimes include cool souvenirs – and move on to the next one. It isn’t always easy to find a good place for pictures, and there is much jostling as photographers try to get the best vantage point; many large news outlets have more than one photographer at the show, and they leapfrog between the reveals, staking out a claim and waiting patiently for the show to begin.

The Detroit show is usually a very high-pitched event: over the years, automakers have crashed cars through plate-glass windows, dropped trucks from the ceiling, and driven vintage cars through the building. This year, everything was surprisingly low-key, and many people commented on the lack of electricity in the air. Perhaps, in a year when many automakers are cutting back and closing plants, it was considered far more appropriate.

Acura Advanced Sports Car concept
Acura Advanced Sports Car concept. Click image to enlarge

Almost all of the car companies also cut way back on expenditure: food and drink usually flow freely at NAIAS, a surefire way to get journalists to come into your booth and check out the cars while they’re noshing. Rumor had it that the show asked the automakers to voluntarily cut back, and if so, they listened well: few alternate provisions were made, and many journalists went without breakfast or lunch (we’ll call that an explanation for any grumpy reviews).

The cutback in food was more than made up by the level of security; journalists had their bags sniffed by bomb-detecting dogs going into the main hall, while many – your roving reporter included – underwent the equivalent of an airport search-and-shakedown from Cobo security while trying to access the events in Joe Louis Arena. (Your roving reporter called it quits and left the arena when, after all pockets of a camera bag were checked, even the protective foam bottom was lifted out: what they were looking for, I haven’t a clue.)

The Mercedes-Benz Ocean Drive concept, displayed at Benz' icy booth
The Mercedes-Benz Ocean Drive concept, displayed at Benz’ icy booth. Click image to enlarge

The complaints aside, low-key or not, the Detroit show never fails to deliver a unique blend of salesmanship with showmanship. By far the most intriguing display belonged to Mercedes-Benz, which put a real ice rink on the floor of its booth, just inside the doors of the main hall, complete with skaters.

For the most part, the reveals were well-done and went smoothly, especially when done by auto executives. Handling stars can be a trickier matter, as Chrysler Group president Tom LaSorda discovered during the unveiling of the company’s new minivans: celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who was supposed to banter back and forth with LaSorda in their version of a cooking show, ignored the Teleprompter and left both LaSorda and the audience wondering exactly what was going on. (The company later made up for it with the reveal of the Tomahawk and Nassau concept cars, accompanied by the African Drum Caf�, who pulled off a clever audience plant that fooled everyone in the crowd.)

2007 Hyundai Veracruz
2007 Hyundai Veracruz. Click image to enlarge

With the globalization of the auto show circuit, and the ability to broadcast reveals around the world in seconds, Detroit has lost its stature as “the” place to debut vehicles, and has become one of many important venues. Even so, a number of important vehicles were unwrapped, including the Hyundai Veracruz, Nissan Rogue, Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe, Porsche Cayenne and Dodge Avenger, as well as concepts such as the Acura Advanced Sports Car, Honda Accord Coupe, and Ford Interceptor.

But possibly the most important vehicles at the show were presented at the quietest, most low-key press conference at the event. It wasn’t even in the main exhibition area, but in Michigan Hall, in the lower level. The speaker struggled with English, and there was some confusion about when to pull the drapes off the vehicles.

Liebao CS7
Liebao CS7. Click image to enlarge

Still, when they did, history was made: Hunan Changfeng Motor Company became the first Chinese automaker to hold a press conference at NAIAS. (Geely became the first to exhibit at NAIAS, in 2006, but it did not hold a conference, and its booth – outside in the mezzanine – was gone before the public days.)

Changfeng (officials pronounced it “Chung-fung”) says it wants to market its inexpensive Liebao and Feibao brand, including small SUVs and pickup trucks, in the U.S. Judging by the models on display, they will have to do some catching up in the quality department, as many people noted. But on the other hand, both Japanese and Korean cars were originally discounted as cheap products that didn’t have a hope of making a dent in the North American marketplace – and we all know how that turned out. Perhaps in another ten or fifteen years, Chinese automakers will be setting off fireworks, hiring television stars and bringing out their latest-and-greatest to a public eager to see what they have to offer. When they do, we’ll be there.

Connect with