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The Lighter side of the NAIAS

Jan 18, 2012 at 12:00 am

Listen to Detroitblogger John discuss this story on WDET's Craig Fahle Show

It's early January in Detroit, which brings certain predictable things every year — weather charitably described as miserable, amateur skaters doing face-plants on the Campus Martius ice rink on any given night, and the North American International Auto Show, which started last week with a handful of media-only days. And who better to send to a show about autos than an automobile know-nothing like myself!

The fact is, I understand very little about autos, except how to drive them and, based on experience, how to crash them. Having me explain an auto show is like having Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano explain ethics in government — neither of us is at all familiar with the subject matter. So for those who are looking to this issue of Metro Times to find detailed information about actual automobiles, welcome! You've come to the wrong place. 



The annual auto show means just one thing: models, the auto kind and the girl kind. OK, so really two things. And journalists. Three things. And auto executives. And suppliers. Plus the waitstaff and union crews at Cobo, I suppose. All right, so it's like 16 things. The auto show means at least 16 things, OK?

So the show really is about more than just showing off new vehicles. The cars and trucks, and the little buggies and golf carts masquerading as fuel-efficient cars and trucks, are merely the center of a uniquely Detroit circus, and like any circus it features strange characters, outlandish performances and silly costumes. But enough about the French journalists.

The real point of press days is to give the media a chance to look at this year's new models, and compare the ones that are classy and refined to those that are fully loaded for adventure. And no, I'm not just talking about the new autos.

Like previous years, the higher-end models were stationed next to the higher-end cars – the Ferraris, the Bentleys and the Porsches. The scene at those exhibits was like a wealthy man's midlife crisis dream — a fancy vehicle, a model so blond she produces light, and a desperate attempt to reverse the hands of time and the cruel march toward old age by purchasing a colorful car and accelerating fast at stoplights.

Many of the models are new and different this year, just as the cars are. And you can get right inside them too. The cars, that is. (It takes a little more effort with the models.)

Not that the execs didn't try. I saw these aged one-percenters cozying up to 24-year-old models, who were grinning nervously like at that family party last year when that one weird elderly uncle got drunk and said things to them that suggested he forgot they were related. Some international photographers tried their best shot at them too, taking flattering, up-close photos of the women they know damn well aren't going to run in their publications, but will instead only be revisited later on their laptops, so to speak.


This year's show began before it even began — with a local sigh of relief — with a deal struck a couple of weeks ago to keep the auto show at Cobo Hall for another five years after a regional authority promised to step in and do what the city was unable to do, like fix the leaking roof and expand the place, which otherwise would have hosted nothing bigger than Midwestern gem and mineral shows. Among the new Detroit trends this year, outsiders running things could be a big one. (See also: Emergency Managers.) 

It was important to keep the show in Detroit not only for reasons of pride, since we pretty much invented the damn automobile, but also because the show is financially critical to the area, as out-of-town journalists. executives, engineers and other visitors pour an estimated $350 million to $400 million per year into the local economy as they patronize our restaurants, our hotels and our online escorts.

There was a glow of relieved happiness in the hall for the Big Three, now that years of management incompetence, union intransigence and consumer indifference have given way to decent profits for the first time in years. That might have something to do with the fact that our domestic automakers finally figured out that if you make well-built cars that people actually want to buy, they'll actually buy them. After years of $3 and $4 gallons of gas they realized, thousands of Hummers later, that they should manufacture smaller, fuel-efficient cars because people were buying all those smaller, fuel-efficient cars from Japan because they really did want smaller, fuel-efficient cars. 


Cobo Hall was full of the smaller, fuel-efficient models, not only from foreign companies as usual, but from our own homegrown automakers too. So this year we get the Dodge Dart (40 mpg), Cadillac ATS (30 mpg), Malibu Eco (37 mpg), Ford Fusion (37 mpg) and a slew of electric cars and hybrids with cool colors and sleek designs and great fuel economy. Have you ever wondered how the engineers come up with all these new ideas year after year? Me neither. 

The green theme has become a bigger part of the show every year, and this year it was everywhere. Nissan, for example, had an electric car exhibit featuring hanging banners showing a misty, tree-choked forest, to suggest that instead of the auto-emissions kind of air pollution, the trees are more comfortable with the electricity-generating, coal-burning kind of air pollution. 

Whatever happened to the old days of giving vehicles names consisting of actual words? This year the show displayed a text-message-friendly alphabet soup of new makes like the Lincoln MKZ, Cadillac ATS, Toyota NSA4, Subaru BRZ and Acura RDX. (See also: WTF? LOL!)

Wait, BRB.

OK, I'm back. Had to pause because rock star auto exec Sergio Marchionne had just shown up. The chain-smoking, sweatered, Italian CEO of Fiat and Chrysler arrived with tired eyes and a face prickly with two-day stubble. But when you rescue a company that was near death and save thousands of jobs, you're allowed to show up around here like you just rolled out of bed after a bender. The disheveled Messiah came down from the mountain, delivered the Word, and vanished into the backstage heavens once more. And the crowd swooned.

This is how press days go. Every hour or so, another auto company holds a press conference where new vehicles are driven out on stage to the sound of fireworks and bad, generic rock 'n' roll. Then a CEO steps triumphantly out of the vehicle, grabs a microphone, points to the car and demonstrates what a poor public speaker he is.


Missing this year was the nascent Chinese auto industry's exhibit, which could be found relegated to the lobby or various little hall nooks in past shows. Word is they're sitting out this year to refocus their attention on making tainted dog food, shooting Tibetans and manufacturing toys that your child can get lead poisoning from. Good plan. Stick with what you're best at! 

Things were different this year out in the lobby as well. Gone were the metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs that blocked every entrance in the years following 9/11. Back then you couldn't carry a paper clip without summoning a phalanx of security guards waving chirping hand-held wands at your hindquarters. But terrorism is so yesterday, people. Unfortunately that means we didn't get to witness the looks on the faces of those journalists who see a purposefully sniffing dog and momentarily get confused as they try to remember if they stashed their weed in the car or not.

Over the past few years, organizers have been catching onto the idea that Detroit might be something worth promoting instead of apologizing for. So a Motown tribute trio lip-synched to Supremes songs in the lobby, and the Detroit Shoppe, normally of the Somerset mall in Troy, set up a store outside the hall, hawking everything from shot glasses and T-shirts to books about Detroit. Though in a glaring omission, they neglected to carry this amazing new book called 313: Life in the Motor City by a local author whose name I won't mention here. (See also: John Carlisle).

The journalists, like the vehicles, were split between the domestic and foreign. You could easily spot the international reporters — they're generally thinner, paler and have stranger haircuts and much better suits than their American counterparts. 

Melodious accents filled the air at the show — Swedish and Japanese from the journalists, Italian and German from the well-dressed execs, and Spanish from the Hispanics whose jobs were to follow in their wake and vacuum their litter from the carpets without making eye contact. (Curiously, almost nobody in the hall spoke English the moment they got outside on the sidewalk and ran into the guy begging for change with an empty cup held outward.) 


The nicest thing about press days is the amount of personal space you have. When you attend the public days at the Auto Show it's like being in a crowded nightclub, with everyone shoulder to shoulder, except everybody's sober and nobody's good-looking. 

The reporters were sober here too, at least for the first few minutes. But by early morning on opening day the makeshift bars at the exhibits were serving free mixed drinks. As the day unfolded, some of the American journalists swilled beer, while the Europeans opted for tooth-staining red wine. 

And then there was the free food, which was almost as audacious as the design of those wild-looking cars displayed here that'll never be mass produced but were really some engineer's $900,000 daydream he got the go-ahead for. The Lincoln bar, for example, offered little culinary astonishments like "Seared duck breast baklava with girrotine cherry, Cajun walnut dust and carmelized phyllo," and "Kendall Brock smoked salmon with Granny Smith apple, jalapeño emulsion and micro watercress," among many other foods described by jumbles of words that normally don't associate with each other.

Journalists love free food, not only on principle, but because we're all pretty broke. Freebies such as food and drinks are the small consolation to counterbalance the low pay, the unpredictable hours and the utter lack of job security in this field. So if it sounds somehow exciting, it's really basically a matter of, "Well, you might not have a job next week, but here's an appetizer and a beer, champ."

Meanwhile, the blue-collar guys who set up the exhibits feasted on plain ol' $4 hot dogs as they wandered around the hall, some with dusty kneepads still strapped to their dirty work jeans, looking like they felt a little out of place among the $1,000 suits and $200 haircuts. But they shouldn't have felt uncomfortable. Of all the people there, they deserved to be there the most, in a way. They're the ones who built the exhibits, built the cars displayed in them, built Detroit into a massive industrial power at one time, unlike the soft-handed CEOs who think a screwdriver is a drink favored by poor people, and whose aloof, stupid decisions over the years partly destroyed a city, an industry and countless livelihoods. (See also: Rick Waggoner.)

These regular guys from unexotic locales like Warren and Hazel Park and Detroit wandered the aisles as they looked at the models, looked at the cars and looked happier than they have in the past few years, because all the glitz and glamour and the drunk CEOs mean things are looking up and they might just keep their jobs this year.

They weren't the only ones feeling out of place, though. Two young Detroit cops walked down the aisle, dressed in black uniforms, and took it all in while they offered a sense of security with their presence. At one point, one of them turned to the other and summed up the essence of press days as well as anyone has.

"Too many suits," he said.