Walking around this year’s Detroit auto show, it is hard to miss that the convention centre is mostly empty.
Back for the first time since 2019, the North American International Auto Show has a new indoor and outdoor and takes place at a more pleasant time of year but most manufacturers didn’t bother to show up.
Only four car companies had displays: General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Stellantis NV, and Toyota Motor Corp., the sole Japanese auto maker. And many of the mere 10 new-car reveals, such as the 2024 Ford Mustang with a 500-horsepower Dark Horse edition and the 2023 Chevrolet Tahoe RST Performance Edition, the most powerful Tahoe SUV to date, were gas-powered vehicles, bucking the trend toward electric vehicles, which further emphasizes the show’s irrelevance to auto enthusiasts.
There were some EVs on display and two big indoor tracks to test drive EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). But it was a feeble attempt to fill space and give the illusion of a packed show floor. Even a visit from U.S. President Joe Biden didn’t help matters; it only frustrated the reporters who were there, adding hours in long security lines.
For decades, the Detroit show was the must-attend auto event of the season. The show began in 1907 (it changed names in 1989 to the more cumbersome North American International Auto Show) and became known for its lavish vehicle reveals, particularly from the Detroit Three. Usually, more than 5,000 journalists from all over the world would brave the Detroit cold in early January to report on more than 60 cars never seen by the public before. This year, about 2,000 media types attended.
Hollywood celebrities, car executives and top industry brass such as Dieter Zetsche, Sergio Marchionne (who died in 2018) and Bob Lutz were often on hand. Car companies coughed up big bucks for extravagant displays and splashy 30-second launch announcements.
Having attended every show since 2001, I still recall vividly the 120 longhorn cattle walking the streets of Detroit for the launch of the redesigned Dodge Ram in 2008 and the professional figure skaters doing triple Lutz jumps on an indoor man-made ice rink for Mercedes-Benz’s reveal of the all-wheel-drive S550 in 2007. And who can forget the 2006 stunt with former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda driving through a plate glass wall in a Jeep Wrangler?
These days, many manufacturers don’t seem to care about what used to be the biggest show of the year. Granted, some, like Porsche, Audi, Volvo and BMW, started skipping the show even before the pandemic hit, opting for private events, online global reveals or in-person launches at the Los Angeles Auto Show or the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
In contrast to L.A. and CES, which appear to be thriving, some other auto shows are struggling as much as Detroit. The Geneva auto show was cancelled for four years straight and, in 2023, it moves to Doha; meanwhile, what was once the world’s largest auto show in Frankfurt has moved to Munich and been rebranded as a “mobility” event.
“We’re living in a post-COVID world, where a lot of shows like ours and some of the biggest auto shows in the world are either struggling or not existent any more. Bringing [the Detroit show] back post-COVID was a major challenge,” said Thad Scott, president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association.
“We reimagined a lot of things and we pulled off a very successful show. Compared to our peak over the last 50 years, we were off quite a bit,” he said. “But on a reset year, being gone 3½ years, we are realistic with our expectations and, in many cases, we’ve exceeded those expectations.”
For me, the show fell well below expectations. It may see some success as a consumer show, geared toward allowing the general public to see new vehicles before they hit showrooms, but for the automotive journalists in attendance, it was a letdown. Some may blame the pandemic, but for long-term fans of the Detroit show, that was just the final nail in the coffin.