If you've followed the automotive news over the past weeks, you’ve probably come across opinions railing about the decline of the Detroit Auto Show (or NAIAS, for North American International Auto Show), or car shows in general.
I simply don't agree with many of my colleagues on this point. Yes, it’s true that the show did not generate the same buzz as in the past. The majority of manufacturers were not present. But many of their cars were.
It’s also true that the physical space taken up by the show was smaller than in some prior editions. The pandemic has left its mark. But the fact is, we’d already started seeing carmakers absent themselves from such shows even before Covid-19.
Why was that? The Web, which changed the game. These days, manufacturers can unveil models at any time and at any place, all for a fraction of the cost of attending traditional shows.
This change is here to stay. Does it threaten future event presentations? No. And here's why: car shows don’t exist for members of the media, but for the general public. And what was visible in Detroit after that media left after day one reflected the continued enthusiasm of paying customers.
The paying public
As soon as the turnstiles opened, the crowds came in droves. The giant duck in front of Huntington Square was a delight for children and families. Folks could line up to try out the Jeep ride to see what the Wrangler can do, or go to the Ford booth to ride in the F-150 Lightning electric pickup. Kids had a blast with full-size dinosaurs and everyone enjoyed the shows featuring flying cars at the show.
On Friday night, downtown was buzzing as thousands of people turned out for a charity show preview, happy to be part of the city's first car party since January 2019. And, a detail not to be overlooked, the weather in Detroit is quite a bit nicer in September than January, which is when the event used to be held.
And so, tens of thousands of car fans flocked to Huntington Place over the weekend. Unfortunately, organizers did not share official attendance figures, arguing that the precise number was difficult to obtain because of all the events held outside. Attendance was undeniably down from previous shows, due to the smaller size of the event, but there was large crowds all the same.
In addition to the outdoor testing sessions, food trucks were ready to greet the hungry on Jefferson Avenue, free live music added to the atmosphere, and Monster vans had fun crushing wrecks in Hart Plaza.
One interesting detail gives an idea of the appeal the show had on the public. On Sunday, even as the Detroit Lions football team played its home opener, there was an hour-long wait to take a ride in a Ford Bronco on a converted off-road course.
Between the Friday night charity preview and the first public day of the show on Saturday, more than 5,000 people took rides in a Ford Bronco or F-150 Lightning. On Saturday, Ram and Jeep offered more than 5,000 rides on their off-road courses.
For the public, the Detroit Auto Show was back.
What was missing from media day was bling: big presentations, big unveilings, and the free dinners with the manufacturers. For the public, it's not about that, it's about getting up close and personal with vehicles and having fun and maybe doing a little dreaming.
In that respect, the first Detroit show in three years was a big success. And the public wanted for more.
And it will be the same at the Los Angeles show in November, as well as in Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City and Vancouver next year.
And that's pretty much all that matters.
As for us, we will continue to tune in to car manufacturers' presentations, whether they're in-person events at a show or virtual affairs.