Detroit Auto Show Strips Out Glitz in Rough Times

By: AP
By: AP

DETROIT – The streets of downtown Detroit will be free of cattle this year, and there won't be any Jeeps flying through the windows of the convention center.

With the entire auto industry suffering, and Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. on government life support, this year's North American International Auto Show will be a much more spartan affair with fewer elaborate displays, less glitz and none of the crazy headline-grabbing stunts of past years.

"Those kinds of things, it's not the right year to do those," said Doug Fox, who runs several Ann Arbor-area car dealerships and is co-chairman of this year's show. "The money just isn't there to be spent on those things."

Several prominent automakers, including Nissan Motor Co., are completely skipping what has been one of the world's most important auto shows.

That doesn't mean there won't be news. More than 6,300 journalists from around the world have signed up for the three press preview days starting Sunday, about 100 more than last year. Many will be reporting on Detroit's economic woes and the auto sales slump that has hit nearly every manufacturer.

So far, the automakers have committed to revealing 50 new models. That's down from 58 last year, but show organizers say there may be some surprises in store to boost the number.

Among the headliners are a new version of Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius gas-electric hybrid and Honda Motor Co.'s hybrid Insight, designed to compete with the Prius in the race to gain the gas mileage crown.

Chrysler will highlight new technology in its electric vehicle prototypes, while Ford Motor Co. will unveil its electric vehicle strategy and GM has promised a big surprise to take advantage of a worldwide stage Sunday.

"I cannot think of a more important, more newsworthy press conference at any auto show for any car company in the last 25 years of doing this kind of work," said GM spokesman Scott Fosgard, who declined to give details of what's planned. "No one company is going to have the world's attention like GM at this time."

Last year, Chrysler drove 120 cattle down the street in front of Cobo Center convention hall to promote a new version of its Ram pickup truck. In previous years, it has crashed a Jeep through the lobby's plate glass windows.

But this year, with the Auburn Hills-based company forced to get a government loan to stay alive, there won't be any stunts, the signs marking its exhibit will be smaller, and a wall of water that spelled out "Jeep" with droplets is gone.

"In the new reality, our press event this year will be more straightforward, reflecting our need to run more efficiently during a tough environment," Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau wrote on the company's Web site this week.

Also gone will be expensive food for the press, and displays will be scaled back, said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics of Birmingham, Mich.

"Giant spreads of shrimp, Coney Islands at General Motors, a lot of the expensive-to-set-up and expensive-to-tear-down stands, press conferences with multi-lingual translations," Hall said of what's been cut. "It's going to be back to the cars and the business."

GM, which also is taking government loans, eliminated thousands of square feet of elevated flooring and will merely have carpeting over concrete, focusing more on product and less on glitz. It also got rid of the second story of its massive display area.

Most of the cars GM is highlighting will be on turntables, but there will be fewer vehicles on display.

Timothy Peters, the Detroit automaker's assistant director for auto shows and operations, said he knew in early 2008 there would be less money for the 65 auto shows GM generally attends each year.

Instead of spending 100 days setting up for the Detroit show, GM spent 70 days, saving labor costs.

Some of the materials being used for the GM display have changed, with the company using modular aluminum components for faster installation. A modular design also saves space on trucks and weight when it comes to shipping.

But some automakers that still have cash are keeping the glitz. Toyota still has an elevated floor, while Ford's exhibit, seen last week, looked unchanged from the previous year.

Missing, though, are some prominent automakers, most notably Nissan Motor Co., which announced it was pulling out of the show last year because it had no new models to introduce. Also missing are Mitsubishi, Porsche and Suzuki.

But Fox, the show co-chairman, said some exotic automakers, such as Lotus, Morgan and Caterham, have taken part of the vacated space in the main exhibit hall, while others, such as Volkswagen, have expanded their displays. The show also will have a driving track for electric vehicles in the basement that will run by ponds with waterfalls and a forest of about 100 Michigan trees.

Fox said automakers have scaled back on everything from construction costs to spokesmodels, but they have done so in a way that the public won't notice.

"You're still going to have the most elaborate displays of anywhere in North America with observation decks and food service and refreshments," he said.

Fox said downscaling might be a trend, with the industry emphasizing vehicles instead of show business, and that might not be a bad thing.

"That's the way these shows started, and now we're kind of going back to those roots," he said.

Despite Michigan's shrinking auto-dependent economy and nation-leading 9.6 percent unemployment rate, Fox said he is confident attendance for the public part of the show from Jan. 17-25 will be up this year over last year's 700,000. Admission prices, at $12 for adults, are unchanged from past years.

"We're trying to offer more value, and we think that with people staying a little closer to home, we are hoping and expecting higher attendance," Fox said.

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AP Auto Writer Kimberly S. Johnson contributed to this report.


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