No. 976
December 12, 2018
 

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Ujian-nasional.info, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Monday
Mar262018

ON THE EVE OF THE NEW YORK AUTO SHOW, THE DETROIT AUTO SHOW FADES TO BLACK.

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. So, here we are in the Motor City, still one of the most vibrant technical centers in the United States and the world – much to Silicon Valley’s chagrin – and the unquestioned capital of the U.S. auto industry. A region that is seeing an infusion of new technical investment unprecedented in its history from companies around the world. A region anchored by Detroit, the city that is undergoing a much-touted renaissance – albeit a selectively intermittent one – that aims to transform a town long written off as “a wasteland of unfortunates” by the coastal elite into an urban center of vibrancy and elusive hipness. 

How could this momentum be derailed? How could this calculated rejuvenation fail? What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, reality has a way of rearing its ugly head around here in sobering ways. The renaissance of this city is intermittent, at best; it’s a top-down fraud emphasizing the window dressing of ever-increasing rents and glitzy, overpriced restaurants that open and close at an alarming rate, while ignoring the heartbreaking hopelessness of a school system perpetually in grave trouble, one that churns out a disproportionate number of “graduates” mostly ill-equipped to do college work. The “rebirth” of Detroit is a concentrated show, one that ignores the abject poverty of a large part of the city that remains untouched by the gloss of new money.

Another unfortunate reality for this town is the fact that the Motor City’s premier auto show has now been relegated to second-tier status overnight. Mercedes-Benz announced a month ago that it wouldn’t return to display at the Detroit Auto Show next year. This came on the heels of Jaguar/Land Rover, Mazda, Porsche and Volvo already declining to participate. Now comes the announcement last week that BMW is pulling out too.

Once upon a time the Detroit Auto Show stemmed from an idea local dealers had to pump up the regional market in its most moribund sales months, January and February. And it bumbled along like that for years and years, the “homer” of all “homer” auto shows, a back-patting lovefest like no other, with hardly an imported car in sight. Then, emboldened by the attention going to Paris, Frankfurt and Geneva, the local dealers in charge of the show came up with the idea of rebranding the show as the “North American International Show,” more befitting of Detroit’s visibility on the global auto stage. And this worked for a while, until recently.

What happened?

How did the idea that Detroit’s auto show had become no longer essential gain steam among the manufacturers? Maybe it was the fact that it took a decade to refurbish Cobo Hall, the venue that was obsolete easily 20 years ago. The city’s constant precarious financial health – including a painful bankruptcy – prevented anything of substance getting started at Cobo. And unfortunately, for the record, even though it’s dramatically better now it’s still a second-rate venue, despite millions spent on it. It didn’t help that the transformation of Cobo took much longer than expected, and each year that it didn’t happen the participating manufacturers questioned its viability. After all, they attended better shows in better venues here in the U.S. and all over the world, and the excuses to spend money in Detroit became harder and harder to justify.

And the time of year didn’t help, either. At first it was the L.A. Auto Show bumping right up against the Detroit show dates, until those show dates were moved back to November. Then, out of the blue, the Consumer Electronics Show emerged as a direct threat to Detroit, not only because the date for the Las Vegas extravaganza was the week before Detroit, but because the collision of the digital realm and the transformation of our transportation future became the hot topic overnight. Auto manufacturers scrambled to be a part of what was going on at CES, and the justification for participation in the Detroit show became even more tenuous.

And the weather in Detroit in January was another strike against the show. It may seem like a small thing, but it really wasn’t. The cold and snow affected everything to do with the show, and it was a negative that just wouldn’t go away. Let’s not kid ourselves here because Detroit can be a dark, foreboding and unfriendly place in January. And the press and the manufacturers alike contributed to the refrain of negativity hanging over the show with their constant comments about the weather.

Then, on top of everything else, the fact that auto shows have become more and more irrelevant and cost-prohibitive for manufacturers is something that has emerged as a real thing over the last several years. Mounting proper auto show displays costs millions of dollars, and manufacturers have discovered that hosting targeted “fly-in” events for the media in interesting locales is much more appealing and effective. These events have no competing “noise” to detract the media’s attention from the intended focused message, and the opportunity for the media to drive the vehicles can elevate the impression of the brand in question overnight. This has caused manufacturers to abandon all but the most important auto shows, and this just in: Detroit isn’t one of them. It’s a direct blow to the domestic automobile industry and an even harsher blow to the city of Detroit itself. In other words, a giant bowl of Not Good.

The Detroit Auto Show organizers have been late to the realization that their show was in trouble, as in, five years too late. I have been writing that the Detroit show was in trouble for at least that long, and others have chimed in recently too. The Detroit Auto Show organizers are frantically changing things, saying a new name is in the works – Detroit Auto Show anyone? – and they’ve floated the idea of moving the show to October, one of our best months when the city is bathed in the warm glow of vivid fall colors and the imagery is decidedly opposite from the bleakness of January. But then again, even this isn’t going to be accomplished without a lot of consternation and hand-wringing. The show organizers are talking 2020 for the new fall date, saying that the contracts are already in place for next January and they can’t be changed. 

I say bullshit to that. 

If the manufacturers have to gather the show organizers, Cobo Hall and city representatives and the participating unions together to discuss moving the date to October 2019, they need to do that. Accommodations can and should be made to make this happen, because if a half-assed show is staged next January – and make no mistake it will definitely be that given the lack of participants – then I predict the show will not be salvageable, no matter what the date is.

Right now, there are two high-visibility auto shows in the U.S.: In L.A., the largest automotive market in this nation and in New York, which emphasizes the higher-end offerings and is in the media center of the country. New York happens this week, and every manufacturer that’s worth considering will be there, and Detroit is only a speck in their collective rearview mirrors.

A total rethink of the Detroit Auto Show is in order, but I’m afraid that the people involved are ill-equipped and not up to the task. If the two domestic auto manufacturers based here believe that the Detroit Auto Show is essential and cannot slip any further, then they’re going to have to get involved.

If not, the Detroit Auto Show will fade to black, for good.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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