Several dozen members of the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration attended the press preview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week.
They came, they saw, they liked.
Especially notable and conveniently self-serving were remarks by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Transportation Ron LaHood that they were witnessing more enthusiasm by the industry than had been seen in years.
This, they inferred, was thanks to Washington’s efforts to secure billions in federal loans to keep GM and Chrysler from liquidation and also to set them on course to produce small, fuel-efficient cars – whether their customers clamored for them or not.
Not sure what car shows these politicians last attended, if any, but the U.S. auto industry never has lacked enthusiasm. Rather, it was the high price of gas and the global economic meltdown that let down the side, sending vehicles sales tumbling to record lows as credit tightened.
Those who follow the Detroit show savor their favorite memories of the glory days filled with fast cars, big trucks and unforgettable moments, such as Chrysler’s spectacular stunt of crashing a new vehicle through a plate-glass window at Cobo Hall or cowboys driving pickup trucks to herd long-horn cattle down the city’s main boulevard.
Until last year, when Wall Street sent the U.S. economy belly up, car companies at the Detroit show were building sets worthy of Broadway to stage splashy product unveilings. Food and drink flowed and glitzy celebrities entertained at numerous offsite parties.
Indeed, for several years running, Dieter Zetsche, then-chairman of DaimlerChrysler, tended bar for the automotive press at a fire hall across the street.
Thousands of foreign journalists flood this town every year for the international car show, and Detroit rocks. Or did until last year. And while 2010's press preview last week was hopeful, it still was somber.
It’s not a bad thing to have Pelosi, who has been among the Detroit Three’s greatest critics, visit the show and heap praise on an industry President Obama has said is too important to fail.
“What we see here is a renaissance,” she tells a luncheon gathering of political and corporate power brokers in Detroit. “It’s exciting for our country.”
We don't know whether the public agrees with that. But we do remind there are few manufacturers that stir consumer passion as does the auto industry.
Washington may be supplying the financial means for staying alive, but the auto makers are providing the heart.