It's Show Time In Detroit

Heading to a Chrysler press presentation at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, I spot Dieter Zetsche, DaimlerChrysler's newly promoted CEO and chairman, briefly looking out from a slit in a backstage side curtain. Minutes later, the press event gets underway with Chrysler's usual skit-like shtick for these things. Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, Zetsche's successor, is on stage when

Heading to a Chrysler press presentation at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, I spot Dieter Zetsche, DaimlerChrysler's newly promoted CEO and chairman, briefly looking out from a slit in a backstage side curtain.

Minutes later, the press event gets underway with Chrysler's usual skit-like shtick for these things. Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, Zetsche's successor, is on stage when a UPS deliveryman hauls in a big box. LaSorda wonders what could be in it.

Could it be…Dieter Zetsche? Why yes, as it turns out. Surprise, surprise. Well, I had my suspicions after my CEO sighting moments earlier.

“Like all of you,” Zetsche tells thousands of attending journalists, squeezing into a viewing area with a comfortable capacity for hundreds, “I couldn't turn down an opportunity to come to Detroit in January.”

Welcome to the really big show in the epicenter of the American car industry, a place that has felt tremors of late.

“Press days” feature a multitude of new-product unveilings — many with glitz and glitter in overdrive — as hordes of journalists from all over the world scurry from one vehicle debut to another. Sixty this year.

“It is the competitiveness of this crazy North American market,” says show co-chairman Robert Thibodeau Jr., a Ford dealer and officer of the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn., which puts on the extravaganza. “All of it comes together in Detroit at one time. It's like Las Vegas.”

But behind the flash and fun is a seriousness. It is a tough business, says Bibiana Boerio, managing director of Jaguar Cars. “There are no easy answers nor quick fixes.”

Ironically, she delivers that somber assessment at a press presentation that features an elaborate 2-tier platform, laser lights and stage-crafting that rivals a Celine Dion concert at Caesar's Palace.

Despite its show business-like nature, some participants see this year's Detroit show more in military terms.

They are calling it “car wars,” because domestic auto makers Ford and General Motors, in trouble due to slumping sales and eroding market share, are combatively determined to show products that ultimately will sell well in the showrooms.

Even foreign competitors are concerned for the domestics. American Honda's Executive Vice President Richard Colliver tells me: “We are hoping that the domestics get their business stabilized. It is important that they do that.”

So it is good to see a group of Japanese auto executives looking the new Edge CUV up and down over at the Ford exhibit.

And despite the growing popularity of gasoline-sipping small cars and vehicles with hybrid-electric powertrains, two showstoppers are concept cars with decidedly Detroit muscle-car roots and revived names: the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger.

Of the concept Camaro, Edward Welburn Jr., GM vice president-global design, tells me, “This is a very modern vehicle…It's a far cry from my '69 Camaro.”

So, will it go into production? “We'll see,” says Welburn. “But there has been a lot of interest in this vehicle, internally at GM as well.”

Meanwhile, over at the Chrysler display, Car and Driver Editor-in-Chief Csaba Csere is assessing the challenge of putting the concept Challenger into production.

“Look at the lines, there are all sorts of cues to the original Challenger, inside and out,” he says. “And under the hood? What else but a 6.1L Hemi. On an existing Chrysler 300 platform, this car is eminently buildable. I can't imagine why they wouldn't build it.”

Veteran auto columnist Jerry Flint notes the irony of highlighting muscle cars on the one hand and small runabouts on the other. That is the bi-polarity of the show as well as the diverse nature of the North American market.

John Mendel, American Honda senior vice president, says, “To me the theme of the show is about trying to put more passion and life back in an industry that is facing uncertainty.

“There are lots of great vehicles here. There is a regeneration of America's passion for cars.”

Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business.

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