Virus may be final affliction for auto shows in failing health

They were fun for more than a century, but times changed and they didn’t keep up

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Automakers, and especially those producing luxury vehicles, have found other places to unveil their latest and greatest (and future) products | Larry Edsall photos

All of the news about the cancellation of the recent Geneva Motor Show and the likelihood of another force majeure involving the New York show next month got me to wondering if such shows were canceled during the flu pandemic of 1918 and about my own history with auto shows.

According to books on the histories of the New York and Chicago auto shows, both were held in 1918. Each took place in early January, before the flu had reached pandemic proportions. And both also were held in 1919 while the flu still was raging, and claiming lives, primarily of those between the ages of 20 and 40.

On a happier note, paging through the World’s Greatest Auto Show: Celebrating a Century in Chicago got me thinking about my own auto show experiences.

McCormick Place hosts the Chicago Auto Show

I’m old enough to remember when my Dad took me to downtown Joliet, Illinois, where dealers such as Bill Jacobs Chevrolet (before it moved out to West Jefferson Street) covered their windows while the new cars arrived in the fall. On a certain day, the windows were uncovered and we beheld the new fall lineups. 

I don’t remember the specific years, but I also remember that we went at least once to the Chicago Auto Show when it was still being held in the old International Amphitheatre, on the west side next to the Union Stock Yards.

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It wasn’t until 1961 that the event moved to the spectacular new McCormick Place showcase right on the Chicago lakefront just south of The Loop. 

I’m not sure of the year, but I remember in particular a Pontiac Grand Prix show car painted in a stunning chocolate-brown color. I also remember seeing the amazing paint shading on the Mako Shark II Corvette at the show, which means I was at the Chicago show in February 1966, when I was a college freshman. 

LA moved its auto show from competing with Detroit’s date and found fall was a better season for such a show

It wasn’t until years later, when I was an editor at AutoWeek and was visiting the GM Design center when I heard the story about the car’s paint: When the Mako Shark II was built, GM Design chief Bill Mitchell demanded it be painted to match a shark he had caught in Florida and displayed on the wall of his office. As you know, sharks are very dark on top but their color lightens to almost white on their bellies. 

Unable to produce a perfect match of car to fish, GM designers instead snuck into Mitchell’s office one evening and repainted the shark to match the car. They claimed that Mitchell never caught on to what they had done and was delighted at how well the car matched his trophy fish.

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I don’t recall attending another auto show until the late 1980s, when I was recruited from my newspaper job to AutoWeek. The big North American International Auto Show was held each January and just a few cold and snowy blocks from our office in downtown Detroit. My duties at the magazine also sent me to the Los Angeles, Chicago and New York shows, as well as to those in Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, Turin and Seoul.

Auto shows staged to showcase automakers’ newest products date perhaps as far back as 1897 in New York City. In the early years, Midwestern automakers actually had their cars driven to and from the show to prove their cars were capable of traveling long distances on the most rudimentary of what passed as roads.

At least in the U.S., the major auto shows tended to be scheduled in winter (to create interest in new cars at a time of year when people tended not to be buying news cars) or in late spring (as people were emerging from hibernation and wondering what new cars they might drive into summer). 

Such shows worked well, at least until globalization took over automotive production and distribution, until overseas automakers realized there were places they’d rather be than in frigid American cities, until automakers — and especially luxury automakers — discovered they could reach a more affluent audience by unveiling their cars at art and culture festivals and at sports events, as the internet and livestream webcasting provided a way to present their vehicles without any filtering by the traditional news media, and that all of these new developments might actually save them money.

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Even before coronavirus, the major auto shows were an endangered species. Times change, the shows needed to as well if they were to survive. 

In desperation, the Detroit show is moving from January to June and moving outdoors in the (dis)guise of a multi-featured automotive festival. But it already may be too late, and not just for the Detroit show, but for the genre in general. 


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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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