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Reflections on this year's auto show

Jack Lessenberry

If you read either of the Detroit papers, you’ll find them filled all week with coverage of what is officially called the North American International Auto Show.

Some old-time Detroiters still call it what it used to be: The Detroit Auto Show. It’s been going on every year for more than a century, with one long timeout during and after the Second World War.  Back in the early days it was held in a city park at a place named Beller’s Beer Garden, which seems charming and appropriate.

But for the last half-century it has taken place at Cobo Center, which, again, we old-timers still call Cobo Hall. For some reason, it always seems to be held during the worst weather of the year, and my strongest memories of the show are walking endlessly through cold winds and trying not to slip on the ice. 

Yet while blanket coverage of the auto show has already started, most average Joes and Janes won’t be able to get in before Saturday.

"Some old-time Detroiters still call it what it used to be: The Detroit Auto Show."

Until then, the show is reserved for a $500 dollar a person preview banquet for the super-rich,  two days of inspection by the politicians and the press, and then industry and charity previews.

After all that, the public is admitted at a cost of thirteen dollars a head; seven bucks for children and seniors. I usually go only when I’m thinking about buying a new car, which, fingers crossed, is not this year. But hundreds of thousands of others will go.

Instead, I plan to live vicariously. I remember going for the first time more than forty years ago and being scandalized that some people were paying as much as ten thousand dollars for a car. These days, that wouldn’t even get you three of Shinola’s higher-end bicycles, which, unlike the vast majority of even domestic cars, are made in Detroit.

Here’s something I find a little sad. When I was born well over half of all the cars in the world were made by one of the Big Three, and more than half of the cars and trucks sold in the United States were made by General Motors.

These days, the Detroit Three nameplates account for fewer than half the cars sold in this country, let alone the world, and Chrysler is really owned by the Italian automaker Fiat.

Nevertheless, the cars they do make are far better, safer, and more reliable than they once were. General Motors, like the city where it lives, has been through bankruptcy in the last few years, but emerged smaller, tougher and scrappier. GM may never again be the world’s biggest corporation, and Detroit never again the nation’s fourth largest city.

"GM may never again be the world’s biggest corporation, and Detroit never again the nation's fourth largest city. But both have survived."

But both have survived, and that wasn’t at all certain a few years ago. The Detroit News’ Daniel Howes has a column today saying that the automotive future is even more unpredictable than ever.  He believes every automaker has to invest heavily in traditional vehicles, electric and hybrid technologies, and “mobility” solutions like Uber and Lyft.

That makes sense – or maybe they just have to guess right. But what’s certain is that the automakers are making better cars than ever before.

And they and the city where they were born are still very much here.   

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