Motorshows are, for car lovers and especially children, magical places.
I still remember my first.
Driven by my father from Bathurst. we burst onto the pavilion floor in Sydney barely able to contain our excitement, our eyes wide and heads swivelling as we tried to decide which direction to charge in first.
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Without understanding why, just seeing the stands, the glittering show cars and the thronging masses of people seemed to satisfy some deep primal desire.
The crowd was no matter; after all, these were people like us. And how quickly a queue moves when the promise of sitting in and actually touching a Ferrari, Porsche or the latest Australian concept lies at the other end. Magical, truly.
And that’s just the miserly Australian motorshow, which no longer exists of course.
Venture overseas to attend one of the marquee shows like Geneva, Tokyo or Paris and you’ll happen upon an entirely new level of scale and extravagance. Frankfurt, for example, covers such a vast collection of halls that a journalist friend once claimed he walked 10km on the first show day. Then there are the halls themselves, which are so big that cars drive inside them on suspended roadways.
It’s the Americans, however, who best embrace a motorshow’s theatrical side. Detroit is the first show of the year and historically one of the strongest, not just for the new metal shown, but the way it’s presented. Back in 1992, Jeep delivered the then-new Cherokee to Cobo Hall by driving it up the front steps and deliberately smashing it through a plate glass window.
Sadly, the crippling global financial crisis put a stop to such indulgent reveals, but at least Detroit has always been a busy show. Being home to the big three of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler saw to that. Or so I thought.
With my boots on the frozen ground at this year’s event, I was stunned at how small the show felt, at how insignificant the reveals seemed and at how many manufacturers had decided not to attend. Ferrari? Nope. McLaren, Lamborghini, Porsche? No-shows. Even Mazda and Jaguar Land Rover were missing.
Tellingly, the big three didn’t even hold a press conference at the show itself, preferring instead to reveal their news in the days prior. I left the show pondering the nagging thought that Detroit may be slipping inexorably towards irrelevance, at least in its current format.
And Detroit isn’t the only show to have taken a step backward in scale and manufacturer attendance, though its symptoms are perhaps the most severe. The disruption and opportunity provided by the internet and social media has car companies re-evaluating how best to connect with consumers, with the relevance of ‘traditional’ events like motorshows under the microscope.
Conversely, younger conventions like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are going from strength to strength, as manufacturers infatuated by connectivity and technology seek to spruik their products and services to a new audience.
Held the week before Detroit, the scale of CES dwarfs that of even the largest motorshows and, despite showing products as diverse as TVs and drones, to washing machines and massage chairs, manages to capture some of the sentiment I felt in Sydney all those years ago. Next to its hustle and optimism, Detroit felt like an antiquity operating at half speed.
It did not, I noted as I walked out the door and slipped on the ice, feel magical at all. So what does the motorshow of the future look like? The glitz, glamour and crowds of CES has to be close.
Death by drip-feed
The information age really does reveal itself as a double-edged sword when it comes to motorshows.
It’s become rare indeed for a manufacturer to whip the cover off anything truly new inside the pavilion; instead car makers tend to drip-feed teaser images in the weeks prior, often to the point that when the hanky finally does come off, the assembled crowd claps politely, yawns a little, and mumbles, “yeah ... seeeen it.”
Today, genuine motorshow surprises are rare. Last year’s Honda Urban EV concept was one, but you have to go back to Porsche’s 2014 Mission E before that, and even then it was revealed the night before, at a pre-show event.