The 2022 North American International Auto Show in Detroit opened its doors to media and industry professionals this week, with public days beginning tomorrow. NAIAS was once the pinnacle of the US auto show circuit, with huge, exaggerated screens and reveals from domestic and foreign automakers. But the pageantry started to fade even before the pandemic and wander into the 2022 show – Detroit’s first auto show since 2019 — the event was almost unrecognizable.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2019, NAIAS already felt like it was slipping. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Bugatti were nowhere to be found at the convention center – their only presence was at a private show at a nearby casino. Porsche had also left the building. The big, elaborate revelations were getting more subtle. Vendors and collections that were previously relegated to the basement were now presented on the ground floor of the salon.
In 2018, organizers offered a solution: Beginning in 2020, the NAIAS would move from its traditional dates in freezing January to a milder week in Juneat the time of Detroit IndyCar Grand Prix. The show would have an outdoor component, expanding display opportunities for automakers and sellers, and hopefully attracting more people to hang out in downtown Detroit.
Of course, that never came to fruition. In June 2020, the State of Michigan was just emerging from the strictest phase of its pandemic shutdown. The 2020 show never happened – the event center was converted for use as a FEMA Coronavirus field hospital – and the The 2021 show has also been canceled on Covid concerns.
So, here we are in 2022, with the show now pushed back to September. People are on the go, pandemic restrictions have (mostly) disappeared. But the living room was in a more depressing state than ever.
Stellantis had a huge footprint at the show, displaying Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep products – but most of the automaker’s space was used for driving demonstrations, Jeep 4x climbing over man-made rough terrain and Ram 1500s pulling stuff.
At the other end of the corridor was General Motors. Cadillac had a sad little display against unadorned concrete walls. Buick had an equally tiny presence. Chevy had the largest footprint of any GM brand, but even that paled in comparison to pre-pandemic shows.
Ford occupied most of the ground floor, with a display dedicated to the new Mustang 2024. But more than anything, what stood out most was the emptiness – the blank stretches of walls, the shocking amount of bare space between the cars.
In 2019 and before, not only was the show packed with cars and displays, but the media days were a nightmare to navigate. Journalists had to fight neck and neck to get a glimpse of any newly unveiled vehicle.
For 2022, the biggest crowd at the show was the line for the Secret Service security scan while President Joe Biden toured the show. The biggest news event of the 2022 show, the launch of the new seventh generation Ford Mustangtook place after the show closed for the evening, down the street at Hart Plaza.
Honestly, this giant inflatable duck, just outside of Huntington Place next to Jefferson, ranks third on the list of the most talked about things at the Detroit Auto Show.
There was a time when this place was full of window displays. You might get lost in the fray, carrying a map of the living room to keep your bearings. I have been going to NAIAS every year since I was five years old. I remember the year Jeep brought aerial dancers who swayed on ribbons hanging from the rafters of the convention center. I remember when Cadillac first displayed its brand new Northstar engine – and sitting on the empty show floor late at night watching my father, an engineer at Roush at the time, repair the display engine for another day of introductions. In 1999, I stood in what seemed like the longest queue in the world to get a Micro Machine miniature of the Volkswagen New Beetle that made the rounds on the show circuit that year.
But it wasn’t this year’s Detroit Auto Show.
Instead, Ken Lingenfelter had a handful of cars from his massive collection on display in the middle of the convention center, in a space once contested by the world’s biggest automakers. A huge patch of bare ground separated his cars from the Stellantis exhibit. On the other side was a replica of the Ghostbusters ambulance, alongside Fred Flintstone’s car.
So which automakers showed up? All Stellar, Ford, lincoln, GMToyota and Subaru. I saw only one lucid look on a small screen next to the tiny stands reserved for mobility technology providers. Lexus had a screen somewhere outside. Most automakers in attendance unveiled their new vehicles a few days before the show – if they had anything new to reveal.
In the era of pandemic shutdown, with auto shows canceled, automakers have pivoted – first to online live streams for new vehicle launches, then to events private. Flying a handful of journalists and influencers to an exciting location to see the debut of a new model was probably more cost effective than securing a footprint at a dozen different auto shows throughout the year – and at a private event, a car manufacturer doesn’t have to compete with every other brand on the market to get eyeballs on the newest model.
Coming home from the 2022 Detroit show, I thought a lot about the future of NAIAS. What was once the most anticipated show of the year has become a dull shadow of itself. Aside from the Mustang (which debuted at a separate Ford event) and President Biden’s visit (which was more of a speed bump for reporters covering the show), there was no excitement or hype. . The crowd was all but gone by Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday’s spare attendance demonstrated just how sad things have become.
The pandemic has changed so many things in life, and NAIAS organizers cannot be blamed for it. The show’s move from January to June to September has been repeatedly blocked by the unpredictable changes in life under the influence of COVID-19. But coming from the 2022 Detroit Auto Show, I wonder if auto shows have a future.
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