Spasm of terror was a showstopper

COMMENT
Edward Lapham is editor of Automotive News

FRANKFURT - The world's auto chiefs have suddenly lost their "go where we want, when we want" strut.

Last week's terrorist attacks in the United States made that painfully clear during what was left of the press days at the Frankfurt auto show.

Tuesday, Sept. 11, was the first of two days designated as press days, when reporters can inspect the shiny hardware and talk to executives before the show opens to the public. It's a standard practice at the big auto shows, such as Paris, Geneva, Detroit, Tokyo, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. (Frankfurt stands out because the show also includes the supplier industry and affiliated service industries.)

Press days amount to a reunion for the global auto family. But that may change. Automakers may well reassess how many key executives they put in one place at the same time.

Business as usual

Early Tuesday in Frankfurt it was business as usual. Journalists from around the world moved easily from stand to stand, photographing the concept cars and pressing executives for a comment.

At the stand of auto supplier Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., engineers showed off new technology in telematics and safety to prospective customers. CEO J.T. Battenberg visited with Ron Zarrella, head of General Motors' North American operations, and Harold Kutner, GM's worldwide purchasing chief. Battenberg then met two Automotive News reporters for an interview.

Word reached the show only moments after the World Trade Center attacks began, about 3 p.m. local time. The executives in Frankfurt reacted in much the same way as the rest of the civilized world: with grief, shock, horror and concern for family and friends.

Juergen Hubbert, Mercedes-Benz's car chief, was so stunned he stopped speaking in mid-sentence. Others huddled around TVs, radios and screens linked to the Internet. Many reached for mobile phones to call home.

We were all trying to understand. Cars just didn't seem very important anymore.

Then the cancellations began. Some press conferences and interviews were called off out of respect. Others were scrubbed for security reasons. And some were canceled because it seemed like the right thing to do.

A different world

By the second press day it was apparent that things had melted down. The Verband der Automobilindustrie, the association of German automakers and suppliers that sponsors the Frankfurt show, hung signs expressing sympathy and solidarity with the American people. The world had changed, and we all knew it.

Early that day, the building that housed the displays of three of the world's six biggest automakers - Ford, Nissan and Volkswagen - were evacuated after a bomb threat. That triggered an exodus of auto executives.

Some auto chiefs stayed, but the mood was somber. Trays of sumptuous food went untouched.

GM's entire Automotive Strategy Board was at the show; there had been a board meeting in Germany the preceding weekend. They were whisked away to a local hotel. And then began the headache of trying to reconstruct travel schedules to get home.

The exhibition halls, which still would have been quite busy on the second press day, seemed like ghost towns.

Occasionally you could see pairs of German police officers wearing olive-drab uniforms and sidearms. Such patrols may now become commonplace.

You can bet that people will reassess the way they do business and the way they travel. Technology has eliminated some of the need for travel, but business still requires relationships among people, and that's what auto shows are all about.

Jonathan Cherner, president of Cherner Automotive Group in the Washington area, said his days in Frankfurt changed him - and not just because one of his body shops back home felt the shock waves from the attack on the Pentagon. He understood the great lesson for the auto industry: "We're all just people with families who want us to get home safely.''

You can e-mail Edward Lapham at

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