It's show time and Detroit is humming a work tune

The song is back in Detroit this year.

Mind you, the tune's not exactly "Happy Wanderer" cheerful. But after a miserable two years, the industry attitude on the eve of the Detroit Auto Show is surprisingly close to "And as I go, I love to sing, a knapsack on my back."

That knapsack on our back is still plenty heavy, speaker after speaker cautioned Sunday night at the Society of Automotive Analysts Outlook.

Surviving suppliers are cash short, noted Neil De Koker, CEO of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association. Any supplier or automaker that avoided restructuring is now at a competitive disadvantage to those that did, warned analyst John Casesa. Investors will keep avoiding the auto industry, predicted investment banker Justin Mirro, managing director of Moelis and Co. Volumes in 2010 will remain well below even 2008's depressed levels, PricewaterhouseCoopers duly forecast.

Didn't matter. What resonated was General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz recounting how four years after the 1982 sales debacle – the last time U.S. sales were worse than last year – Ford posted record profits.

Lutz certainly warmed to Casesa's point about bankruptcy washing away the burden of debt. GM is liberated and its future brighter after its 2009 Chapter 11 rinse, Lutz said. “In any reasonable sales environment, we are positioned to be profitable,” he enthused.

Lutz touted GM's lineup of new vehicles, low debt, favorable dollar exchange rates against the euro and yen, and reduced break-even point.

Lutz wasn't alone. Unlike a year ago, the problems under discussion aren't about survival, but managing slow growth. About digging out of a hole, not hunkering down in one.

Recoveries are always like this in the auto industry. We grumble. We gripe. We complain to our colleagues, so nobody thinks we're prospering while others are hurting.

Then we shoulder the knapsack and go back to work.

And softly, so no one hears, we whistle a little work song.