In Detroit, show goers say, 'I built that'

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DETROIT -- Every auto show is a little different. Anywhere on the planet, show goers ogle the cars, with subtle differences in what turns on the locals.

But to me, Detroit is unique. It's not the venue or elaborate displays. It happens during the public days. The first time I noticed, it delighted me and stoked my hometown pride.

Tokyo show goers mob new technology displays. Powertrain cutaways are huge in Frankfurt. Paris crowds check out chic designs small enough to park.

Italian crowds go for stylish bodywork, which, yes, includes the leggy models at the Alfa Romeo stand. In New Delhi, show goers drool over big Mercedes sedans, but mentally calculate monthly payments at the Tata and Maruti Suzuki stands.

L.A. show goers update their visual recognition of exotics. In the sense of "Ah, that's what I saw on Mulholland Drive."

Detroit is different. Sure, most people are the same as at any auto show, looking at what's new, grabbing product brochures, checking prices.

But in Detroit to a greater degree than any other show, the paying crowd is "in the biz." Mill operators bring sons and daughters to see what dad or mom does. Engineers bring spouses. Retired assembly line workers bring their grandchildren.

And everybody checks out what the competition is doing.

But come back on a Saturday night. It's date night for auto workers, yes, but with a hint of a staking out turf. Not exactly Montague vs. Capulet in old Verona, but folks wear their colors.

Swing by the Chevy truck display. Maybe you'll see somebody with a leather jacket embroidered "UAW Local 598, Flint, Mich." By the Ford stand, "UAW Local 3000, Woodhaven." Or near a Buick Verano, "UAW Local 5960, Lake Orion."

It's harder to spot the nonunion folks in civilian garb, but lots of folks here look out on the show floor and whisper to themselves, "I built that."

Back when I was a student and working summers at stampers or on the line at Ford Wixom, I did too.

Because this is Detroit. This is what we do.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com.

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