Detroit Auto Show at 25
JAMES B. TREECE

Remembering the Detroit show as it used to be

COMMENTARY
James B. Treece, a news editor at Automotive News.
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Walking around the 1997 Seoul Motor Show, I was struck by a sense of deja vu.

At South Korea's headlining auto exposition, executives from the import brands -- in this case, GM, Ford, Chrysler and the European automakers -- were grousing to journalists about their shabby treatment by show organizers.

The displays of those foreign brands were housed on the third floor of the old COEX center, alongside makers of motorcycles, tires and spare parts. The prime ground-floor space was devoted solely to the Korean brands: Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia and Ssangyong.

This was discriminatory treatment, the local representatives of the non-Korean automakers howled. It may have been a step up from 1995, the previous Seoul show, when imports were relegated to a tent outside the exhibition building. But not by much.

Sounds familiar, I thought. It reminds me of the old Detroit auto show.

In 1987, I had moved to Detroit to become bureau chief of Business Week magazine, after two years in its Tokyo bureau. My first Detroit show was in January 1988 -- the last year before Cobo changed its stripes.

The 1988 show was a purely provincial affair, with the main floor reserved primarily for the Detroit automakers -- whose count had just dropped to three with Chrysler's purchase of American Motors the previous year.

Import brands were either relegated to the edge of the main floor, alongside the pickups that were still treated as less worthy than real cars, or banished to Cobo's dank basement, alongside displays by Winnebago and other RV makers.

That is, if the foreign brands got in at all.

Floor space was allocated according to a brand's representation by dealers in the Detroit area. If an import brand had one Detroit dealership, it got less space than a rival with three dealerships and three times the sales.

The logic was simple. The automakers' national auto show reps may have built the displays, staffed them and loaded them with their latest offerings, but it wasn't their show.

The Detroit show was run by Detroit-area dealers and was set up to serve their interests. They wanted to drum up business during what had been traditionally a slow time of year.

Why should the Detroit Auto Dealers Association give space to a foreign automaker that hadn't even awarded a franchise to one of its members?

It all made perfect sense from the dealers' standpoint. But it felt akin to Milwaukee hosting a beer fest and refusing to let in Heineken.

The 1989 Detroit auto show was transformed into a global spectacle.

Having witnessed the 1988 show made the 1989 show all the more remarkable to me. In one year, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association transformed the event into a global spectacle, giving foreign brands main-floor locations and spotlight-grabbing introductions. What mattered was not the size of a brand's Detroit sales presence, but that brand's importance on the world stage. The world's press responded in kind, attending in droves and giving Detroit a big jolt of credibility.

The 1989 show represented the victory of a big vision over narrow, parochial interests. The Detroit dealers made it happen by putting their short-term interests second.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.


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