An old P-38 Lightning fighter stood guard outside a giant hangar at Santa Monica Airport in California.
More than 300 government dignitaries, General Motors executives and journalists gathered on a cool California evening to witness not so much the launch of some new concept cars, but a whole new image
'We are the biggest car company in the world, and it's time we started shouting about it,' enthused Ron Zarrella, president of GM North America.
Wait a minute ... old airplanes, big presentations, excellent food and fine wines, along with the latest concept cars. Haven't we been here before?
GM is experiencing the Kowaleski effect. In a bid to shake up its image, the company poached Steve Harris from Chrysler as public relations chief. Shortly afterward, he was followed by his left and right hands, Tom Kowaleski and Tony Cervone. They are already tearing down the walls at GM.
Picking the Los Angeles auto show to unveil the new GM was another public relations masterstroke. As the crowds were making their way north to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit a couple of days later, GM was able to steal the show while rivals kept their powder dry for 'the big one.'
Basking in the spotlight of publicity and California sun, GM had made a good start of the new century. Kowaleski - who runs GM's product public relations - is the man who must project that image.
'I think the important thing is to bring all the brands together to show people ... how great GM's global reach now is,' Kowaleski said. 'We have not shouted about that enough.'
And shout they did in Los Angeles, about the Oldsmobile Profile and Saturn CV1 concepts, plus the new Pontiac Aztek. The Profile and CV1 were the first of nine concepts we will see this year.
The new image moved north to Detroit, where the GM Experience occupied some 35 percent of the floor space at the city's Cobo Center exhibition hall. Along with GM's North American marques, the display included Saab, Opel and Vauxhall from Europe, plus Holden from Australia.
It was an impressive display for the outsider, but what's the feeling inside the company? 'About time' seems to be the general view.
Harris and his team certainly know how to create a buzz. They played a big role in transforming Chrysler Corp., a company on its knees at the beginning of the 1990s, into the most talked-about brand in the United States.
Journalists were jetted around to drive Wranglers in the Rockies, Cherokees in Argentina and even across the frozen Alaskan wastes.
At the Detroit auto show, Kowaleski's exploits were legendary. To introduce the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, company President Bob Lutz drove the vehicle through a plate glass window.
To introduce its new minivan, Chrysler catapulted the vehicle across the stage and over the heads of Lutz and company Chairman Robert Eaton. Yet another time, Chrysler dropped a new truck from Cobo's ceiling, allowing it to crash on the stage in front of stunned journalists.
How will Kowaleski's can-you-top-this attitude fare at the traditionally conservative GM? Getting access to GM executives has never been easy. Getting people to talk openly has been even harder. The early signs are that GM executives are more accessible than before.
One telling indication: At the Detroit auto show, Zarrella gamely played along with a skit that required him to wear a smoking jacket.
In a gentle spoof of his uptight reputation, Zarrella showed slides of a purported vacation in which he supposedly ran with the bulls in Pamploma while wearing a suit and tie.
It's early yet, but it looks as though things are loosening up nicely.