The "internatonal" stamp that was put on the Detroit auto show in 1989 sent ripples of consternation from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles.
Until then, the auto shows hosted in those four cities co-existed peacefully as rough equals, with Chicago arguably enjoying a slight edge. But the influx of world premieres and national media that streamed into Detroit in the first few years after its designation as the North American International Auto Show was a game changer.
"It started to sink in that the competition for vehicle introductions and international media had been stepped up big time," said Jerry Cizek, president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and general manager of the Chicago Auto Show from 1988 to 2010.
The emergence of Detroit, and the vigor with which NAIAS show organizers pressed manufacturers for big-name vehicle debuts, changed the way many manufacturers planned introduction schedules.
Before the change in Detroit, automakers' product-launch cadences typically dictated where they would reveal new product. The specific city in which the wraps came off was almost an afterthought, said Steve Harris, head of public relations for Chrysler for much of the 1990s and General Motors for much of the 2000s.
"Then suddenly Detroit really made an effort to start working the manufacturers and say, 'What are you going to give us? Give us your biggest announcements,'" Harris said. "By making the show more important with those 'gets,' it made most automakers say, 'I have to be in Detroit. I have to be competitive there.'"
That sent organizers of the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago shows packing their bags -- to catch flights to Frankfurt, Geneva and Tokyo for face time with auto executives at those shows.
"We'd go to those places and bump into contingents from L.A. and New York, looking to make the same case for their shows that we were," Cizek said. "The message was: 'Look, we sell a ton of vehicles in our markets. Detroit's not the only place where they sell cars.'"
Those organizers, along with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, made pitches for their own international tags to the Organisation Internationale Des Constructeurs D'Automobiles -- the global association of national automaker groups. It validates international shows, and its show calendar is followed closely by both manufacturers and media outlets.
But there was a problem. OICA, made up of about 40 national trade associations, allows for only one international show per country.
In 2005, after years of lobbying, the OICA agreed to allow New York, L.A. and Chicago to rotate the international tag line each year, with Detroit keeping the permanent designation.
Cizek said he believes the OICA designation has helped Chicago, New York and L.A. grow and remain vibrant. But he said a much bigger factor has been the stiffer competition for the attention of manufacturers in the 21/2 decades since Detroit made its move.
The four major U.S. shows also have benefited from a more spread-out calendar -- the key move being the Los Angeles show in 2006 moving two months earlier, to November -- that allows them to plan more strategically, said Chris Murphy, senior vice president of client services for George P. Johnson, the exhibit maker that designs display stands for many automakers.
Murphy said the rivalries among the shows over the years have helped each more deeply define its niche: Detroit for the big-name execs and biggest introductions; Chicago as the muscular consumer show; New York as big on luxury and telling the corporate story; and L.A. for environmentalism and entertainment.
"But in the end," Murphy said, "they've all become shows where the OEMs feel they have to be."