Press days at the Detroit auto show used to be a three-day avalanche of news, elaborate stunts (no one will ever forget Chrysler driving 120 head of cattle through the streets to promote a new pickup) and celebrity cameos. One year, General Motors even kicked things off the night before with a star-studded runway fashion show hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.
This year, the last for the show in its current form before it becomes an indoor/outdoor summer event for 2020, everything was pretty much winding down by lunchtime on the very first day. The biggest "celebrities" were Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess and Toyota Motor Corp. CEO Akio Toyoda, who made surprise appearances.
And whereas securing a coveted spot on the main show floor was a huge milestone for upstart automakers and suppliers in the past, a large swath of it this week is devoted to a test track for the Kia Telluride, a generously spaced food court like you might find at an insurance-broker convention and rows of rally cars parked on bare carpet.
Show organizers have the departures of BMW, Mercedes and Audi — on top of the handful of other brands that stopped showing up in the last few years — to thank for leaving them with so much extra real estate, not long after they had begged the city to finally expand and renovate its convention center.
If anyone hadn't gotten on board with the notion that this show needs a reboot, stat, the conspicuous lack of energy here Monday left no doubt. It certainly didn't help that a major water main break over the weekend put most of downtown Detroit under a boil-water advisory, rendering drinking fountains unusable and forcing many of the visiting media to start their day with low-pressure, cold showers.
There were murmurs and applause for a few vehicle introductions, including the Toyota Supra and when Ford Motor Co. lowered a Shelby Mustang Shelby GT500 from the ceiling as if by helicopter.
But most of the 25-minute reveals were hardly memorable, nor are many of the vehicles themselves. VW's freshened Passat was brought out almost as an afterthought to news that the company would be adding a second plant and 1,000 jobs building electric vehicles in Chattanooga. Infiniti's QX Inspiration concept failed to even show up on stage when it was supposed to.
The biggest news to come out of the 2019 show is likely to happen Tuesday, when Ford and Volkswagen are slated to announce a transcontinental partnership. But they're doing so via conference call, deciding against using a time slot they had reserved on the convention-hall stage.
I'm still skeptical that the move to June in 2020 will fundamentally fix what's broken about the show — and I think public attendance, which is still fairly healthy, may suffer as families elect not to spend the first week of their kids' summer break at an auto show — but at least it's something. Everyone will leave this year's event knowing that something new is on the horizon, rather than just muttering about how they don't need to waste their time even coming next time.
Ford's executive chairman, Bill Ford, thinks the date change will provide a much-needed spark.
"I always thought it made sense for Detroit to showcase itself when the weather's nice. All the international press comes here in perhaps our worst weather month of the year," Ford said Monday. "I don't know how many rodeos we can have coming down the street in January."
The problem, though, isn't really the weather (which cooperated this year more than usual, with not even a trace of snow anywhere).
It's what's inside the show — or more precisely, as this year's show makes clear, what isn't here anymore. Let's hope some of that comes back in 2020 and beyond, before the whole event just becomes one big food court.