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Ben Oliver's Detroit auto show 2008 blog

Published: 24 January 2008

Has Delhi overtaken Detroit? Ben Oliver ponders the changing importance of global motor shows.

For the second year, General Motors opened the Detroit Motor Show with its ‘Style’ event, in which celebrities, musicians, fashion models and GM’s latest cars paraded down a catwalk in a vast marquee on the banks of the Detroit River. Held on the Saturday night before the show’s Sunday opening, this slightly bizarre event is part concert, part fashion show, part motor show. It serves two purposes. The first is to seduce those media more interested in celebrities than saloons; if a TV station or newspaper only carries one story on the Detroit show, it will be this one, and GM brands will be all over it.

It’s a little less successful in achieving its second goal; making us all feel better about spending the weekend in a depressingly deserted rust-belt city in the midst of an icy winter. It’s not just the jet-lag of us Europeans. The locals don’t have much to be cheerful about either. The woes of the American car industry are well documented, but just as the Detroit Big Three start taking radical action to make their businesses sustainable (let alone profitable), the credit crunch makes their long winter even colder.

US market in financial meltdown

Analysts expect a recession in the US this year, and their home market to slump under 16 million sales for the first time since 1988. Some think it will go as low as 14 million. The 24 factories and 80,000 jobs that the Detroit three have lost in the past two years might be just the beginning, and those out of a job this time next year might look back ruefully on the sums spent on champagne, canapés and appearance fees for Mary J. Blige and Kid Rock.

GM bosses Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz mingled with the invited crowd, discreetly shadowed by lumpy goons with those clear, curly cords sprouting from their ears and disappearing down the backs of their jackets. GM design chief Ed Welburn sashayed down the catwalk Armani-style at the end of the show, flanked by two models and taking the applause of the crowd for the car’s he’d shown.

Where's the significance?

But the human models, though easy on the eye, couldn’t distract from the fact that there were fewer significant new models of the automotive variety here, and certainly nothing to match last year’s Volt plug-in hybrid concept for impact. It’s partly belt-tightening, partly a questioning of Detroit’s status as show. The setting’s hardly ideal, the exhibition hall is creaky and limiting and there may be better ways of reaching the public; GM launched the new Cadillac Provoq concept at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas the week before.

This year even the Delhi show upstaged Detroit, although we won’t see another launch like the Tata Nano anytime soon. There are a few years left in it yet, but America’s biggest car show needs a boost. Either the industry picks up, or the show ships out. Sadly, the latter seems the more likely solution.

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features