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The North American International Auto Show - Or is it? Purdy and Cannell Duck-In On Detroit Show

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By Steve Purdy
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
Photos by the author and Thom Cannell

Show boss, Rod Alberts of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, slept in the temporary offices at Huntington Place (formerly Cobo Center) the night before media preview day because the new, very new, version of the “Detroit Auto Show,” still known also as the North American International Auto Show, was about to get disrupted. The 2022 show got off to a decidedly rocky start.

It appears that the name is in transition as is the whole concept of a large auto show. The NAIAS designation dates from 1989 when the international body that sanctions these events declared Detroit’s show to be the North American show. I find it unlikely Detroit would still qualify for that designation if, indeed, there still is a sanctioning body to make such a determination. European and Asian motor shows are suffering the same fate - trying to survive the disruptive dynamics of the digital world where auto companies are loathe to spend the kind of money it costs to exhibit at the big, ostentatious shows. They’ve found other, more efficacious, strategies for showing of new products and courting the media.

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But, here in Detroit, the unflappable Mr. Alberts and his teams are making a valiant effort to sustain by innovation this, one of the oldest, and for most of its existence one the most important, auto shows in the world. After a nearly three-year hiatus it is just a shadow of former shows with a footprint of mainstream automakers perhaps a fifth of what it was once, even including the Jeep and Bronco indoor ride-along tracks with 30-foot-high humps for thrill-seekers. The rest of the main floor of the exhibition center was sparsely filled with airplanes, tech startups, extraneous mobility displays, miscellaneous exotic cars, aftermarket purveyors, dinosaurs, and even a home furnishing display.


Our friend and colleague, Gary Witzenburg, led the day with announcement of the finalists for the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year awards that traditionally led the January Detroit show. A team of 50 independent auto journalists just made their first cut whittling the 49 eligible vehicles down to 26; 20 of which are EVs giving further evidence of the strength and legitimacy of EV takeover of powertrain tech. The next cut will determine the three finalists for each category and those will be announced at the November LA Auto Show. Winners will be named at a special NACToY event in January here in Detroit.

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Chaos then ensued when they closed off press access mid-morning to accommodate a visit from President Biden, Secretary Buttigieg and other dignitaries. Security was overwhelming with crippling restrictions on movement and no access to the show floor. Everything came to a screeching halt for better than three hours while we milled around in various corrals while auto execs schmoozed with the president.

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Prsident Biden came at the invitation of Governor Whitmer to tout the initial 900 million bucks going into EV charging infrastructure as part of the 5 billion that will be invested overall through the new Infrastructure bill. He hopped into a few cars including a vivid orange, mid-engine Corvette. Biden, we understand, still owns a ’67 Stingray. We finally got onto the show floor by mid-afternoon to a decidedly underwhelming scene.

Entering the south door, we first come upon a couple of drone-style aircraft that was a surprise.

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But immediately to the right was the bright and artful Lincoln display offering some more expected panache with two wild and beautiful concept vehicles: the Star Concept, previewing the next evolutionary steps in Lincoln design language; and a way-out look into the future of an autonomous, high-style conveyance, the L100, a “sanctuary” they describe it.

Across the way, Chevy had a lot of cars on display with an emphasis on EVs including the new, not-yet-on-the-market version of their most popular small crossover Equinox.

Matt Purdy

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If you allow me a moment of personal privilege I’ll reveal that my nephew, Matt Purdy, is chief engineer on that new Equinox EV, and he gave me a special walk-around. Initially, they’ll all be two-tone and even the low-end car will be trimmed and equipped nicely. Riding on an all new platform its options and features may make it best in the entry-level EV space. They intend to have it in customers’ garages by fall of next year with a base price of around 30-grand. A few paces away we found the Silverado and Blazer EVs evidencing the industry’s current trend of running on electrons.

Subaru had nothing new to show but grabbed our attention with puppies. The message was “Subaru Loves Pets.” They did show their nearly-ready-for-market EV called Solterra, but we saw that last year at the Chicago Auto Show.

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Chrysler revealed plans to make this the last year for the vaunted 300 full-size sedan. Parent company Stellantis insists the brand will not go away, but they’ll get out of the sedan segments, like most other manufacturers. They’re just beginning to reimagine the brand and, also like everyone else, move toward EVs only. They’ll be building a new customer base nearly from scratch as the only other Chrysler vehicle is the Pacifica family van. If I were a collector I’d get on the list right away for the limited edition (2,000 copies only) of the final 300C. Someone referred to it as the banker’s hot rod, with Hemi, 8-speed, lots of flash and zero-to-60 in under 5 seconds.

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Nearby at the Dodge stand we found a new trim level called GLH (Goes Like Hell) for their subcompact Hornet that has performance and cosmetic enhancements reminiscent of the Omni GLH of the 1980s. Lots of power in a little car is always a good idea, but this new little hot shot GLH is way more powerful and flashy than the original.

A major highlight at NAIAS evolving over the last dozen years or so is the Design Awards hosted by the EyesOn Design show, a highly-respected annual Father’s Day collector car show celebrating design above all other elements of automobile appreciation. A panel of 22 internationally renowned designers, determine the very best in both production and concept vehicles. Fortunately, eligibility includes new offerings shown anywhere, not just at the Detroit show where pickings were mighty sparse. Winners include:

Best Production Vehicle – 2023 Ferrari Daytona SP3
Best Concept Vehicle – Cadillac Celestiq Show Car
Best Designed Interior – Audi Grandsphere Concept
Innovative Use of Color, Graphics or Materials – Cadillac Celestiq Show Car

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The biggest splash by far at the Detroit show was Ford’s highly-staged introduction of the seventh generation iconic Mustang. Enthusiasts at America’s Automotive Trust organized a cross-country drive for Mustang owners and fans from their LeMay Museum in Tacoma to Ford HQ in Dearborn, from which they then caravaned to Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit (just a couple blocks from the Auto Show) where the new Mustang would be revealed as part of a huge party at the end of press preview day. A new Mustang in full camo made the whole trip, by the way. How cool is that?

Thousands of Mustang lovers showed up for the drive and the party where Bill Ford presided. I doubt any were disappointed. The new car’s styling is certainly a full generation more modern, sharp and aggressive while preserving the expected Mustang ambiance. Mr. Ford confirmed lots of Mustang varieties will be offered including racing versions. And, he announced that one of those racing varieties will take them back to LeMans.

The Detroit Auto Show is making a transition essentially back to its roots, that is, being a local dealers’ show where prospective customers could come see just about everything in the market all in one place at one time. A few of the biggest shows (LA, New York, Chicago and Detroit) evolved over the years into being venues for manufacturers to make news with new products, but that purpose has now become superfluous.

So, from here on out, we expect Rod Alberts and his counterparts around the country will find ways to make the transition to a more focused appeal to local audiences with hands-on, entertaining, buyer-relevant formats. This is just the beginning of that transition. Stay tuned.

We’ll watch to see if they drop the NAIAS moniker.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions
Founder and President: the Automotive Heritage Foundation
Senior Editor: The Auto Channel
Creator, Producer and Host: A Shunpiker’s Journal Radio Program
Associate Producer: Sirens of Chrome: The Motion Picture
Board Member, Society of Automotive Historians
Founding Member: The Individual Communicators Network
Charter Member: Detroit Automotive Press Association
Member: Midwest Auto Media Association
Former Trustee: National Automotive History Collection
Member: Detroit Sports Media