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Story by Byron Hurd

That’s not a Dave Matthews Band lyric, by the way. If it’s still familiar to you, that’s likely because it’s the title of a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, first published in her Epoch collection in the mid-1960’s. What does it have to do with this column, or with the automotive world as a whole? Well… nothing, actually. But the title’s catchy, and I think it’s a good foundation for a discussion about a twenty-year staple of the American auto industry. According to the NAIAS fact sheet, Detroit has hosted some semblance of an auto show for the better part of a century. It wasn’t until the late eighties that Detroit started to lobby its way into the international spotlight. And while New York, Chicago and Los Angeles also play host to the international automotive media, Detroit hosts the North American International Auto Show. Or at least it did.

At publication time, the list of deserters is as follows: Ferrari, Rolls Royce, Nissan (Infiniti), Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Porsche and Land Rover have bailed entirely. Whether any of these companies will have display models on the floor isn’t entirely clear, but their reps will be absent. Honda has also announced that they will not be holding any press events, but it appears their vehicles (including the new Insight, which was supposed to be debuted) will be on the floor for viewing and photography. I suppose that fits though, since for many enthusiasts the excitement of a hybrid vehicle typically ends at its sheetmetal. Now when you compare the sales volume of these manufacturers to that of those who are still on the floorplan, it may not seem like a catastrophic shift in direction, but it is certainly not insignificant. Two of the Big Japanese 3 are out; two of the smaller Japanese volume sellers are out; and the exotic builders are dropping fast. Keep in mind, most of these announcements have come over the last two weeks. We’re still over a month out.

And while Detroit may not be the cultural capitol of the United States, it has certainly been the axis around which American car culture has revolved for well over 100 years. The Big 3, to paraphrase a rather clever comment I read the other day, isn’t a college football conference. Even Clarkson and his minions refer to “Detroit” more often than not when discussing the merits (or perceived lack thereof) of an American car. It’s a fundamental component of the first- and second-world unconscience: Detroit is to the international automotive press what Rome is to the Catholic Church — and with that analogy, you take the good with the bad – and lately, it seems most industry giants are following the King Henry VIII ‘cut and run’ model.

Now, before you interpret my concerns as a tantrum due to the deterioration of an event I’ve been looking forward to for some time, I want to make a couple of things clear. I’m not bemoaning the likely shortage of swanky, open-bar press events or worrying because my presidential suite may not get comped. None of that is even on my radar. I do this for fun. I don’t get a paycheck. I’m not being flown cross-country on Detroit’s dime (or anybody else’s, for that matter). I’m driving myself the bulk of the way (on my girlfriend’s birthday too, no less). This isn’t a bitch and moan session. This is a commentary. Hell, what I may in fact be writing is an obituary for the soon departed. If this recession spells the end of the Detroit Auto Show’s significance, what happens next?

I’ve had to make the point over the past week or two that the Detroit Auto Show isn’t simply a regional trade conference. “NAIAS” is more than hopeful propaganda. In 2008 (this past January), we saw North American debuts from two high-profile German manufacturers (BMW and Mercedes-Benz). They weren’t here to demo some newfangled sure-to-be-American-heartland-darlings either. They showed us the ’08 1 Series convertible, the ’09 335d and the ’09 SLK-Class. In ’04, Detroit was home to the world debut of the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti. Audi is expected to debut the RS5 at the upcoming show. Unless the Europeans have decided that their target market is the starting offensive line of the Detroit Lions, these aren’t exactly cars that would be a big sales hit in Detroit.

In January.

So enough with the talk about the Detroit pull-out simply being a reflection of market conditions in the midwest. That’s bull. It’s a reflection on the world automobile market as a whole. Let’s think about this from a logistical standpoint. Face it, it makes no sense for any manufacturer, domestic or otherwise, to attend four major auto American shows (and a half dozen smaller ones) every year. That’s a huge drain on the communications, marketing, advertising and fleet budgets. If we assume Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Detroit are all on otherwise equal footing, then which one ‘deserves’ to be the North American International Auto Show? Let’s face it — Californians think they should be the American everything, so they’ll get behind L.A.. Chicago, like Detroit, is centrally located, but the timing still sucks. Honestly – who wants to be in the upper Midwest in January? New York presents the same travel challenges as Los Angeles, only it doesn’t really have climate on its side, either. And it doesn’t end with the manufacturers. With budgets tightening and travel expenses becoming less reliable, the Press as a Whole have less incentive to attend all four shows. The consolidation of press events seems like it’s becoming more and more inevitable, and none of this gets us any closer to a viable solution.

And while it may be easy to arrive at the conclusion that the import manufacturers are trying to make a statement about the American automotive landscape by bowing out of our premiere show, it’s more likely that it’s simply a matter of timing and resources. It’s a small world these days, and the smaller it gets, the less sense it makes to travel it. Why fly a journalist out to Detroit for Mercedes-Benz’s BlueTec press conference when you could just as easily watch the webinar on your laptop in London and still scoop the print mags by a month? The incentive just isn’t there, and I think it’s likely the communications delegations from the various auto makers will be making far fewer trips accross the pond(s) to promote small stuff, open bar or not. And by the same token, if it’s not a flashy intro of a high-impact model, it’ll likely be covered by a telecommuter with a hot pot of coffee rather than a handsy freelancer getting trashed and hoping to score with the booth babes.

It’s my hope that this is simply the latest round of growing pains for the automotive industry — a few bleak years that will give way to a new way of doing things. Something will shake out eventually, and the Press as a Whole will be happy to fill you in on all the resulting doom and gloom. Here, in my little corner of the blogosphere, I’ll try to stay upbeat. Happy auto show season, everybody.

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Byron Hurd

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