It doesn’t take long to detect someone’s automobile IQ. Can they stand in front of an exposed engine and carry on a conversation about what they see for as long as three minutes? Do they become insufferable braggarts when they successfully replace a windshield wiper or measure tire pressure without the assistance of the corner mechanic? Suffering with such neophyte status does not preclude one from enjoying the products that the automotive industry provides. Especially when those things come covered in chocolate or are dispensed into pint glasses and espresso cups.
For six days, the press was allowed to preview the 2004 North American International Auto Show, held at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. Reporters were invited to attend approximately 35 press conferences, invited to collect as many press kits as possible, encouraged to talk with a slew of vice-presidents-in-charge-of-something-or-other, and provided with a dizzying array of amenities not afforded the great unwashed who will swarm these halls through Jan. 19. This is one uninitiate’s sojourn through the soft-carpeted halls and the gleaming, beaming floors of seduction, massage and swag. The story begins with a red and black badge and a shoe-shine man.
Sunday Jan. 4, 6:45 a.m. — The sun isn’t out, yet it’s bright as day in the lobby of Cobo Center. We’ve heard that if a reporter doesn’t get here this early, he misses out on all kinds of stuff. What kind of stuff, we don’t know. But we’re here to document the storied process, the feeding frenzy. It’s not very crowded right now.
We stand next to a shoe-shine stand.
“How ’bout a shine, my man?” the proprietor asks.
“Naw. That’s too much of a luxury. Really can’t afford it.”
“You can always afford yourself a little luxury, my man,” he says, smiling with the last eight teeth in his head.
Small groups of Japanese men sleepily mill about the “Credential Validation” stations located throughout the building. You have to show some identification and get your badge validated, otherwise you won’t be allowed in when the show floor opens to the press at 10:30 a.m. We get validated. We get a wristband. We get in line at the press kit booth. There is only one man in front of us. We are incredibly satisfied with ourselves for getting here this early. We begin to imagine what treasures lie behind the black curtain that stretches before us. How will we carry it all?
7 a.m. — The press kit office opens. We’re handed a canvas sack by a smiling young girl in a red T-shirt and instructed to help ourselves. A 40-foot-long row of wire mesh baskets sits atop some foldout tables. Within the baskets are stacks of folders, binders, CD cases. We start to deposit these shiny, handsomely constructed boxes into our bags.
“Where’s all the stuff that the fourth-estaters are supposed to fight each other for? The toys and gizmos that show up on E-bay within hours?” we ask ourselves. We don’t necessarily want the goods, we just want to see the jostling. There isn’t a radio-controlled car or DVD player or even a key chain in these baskets. There isn’t anything in the press kit room other than press kits! Now we’ve got 30 pounds of paper and plastic to lug around. There is none of the fabled jostling for trinkets and baubles in the press kit room. We have three hours before the show floor opens. We are incredibly dissatisfied with ourselves for arriving this early.
7:30 a.m. —We must find coffee. Nothing seems to be open. We walk up and down carpeting that says “COBO” every three feet. It’s transfixing. Once you know it says “COBO” down there, you keep seeing it. “COBO” three feet “COBO” three feet “COBO” three feet. We are elated to find a white booth called “Sundries.” The cashier sells us a couple of empty cups. “Coffee pot’s over there,” she says, pointing. We walk back into the hypnotic thrum of the “COBO” carpeting and we get to thinking “Don’t you think they would at least have some coffee and doughnuts or something around here for us? That would be the first thing I would think of if I wanted to impress a bunch of journalists.”
Between reading the carpet and grumbling about the three hours we have stretching before us, we happen upon a blue and white sign directing us upstairs to the “Michelin Media Center.” Media Center. For media people. That’s us, right? We’ve got red and black badges. We’re validated! Anticipation as the escalator drags us toward the third floor.
7:45 a.m. — There is not only coffee and doughnuts; there are mini-bagels and little jars of jelly and cream cheese and apples and bananas and oranges and tea and bottled water and cans of Coke and juice. Not a cash register in sight! Thirty or so tables are spread out, white tablecloths draping to the floor. The other side of the room has couches and an espresso bar. Our disappointment at the press-kit room is replaced by the soft calm that a free breakfast provides. If you could smoke in here it would be perfect. We don’t see any ashtrays. Who cares? Small price to pay.
We walk up to a desk that says “Press Information” and ask the smiling folk behind it if they know where any of the after-show parties may be. We hear there’s plenty of after-show parties. “Ummmm … Let’s see,” a helpful young gal chirps as she fumbles with a laminated blue sheet in front of her. “Tonight, you’ve got The Firehouse right across the street, and GM is unveiling the Corvette at the Detroit Opera House, and … uh … uh …” fumbling with another laminated sheet, “I think there’s something going on at Comerica Park. … Can you check back with me?”
On our way back to the table, we notice how bored everyone seems to be with all the food and comfort and painfully enthusiastic assistance provided by the good folks at Michelin. We’re practically skipping toward the seat with the prospect of not having to shell out any money for this stuff, and they’re eating and drinking and yawning like this happens every day. Undoubtedly it does.
8:30-10:25 a.m. — The media room is filling up. We hear German being muttered at a table to our right, wafts of French coming from the other direction. There are 6-foot-tall flags from at least 12 countries tacked all in a row on the back wall, and they all seem to be represented here this morning. If you listen closely you can hear Swedish and Italian and Japanese and Korean. “We Are the World” enjoying bagels and coffee. A poignant, deeply profound moment that makes me want a cigarette.
We leave the media center and make our way down to the freezing cold concrete and glass in front of the hall. We hear Swedish and Italian and Japanese as we smoke and stomp our feet from the chill that blows in off the Detroit River.
10:26 a.m. — We go over our schedule sheet as we wait near the Macomb Hall entrance for our first glimpse of the show floor. The first scheduled press event is the “North American Car and Truck Awards” held downstairs in Michigan Hall. We wonder if it will follow the framework of award shows we are more familiar with. Big opening musical numbers? Maudlin jubilation and phony sportsmanship? Videotaped tributes to all those who were taken by the Good Lord this year?
There are big men with nervous dogs on leashes all over the place. There are security people at every door, yellow jackets and metal detector wands displayed prominently. We wonder what kind of reception we will be afforded after we walk through security and we’re finally inside. Will there be confetti? A brass band? Will they set off fireworks and shake all of our hands?
10:30 a.m. — No. They do not throw confetti at us or blast us with trombones and Roman candles. But the place is lit up — hundreds of spotlights and stage-lights and lights on the ground and lights on the ceiling and lights in all those colors you see on television commercials. Soft blues, muted oranges and reds, silver … silver … everything tinged with silver.
The assembled journos fan out in all directions, lugging their leather camera bags and monopods and beige canvas totes that are not filled with radio-controlled cars and bottles of champagne. Our nostrils are assaulted by fresh carpet vapors and, yes, that “new car smell.” It smells like the plastic emissions that surge forth from anything that has been freshly emancipated from its shrink-wrap. The carpet is so new it tugs at our shoes if we let our feet drag even the slightest bit. We jerk forward clumsily about every 15th step.
The cars we can see as we head downstairs for the awards ceremony look like shimmering bubbles. They’re rounded and edgeless and every one reflects the light show scientifically.
10:46-10:51 a.m. — “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Bob Blagdorf, senior vice president of wire rims, and Blahdie BlahBlah, executive vice president of parts and operations central command, for participating in the selection of blah dee lala and Ferger Lint Brush for contributing in the most successful unit per trade ratio …”
It’s unbearable. We came for cars, and we’re craning our necks for this? It’s way too early to be sitting through an awards ceremony. We don’t know whom to root for anyway. These things are only watchable if you have a favorite. There are a lot of people, though, who are clapping and exchanging knowledgeable commentary. Overheard between two suits before we escape upstairs: “You guys did it again. I got to hand it to ya. You did it again!” As we head upstairs I hear the drone of the emcee announce that the F-150 won its category. Nice job, F-150!
10:52-11:45 a.m. —We have a little time before the Chrysler press conference and concept car unveiling and lunch, so we roam. There are people talking into headsets and chattering on cell phones everywhere you look. People with a purpose. They are heading quickly to someplace where they are needed desperately. You can’t mosey along daydreaming around here. You’ll get knocked down if you do. You’ll be interrupting a flow that is churning up and down and between the different exhibits. People with gold and black badges and people with green and gold badges and orange badges and yellow badges, and everyone’s got something hanging over their neck or clipped onto their polo shirt or suit coat lapel.
Our first stop is at the BMW exhibit. This showcase is pretty indicative of the rest of the exhibits we will see throughout the preview. Each one slopes upward from the main aisleway, again tripping those who don’t pick up their feet. The floors around each vehicle shine with a hundred coats of wax.
A mezzanine above juts out a bit onto the display area. This mezzanine is for the car people, the industry people, and those people who have been invited to see the show by the car people and the industry people. They sup on buffets and hold flutes of liquid as they walk above the throng below. They are expensively attired and seem to be rather fit and trim. Almost every one of the exhibits has this fascinating accessory to the accompanying floor space and wandering spokespeople below. We can’t take our eyes off these lofty lairs while traversing the floor. We suspect these are the people who attend the invitation-only after-parties that unfold each night at various locales downtown.
Every exhibit features huge light-emitting diode (LED) screens. Some have one or two of these monstrosities. Some have screens that stretch the entire length of their allotted display area. A technician for the company that provides these screens to the car companies for the show tells us that they lease for about $125,000 a week. It’ll cost you $2 million if you want to purchase one outright.
The floor at Cobo Center is jammed full of them, each one blasting out images of their wares racing through countryside and city, through rain and fog and smoke. Trucks barreling through gullies and braving Armageddon. Cars competing with nobody as they roar through metropolis and winding mountain pass. All accompanied by either a pounding heartbeat techno-lite sound track or the exaggerated whoosh of a multi-woofered exhaust system. As you walk through each exhibit, they grab your eye and ear and encase you in millions of dollars of market research and lifestyle-promoting imagery. Each exhibit tries to convince you that you are “the rugged individual who can still appreciate the finer things in life” as the Jeep exhibit boldly asserts as you traipse along its fake grass, fake mountain and the computer-controlled fountain that can make pictures of stars and flags out of droplets of water.
A live jazz band set up near the Lincoln Town Car display sets a mellow and sophisticated mood. The display itself holds a Lincoln door that’s been shot full of holes. Etched into the display case’s glass: “The Town Car BPS has been tested extensively and offers protection against both handgun and high-powered rifle rounds. None of the rounds have penetrated the ballistic ceramic panel fitted to the interior of the door on the opposite side.”
Are you the “Cool Dad,” as Honda likes to describe its potential customers? Are you “responsible, practical, comfortable” but still maintain a fun and active lifestyle? Then you are a “Cool Dad,” and you are ready for the Honda experience. You’ll hear a lot of that on the floor. A Lexus experience. A Mercedes experience. Nobody here drives a car. They experience them. Or, apparently, get shot at in them.
11:46 a.m. — Chrysler’s press conference is under way. The reporters sit and stand in a wide semicircle around a stage that emits little puffs of steam. A live band is positioned atop the backdrop of the stage, separated from us by a mesh of blue fabric. They’re playing the theme from the “Mission Impossible” television show. That segues into “Mrs. Robinson,” which segues into “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” which ultimately segues into “Live and Let Die.”
As the mood-setting throbs of non-offensive rock wash over the assembled, we ask the reporter next to us what it’s like to be on the automotive beat. His name is Tom Kelly and he’s the editor/photographer/owner of a Charlotte, N.C., company called The Deadline Factory. He writes freelance articles and sells them to trade publications. His area of expertise is the heavy truck market. He’s a second-generation automotive writer, his dad having worked for The Automotive News. Our conversation concerns itself with what the car companies would do swag-wise for guys like him and his father.
“My father had a term for it: the Bygone Era of Byzantine Opulence,” Kelly says. “Back then, you could go to one of these things and practically walk out with a full set of luggage. Go to this exhibit and you’d get a leather briefcase. Go to this exhibit and you’d get a sports bag. It all depends on how the economy’s doing. They’ve taken a pretty big hit last few years. Don’t expect to see much of that stuff for a while.”
What about cars? Can automotive writers snag a car?
“In the old days, what they did was to let you drive a car for six months or a year, and then they’d sell it to you as a used vehicle.”
Our conversation gets cut short as Trevor Creed, senior vice president of design for the Chrysler Group, starts introducing the concept vehicles to us. They are as sleek and sci-fi as you’d expect them to be. Creed is kind of sleek and sci-fi too, with a long leather coat and an English accent. He introduces an anime short featuring one of his team’s creations, the Treo. Anime. How specific a niche market is anime supposed to garner? The Treo is for all those dudes who hang out at video stores and collect things. This is their car. As the video ends, the car comes barreling onstage with a real-life version of the character that drove it in the film.
“Ladies and gentleman, our superhero is real! Thank you, Jackie!” Trevor excitedly pronounces as “Jackie” waves and runs off stage. It looks like a dune buggy and has two bicycles attached to it.
He introduces the Jeep Rescue, another concept vehicle. It’s a Jeep that looks like it got Hummer-fied and comes with an optional “search and rescue” package. The tire pressure can be adjusted from inside the cab, and the vehicle comes with a 3-D topographical mapping system. It’s guaranteed to “find the way, saving the day.”
Our legs are wobbly from standing still for so long.
Dieter Zetsche, president and chief executive of the Chrysler Group, is introduced after all the concept cars take their bow. He congratulates the various design teams in a thick German accent.
“Today, vee showed you our idears. Tomorrow vee show you our realities. I want to invite everyone over to the Firehouse and I’ll pour you a cold one tonight.”
The Firehouse? He’ll pour us a cold one? Sounds downright Byzantine.
1-5 p.m. — After Chrysler Group’s lunch (which happens to include fancy round tins of imported chocolates), it’s off to the rest of the press conferences. Ford’s is held in Cobo Arena. We’re led into the former rock palace and treated to the “pure American muscle” of the new Mustang, driven by Bill Ford himself. He seems nervous. A bit fidgety. He decides to let the “sheet metal do the talking,” and we are treated to one of the loudest commercials we will ever hear. Using the soundtrack to the film Bullitt, the engineers at Ford tuned the new Mustang’s exhaust to sound just like the Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in the movie. It’s demonstrated for us. It’s so loud it makes you wince. Can’t wait to hear it on my block someday, competing with the $5,000 sound system that 19-year-old kid (target market?) will surely install at some point.
After the Honda press conference, which introduces the SUT (sport utility truck) concept to “Cool Dads” around the globe, we decide that following this herd around to every press conference is turning into one nasty little buzz-kill and is weighing down our already-overfilling totes with just more pretty press releases and CDs of photos. I decide to walk around and sample the giveaways at the remainder of the exhibits.
At the Jeep exhibit, I am pushed and elbowed while waiting in line for my Jeep Rescue matchbox car. This grown man actually took cuts in front of me. A grown man! We call the offending wretch a “fucking toy hog,” but I think he’s from Norway and doesn’t understand the expression.
Infiniti and Nissan share a café that features Heineken beer, espresso machines, wine, chocolate-covered strawberries and baked goods.
Lexus offers massages and shoe shines and also features a well-stocked café.
Acura’s passing out bags of chocolate-covered espresso beans.
GM’s got coney dogs and Dove Bars and other frozen treats.
Land Rover has a bar located behind the soothing, negatively charged spectacle of a waterfall. It has bowls of macadamia nuts on the tables as well as on the bar itself.
“You know what? I know they’re expensive and everything, but I just don’t like ’em!” the bartender explains with a perky certitude. “They’re too buttery. I do like them in white fudge, though.”
Jaguar has a café.
Lincoln is dishing out hot fudge cream puffs featuring “real Sanders Hot Fudge.”
Aston Martin doesn’t seem to have anything, but they do feature official Aston Martin pill cases and a set of martini glasses in their display case.
Mini Cooper has smoothies and pinball and video games.
VW has computers and phones that reporters are free to use, Hot Sam pretzels and a dinner of salmon and what looked like beef tenderloin.
That is all available for someone just strolling around today with a red and black badge. Who knows what the real muckety-mucks get to sample, walking around their mezzanines all day? The mezzanine people, looking down on the black guys feather dusting one engineering marvel after another. The Mezzaniners, dripping wasabi onto sweating waifs scrubbing scuff marks off creamy white floors.
5:05 p.m. — The Firehouse is exactly that. The largest firehouse in the city, located just across the street from the auto show. The Chrysler Group leases the ground floor from the city, normally used as a parking garage for the Fire Department personnel who work upstairs. They hire a company to install a pub/restaurant in this location and open it up to anyone with media credentials. The place is gorgeous. Deep red wood furniture and cozy couches and chairs surround a central bar where Guinness and Pilsner Urquell and other brews flow throughout the night. There you’ll find liquor and cigars and a bow-tied wait staff and a pretty decent selection of food, all compliments of the Chrysler Group. Fire Station Stew featuring a special “hunters sauce.” Third Degree Wings. A Big Chief Burger with Onion Rings. The Captain’s Catch and the Stop Drop and Roll sandwich. Johnnie Bassett and Thornetta Davis and Jazzhead are some of the acts booked for the week. Celebrity bartenders are featured, and raise money for firefighters’ charities by passing a fireman’s boot around while they serve. I watch Miss Michigan and Kwame Kilpatrick bartend as I slurp the cold one that Dieter promised. Club Envy next door is employed as a cigar/martini bar. The place could be an incredibly popular nightclub if it were available to the public all year round, but it is dismantled after the auto show ends.
I chat up an advertising guy for a major automobile magazine who tells me that none of this stuff — free food, free liquor, comped “test cars” — really affects how the automotive press treats the car companies.
“I get into this argument with people all the time,” he boozily explains while blowing cigar smoke on my food. “All the big papers, Wall Street Journal and New York Times are always insinuating there’s a quid pro quo. But I’ve never seen it. It’s a real church-and-state issue as far as I’m concerned. Do you think some editor’s gonna let some 22-year-old go to Japan and let a steak dinner and a blow job affect what he’s there to report? It doesn’t happen. All that schmoozing is five guys with suits on sitting around a hotel room drinking scotch. It’s fucking boring, man. I’m not saying we don’t hear shit from the companies once in a while. A guy’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t like what you said about such and such.’ I tell him, ‘Hey, you said your car did such and such and it doesn’t do such and such.’ It can be a real touchy issue sometimes.”
He rejoins his posse of cigar-chomping compadres at the adjoining table.
This reminds me of something Tom Kelly told me earlier that day. He said there is a saying among automotive reporters.
No food. No booze. No ink for yooze.
But Kelly also thinks there is a lot less conflict of interest in this arena than in other parts of the press corps.
“Let me tell you what I think is a real conflict of interest,” he says. “That’s when a big financial reporter from a major publication in New York City gets flown down to Bermuda by some company just to deliver him their year-end financial report. Know what I’m saying? We don’t have test tracks in our back yard. We need to get around to these places.”
I meet another writer who sheds a bit more light on this murky issue. His name is Dan Ross and he’s the creator of a “lifestyle” magazine in England called Intersection. It deals less with the nuts and bolts of bore strokes and compression ratios and more with how automobiles affect our lives, how they fit into a grander scheme socially and politically. He offers this perspective on the whole subject of the symbiotic relationship between automotive writers and the companies on which they report.
“Sure. Some companies want to send you to Morocco to test-drive a vehicle. But we’re not critiquing something as subjective as, say, the fashion industry. I can see where someone could easily say that this piece of cloth is much more attractive than that piece of cloth based on how they might have been treated by a particular company. But we’re reporting on something that either goes a certain speed or doesn’t go a certain speed. That’s what you report on. We actually help the design process by pointing certain things out to these companies. I mean, if something falls off a vehicle, it falls off the vehicle. We report that. A lot of times it’s just laziness. A local reporter doesn’t make much money, he’s gonna go to Morocco and say whatever they want him to say. To him, it’s a vacation. He doesn’t give a bloody shit one way or another.”
Kelly tells me that probably 90 percent of automotive reporters don’t even own a vehicle. They are provided vehicles from the auto companies to test and report upon and rarely do they find themselves without one. Many automotive reporters drive a different car every week. Dan Ross compares it to travel reporting.
“Do you think a travel reporter is going to pay for their flights and their hotels at these resorts they stay in? Do you think they could afford it?” he asks.
A marriage. The reporter and his industry.
“The only other industry where you have this type of relationship is the entertainment industry,” Ross says. “Automotive, travel, entertainment. They’re good gigs. Everyone wants in.
“By the way, I want it to be known that I came on my own dime to Detroit. I’m staying at a shitty Ramada Inn and taking cabs.”
He laughs, then explains that he’s late for an appointment, leaving me to finish my pint.
Thanks for the cold one, Dieter. By the way, that Jeep Rescue is an utter rip-off of the Hummer, my man. That being said, I am available for any long-term road testing you may be planning for this particular vehicle. Never been to Morocco. We’ll talk.