At Detroit’s auto show, partying too much to worry about the future
“How did you like the auto show?” I asked the young German who was lounging by the hotel fire. We were waiting for our shuttle. I figured football was going to be outside his small-talk scope of interest.
“It was very nice,” he said. “Everything was much brighter than last year.”
I don’t think he meant the convention lighting in Detroit's Cobo Hall, which seemed pretty much the same as usual. There definitely was an brighter feel to the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But it wasn’t an end-zone dance, exactly. The whole show seemed to be breathing relief, as though it were having a well-deserved couple of drinks at the end of a hard workday. The dark specter of corporate death and bankruptcy that had loomed over the American auto industry from 2008 to 2010 had lifted, and there were shiny baubles all over the floor.
But wandering the show, I found myself a little dismayed at the direction the American car industry has taken since the bailout. That moment, dark and horrible as it was, also represented a perfect opportunity for the business to reinvent itself, to truly modernize, to embrace values of fuel economy and sensible design that had long been anathema when it came to American cars. At NAIAS this year, it was very clear that the American industry, for whatever reason, hasn’t really pivoted in that direction.
There was a strange nostalgia to the American offerings. The era of SUV worship has long passed, though there were still plenty on the show floor. Instead, the Big Three were busy featuring sexed-up versions of old classics: The new Ford Mustang, the Corvette Stingray, the Dodge Challenger, venerable symbols of automotive might and phallic power. (Ford even brought the original Ford Mustang 1 sports car concept from 1962). The cars all looked cool, ready to drive through a ring of fire. But they also looked like overgrown Hot Wheels. The car business needs a Corvette, my colleagues argue. It needs a Mustang. But it doesn’t, really. As fun as they might be to drive around a racetrack, those are cars from a semi-glorious automotive past that cannot be regained.