The Value – Issue #13: The Last Frosty Detroit Auto Show

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Welcome to Canadian Black Book’s – The Value. Our goal is to provide our clients and partners with news, event updates, new initiatives and opinions from Canada’s trusted source for vehicle values and automotive insights. In this edition we cover:

Warmer days are ahead for 2020

By: Brian Murphy, VP Research & Editorial, Canadian Black Book

This year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), in many ways was very different and at the same time, a landmark event.  The famous auto show itself has been an annual event for 112 years, with the first show being held back in 1907.  Except for a hiatus during the Second World War, the show has been an annual fixture in Detroit.

Photo by ARAS Imaging (

Beginning in the late 1980’s the show had risen in stature internationally to be one of the most important global auto shows.  I started attending regularly around that same time and have only missed a handful in that 30-year period.

However, life has been a bit tougher for NAIAS in recent years.  Other North American shows, specifically L.A. and New York have risen in prominence and the further globalization of the industry has made having launch events at Asian or European shows more appropriate for many brands.

The 2019 event closes a chapter for the Detroit show, with the aim of opening a fresh new one in the show’s long life.  The NAIAS will be moving to the week of June 8 for the 2020 show, marking the end of the frosty yet successful run of January events.

To some this may not seem like big news, but it is.  Most car manufacturers plan their introductions, and as a result their product development schedule, around the show’s timing.  For many, the Detroit show is the “X” on the vehicle launch timeline as the day a new product and its details would be shared with the media and public.  Typically this is planned many years in advance.

So, why the big switch?  The show has been in decline in recent years, and like Detroit itself, it’s trying urgently to reinvent itself. Before the financial crisis and the 2009 show that immediately followed, it was practically unheard of for any car manufacturer to miss the Detroit show.   However, that year the gate opened as Nissan and Mitsubishi did not appear, thus shattering the illusion that every brand had to be at that show.  Since that time several brands have selectively missed the event.  For 2019 they stayed away in record numbers: Audi, BMW, MINI, Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Porsche and Jaguar-Land Rover did not attend.  This resulted in so much extra space that there was an indoor car show of tuner cars to distract attendees from the absentee brands.

Manufacturers will tell you that it makes little financial sense to attend unless you have a significant product to launch for the world.  The costs to attend, build and staff a booth are in the many millions of dollars. In years gone by the opposite problem existed, there was never enough space.  Brands would be forced to use some of the Cobo Hall basement or some small booth in the hall.

The switch to June is intended to allow outdoor events to be held in a more festival like atmosphere, and I believe, to make it a more inviting event for journalists from abroad and the public to attend.  After all, visiting Michigan in the depths of winter has never been a crowd pleaser.  If I think back over the years some of my drives to the Detroit show have been the worst I have ever experienced.  Stormy weather and icy roads made them perilous trips that I won’t miss.

Timing wise there will be some problems to solve for the vehicle manufacturers to switch to the summertime dates.  This year at the 2019 show the OEMs showed mostly 2020 model year products that will go on sale at some point later this year.  When the show switches to June, staring in 2020, this would mean manufacturers would likely have to show 2022 products which may not go on sale for nearly a year after.  The fix would be for manufacturers to change the start and end of model years, which would take some time and may not be feasible in many cases.  There certainly will be a period of adaption, if the show is to regain some of its lost mojo within the global industry.

I do applaud the change, and not just for better driving weather.  Without a specific effort to remake the show I expect it would have continued to decline.  Manufacturers and their PR mavens also struggle with the relevance of shows as compared to other media and experiential events.  The show is all about change and over the years it has been interesting to watch how the messages and how they are delivered have changed.  I am confident that the will to innovate and adapt is present both with the manufactures and the organizers of the show.  It will be exciting to visit the first summer show in 18 months’ time. Reinvention should give it a new lease on life, until it needs to be reinvented again in 112 years’ time.

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