Mark Phelan: Here’s how to save the Detroit auto show

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 2, 2018

German luxury brands didn’t make the North American International Auto Show, and they can’t break it.

Keep that in mind as the Detroit Auto Dealers Association considers new dates and other changes for the show that’s become one of Detroit’s signature events and biggest moneymaking businesses.

The panic this year when Mercedes, BMW and Audi said they wouldn’t introduce new vehicles at the 2019 show is the outward evidence of a question all the world’s leading auto shows are asking themselves: Do we still matter?

The answer is that nobody knows, and we probably won’t be sure for a few years.

Till then, auto shows that have thrived for more than a century are holding their breath.

"This is an auto-show issue, not a Detroit issue," IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. "Automakers have more choices than ever before when they introduce a new vehicle. They can do it at a traditional auto show, at a private event, at new shows in China or on social media. There’s so much more competition for the existing shows. They’re still figuring out what works."

In the meantime, the Detroit show should focus on Asian automakers, the ones we know and love and the next generation of up-and-comers from China and India.

It was Toyota and Nissan that turned the Detroit show into a global news event and a regional economic powerhouse a generation ago. Not Mercedes, not BMW. Equally important, not GM, Ford or Chrysler.

A few of Detroit-area auto dealers persuaded the Japanese giants to stage the 1989 global launch of their Lexus and Infiniti luxury brands in Detroit, of all places.

It was a display of pure chutzpah to unveil those brands in the Big Three’s backyard, and it succeeded brilliantly. Lexus and Infiniti got unprecedented news coverage, the brands got off to a flying start and the global auto industry changed forever as the Japanese auto industry shed its reputation for cheap and cheerful cars.

GM, Ford and Chrysler were asterisks in the coverage from their hometown show. Back then, the Detroit brands didn’t hold news events at the Detroit show. They owned this town, so they took their A game to the Chicago auto show, where top executives unveiled new vehicles at fancy press conferences.

After 1989 — the year the Detroit auto show changed its name to the North American International Auto Show — Ford, Chevy, Cadillac, Chrysler and Dodge threw all their resources into winning at home. Japanese and Korean brands followed suit. They remain a major driver of the show today, unveiling many of their most important vehicles here.

The first big-deal car from a German automaker in Detroit didn’t happen until 1993, when Porsche unveiled the Boxster concept. A year later, Volkswagen followed with the Concept A, which heralded the return of the near-mythical Beetle.

German brands were late to the party. Now they’re the first to leave.

That doesn’t mean the party’s over. Next January’s Detroit auto show should still host new vehicles and news from Japanese, Korean and Chinese companies, plus the Detroit Three.

The Detroit Auto Dealers Association will announce its plans for the 2020 auto show in mid-July. I’d bet something I could afford to lose it will move to October, when automakers can show off new vehicles and technologies in Michigan’s beautiful fall weather.

DADA wants the show to remain a leading stage for automakers and tech companies to show off vehicles and innovations.

To do that, they should remember what worked last time they reinvented the show: look to Asia.

The rebooted Detroit auto show should go all-out to host the unveilings of established favorites such as the Toyota Camry, Lexus LS, Honda Odyssey, hot newcomers like the Kia Stinger and Genesis G90, and, of course, local heroes from Ford, Cadillac, Chevy, Jeep and Ram.

That’s not enough, though. DADA representatives, who travel the globe tirelessly drumming up vehicle intros and executives for the show, need to get back on the road and make Detroit THE stage for the next generation of global brands.

Make this launching pad for China’s competitors for the Accord and Google’s self-driving minivan, India’s answers to the Jeep Wrangler and Honda Civic.

History shows that if DADA makes Detroit the place strong newcomers announce themselves, established brands will come here, too.

Eventually, even the Germans.