Detroit Looks to Save its Foundering Auto Show by Moving to October—and It’s About Time

The Drive argued for precisely this move after January's dreary show, calling out Detroit's growing irrelevance and always-icy climate.

It’s official: The Detroit Auto Show is in full-blown crisis. BMW’s decision to ditch Motown’s 2019 show—in a city that’s already seen defections from Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Land Rover, Tesla and most ultra-luxury brands—makes it clear that Detroit’s decades-long reign as the nation’s preeminent auto show is at an end.

The Drive had it right just a few months ago, when I called out January’s North American International Auto Show—the most boring and irrelevant auto show in my long career of covering Detroit—as largely a fraud. We got it even more right when I argued that, to survive, Detroit must swallow its pride and move its show to fall—specifically, to October. That move would put Detroit front-and-center as the first major American show of each new model year. As things stand, Detroit is being blitzed by the competition; and not only traditional show cities, but also the tech-media-heavy Consumer Electronics Show (or CES) in Las Vegas. Here’s what we said then:

It’s become obvious that Detroit must move from its January time slot to stay relevant and revive its once-prime position. October would be the ideal month because it’s the traditional beginning of a new model year. It would come on the heels of Frankfurt in September, but well before the LA show and CES, encouraging automakers to introduce the most important North American cars in Detroit. And journalists and attendees from around the world would see Michigan weather at its crisp, fall-color best, rather than a depressing Arctic tundra with perilous roads and the constant threat of flight delays and cancellations.

Apparently, Detroit show organizers have seen the autumn light. (Hey, maybe they do read The Drive). As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association will vote in coming weeks on a plan to move the show to October, beginning in 2020. People familiar with the plans specifically cited the desire to move Detroit out of CES’s increasingly long shadow, and—wonder of wonders—the possibility of staging outdoor exhibits or events. That switch would require a contract renegotiation with the city’s Cobo Center, which has an $11.8 million contract to stage the show through 2025.

I’d emphasize that the problem isn’t about public attendance, especially in my hometown of car-crazy Detroit. More than 800,000 people bought tickets for the 2018 show, up nearly 10 percent over 2017. Whether it’s Detroit or Beijing, auto shows are still ideal one-stop shops for consumers who want to kick the tires of multiple brands’ vehicles, or car fans who just want to dream. But just as Amazon is driving brick-and-mortar businesses into irrelevancy or bankruptcy, the Internet has sucked some of the fun, surprise, and newsworthiness from the media’s auto show coverage. By the time the car company CEO whisks the sheet off a new model, the “news” is already old news, with cars often long-since exposed by enterprising journos. It doesn’t help that automakers increasingly tease or leak their own material, or stage “off-site” reveals away from convention centers, hoping to garner more coverage with splashy debuts—and free-flowing booze—in rented studio space, warehouses, or other, hipper venues. Automakers themselves have only so many marketing dollars to throw around, and they’re increasingly deciding to spend them in places other than traditional car shows.

Just listen to the companies themselves. “BMW Group has decided to withdraw from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit,” BMW said in a statement last week. “This decision was made as BMW Group is constantly examining our presence at trade-shows and other engagements, while, at the same time, also exploring alternative platforms and formats.”

Those “alternative platforms” range from virtual reveals to the CES extravaganza. Strategically held just one week before Motown, CES has increasingly cuckolded Detroit, forcing it to watch the sexy new cars being unveiled in Vegas instead. I might say “Get a room,” but that raises another issue: Automakers and showgoers alike may prefer flashier, more tourist-friendly Las Vegas to a winter convention in Detroit, thanks to factors like that city’s dire shortage of high-end hotels downtown. Most distressingly perhaps, even the Big Three automakers have been shunning their hometown (and mine) to unveil their coolest technology at CES—including autonomous gadgetry that generates the tech-media coverage they crave.

Mercedes-Benz, America’s best-selling luxury brand, has already announced it’s spurned Detroit for 2019, adding to a list of recent defections that now includes BMW and Mini, Mazda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, Mitsubishi, Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, and Ferrari. And while public attendance remains strong for now, the AWOL status of such storied brands —okay, Mitsubishi is no real loss—really saddens me. Young people especially, who represent the future of car buyers, aren’t going to care about shows that offer little besides boring SUVs and are bereft of the dream machines that made them love cars in the first place.

And not to single out BMW, but if I’m a Detroit-area dealer, I’m looking to read the riot act to BMW corporate: You’re not supporting our local stores and customers by shining a once-a-year spotlight on our Ultimate Driving Machines? Then screw you. We figured we were in this together. And we’ll remember this the next time you ask us plow our own money into showroom upgrades, or incentives to keep those X3s and 3 Series rolling out the doors.

Brand politics aside, Automotive News reports that Detroit’s dealer association envisions a pared-down October show more in the vein of Geneva—a bit less glitz, perhaps fewer multi-level displays, but more focus on product and technology. I’m not sure that’s what Detroit really needs—a little Barnum-style razzle-dazzle never hurt anyone—but I do know what it doesn’t need: The threat of frostbite every time you walk to Cobo Center. Some picturesque falling leaves and a glass of cider sounds infinitely better. Dealers, if you’re reading this, you already know where The Drive stands: To save Detroit’s auto show, it’s time for an October surprise.