From production cars debuting to the public for the first time, to wild concept cars that inspire future designs; the Detroit Auto Show has always been America's showcase for automotive technology and passion.
Built from humble beginnings, the Detroit Auto Show started in 1899 with only a few electric cars and a steam-powered car on the show floor. Back in the early days of the show, cars were a secondary element more traditional Michigan hobbies such as hunting fishing, and other outdoor activities.
Today the Detroit Auto show, now called the North American International Auto Show, runs for over 2 weeks every June and attracts nearly a million people every year.
So, how did the Detroit Auto Show come to be America's preeminent Auto Show? Read on to learn more.
The true trailblazer in auto show concepts came from across the pond in Paris, France. In fact, one of the very first auto shows and mixed trade shows was the 1898 Paris Auto Show. In 1899, a pioneering Automotive engineer and salesman from Detroit named William Ernest Metzger organized the very first Detroit Auto Show. This show was not only the first Detroit Auto Show but the first auto show of any kind in the United States.
Metzger was a fascinating character who started off his career in bicycles and ended up becoming one of the pillars of the Detroit Automotive community. In 1895, Metzger traveled to London and participated in the world's first true automobile-only show. While in Europe, Metzger went on to tour the factories of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Yes, that Benz, the one that would go on to eventually form Mercedes-Benz. He was hooked on everything automotive.
Once Metzger arrived back in the United States he immediately sold his share in a bicycle company that he was running and turned his attention to automobiles. In 1897, he opened the first automobile showroom in Detroit, selling vehicles from a little-known electric car maker named Waverly. He eventually went on to sell Oldsmobiles and in fact, sold the very first Oldsmobile ever built in the United States.
Inspired by the Paris Auto Show the year before, In 1899, the entrepreneurial Metzger helped organize the very first Detroit Auto Show. Although there were only two electric cars and one steam car at this very first show, it's still formed the foundation for nearly 125 years of History to follow.
Metzger would continue to be involved in the Detroit automotive scene and would go on to form a little-known company called Cadillac as a founding member.
Evolution & Today
Although originally championed by Metzger, it would be the newly formed Detroit Automobile Dealers Association that would pick up where the original Auto Show left off in 1907. From 1907 to today, with the exception of 1941 to 1953, the Detroit Auto Show has become an annual event that draws in journalists and visitors from the world over.
Up until the mid-1950s, the American car market was primarily dominated by domestic manufacturers such as General Motors and Ford. Once globalization took hold, and exports from countries like Japan became a reality, the Detroit Auto Show saw the need to start attracting international manufacturers. In 1957, the first set of international automobile manufacturers was displayed at the Detroit Auto Show. This original group would include brands like Volvo, Isetta, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and Porsche.
After moving locations the first time to accommodate the increased attendance, the Detroit Auto Show found its permanent home at Cobo Hall (now the TCF center) in downtown Detroit in 1965. In the ’80s, the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association saw the need for further international expansion as Americans became increasingly interested in imported cars. Representatives from DADA personally travel to Japan and Europe to convince International car makers like Toyota, Honda, and BMW to showcase and debut their cars at the Detroit Auto Show.
The play was extremely successful and by 1989 the Detroit Auto Show was renamed North American International Auto Show. Today, the North American International Auto Show still retains the honor of America's greatest auto show and showcases vehicles of all kinds from all over the world.
There has been a staggering amount of incredible concept vehicles and production vehicles that have crossed the show floor at the Detroit Auto Show over the years.
Here are just a few of our favorites:
2003 Dodge Tomahawk Motorcycle
Back when Chrysler was owned by Daimler Benz, some truly weird cars came out of the design studios. The most notable of the era was not a car but a motorcycle called the Dodge Tomahawk. This insane creation looked like it was born from a comic book, and included a staggeringly huge Dodge Viper V10 built right into the chassis. Although completely impractical on every level, the Dodge Tomahawk absolutely stole that year’s show.
1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee
If you study the history of Chrysler and General Motors over the last 40 years, the name Bob Lutz will come up quite a bit. Simply put, Lutz was a visionary and an absolute showman and there is no better example of Bob Lutz's borderline insane showmanship than when the Jeep Grand Cherokee debuted back in 1992.
Bob Lutz and Detroit mayor Coleman Young hopped in the very first Jeep Grand Cherokee to roll off the production line and drove the vehicle to Cobo Hall. Upon arriving, Lutz drove the Jeep Grand Cherokee through a plate glass window and up a man-made mountain without warning any of the journalists what was about to happen.
This stunt is still talked about to this day and it was an incredibly effective marketing ploy for the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
2009 Dodge Ram
The current generation of Ram products is all based on the 2009 design that was a complete departure for the brand. This incredibly important truck was to debut at the Detroit Auto Show in 2009 and Chrysler needed to make the debut a memorable one.
To bolster the truck's image as a tough guy truck that could do anything, Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press came up with the idea to have the new Dodge pickup truck lead a cattle drive outside the auto show. This stunt effectively shut down the street and most of downtown Detroit, and led to some very awkward moments when nature, let's just say, stole the show more than the truck itself.
2005 and 2015 Ford GT40 Concept
When the Ford GT debuted in 2005, it took Automotive journalists and enthusiasts by complete surprise with its nostalgic supercar looks and stunning performance. To keep a secret in the world of automotive debuts is an incredibly difficult thing to do and that's exactly what Ford did with a carefully planned press event.
Most journalists thought they were there to see the next Ford sedan or compact car, but instead, the cover was pulled off to reveal a stunning yellow Ford GT with a black racing stripe that looked like it was ready to leap right off the stage.
Ford did the same trick again in 2015 when they revealed their revived Ford GT supercar. A car that would not only go on to win but dominate Le Mans.
The future is extremely bright for the North American International Auto Show, with ever-growing attendance and ever-growing throngs of fans flocking to the show on a yearly basis. Today the event is over 1 million square feet and typically sees attendance between 800,000 and 1 million visitors every single year. In addition, the Detroit Auto Show typically sees at least two to three major debuts every single year from domestic and international manufacturers.
If you want to see, feel, and smell the history of Detroit there is absolutely no place better to do it than at the Detroit Auto Show.