Why I’m A No Show At the International Auto Show

November 10, 2008

Every year I seem to get hundreds of people asking me if I’ll be attending the Seattle International Auto Show. When I tell them that I have no plans to attend, I tend to see some pretty perplexed faces.

I’ve been to the Seattle International Auto Show in the past and generally consider it a waste of time and fuel. At least it is for me.

We need to get something straight. I’ve been to more shows for more industries than I care to remember. For way too many years, I was the guy standing up in the booth with the uncomfortable headset microphone on giving the same product pitch every twenty minutes to a large audience, while answering the same monotonous questions day-in and day-out. In general, I place trade shows right up there with taking the SATs, getting my teeth cleaned, and listening to city council meetings for levels of sheer enjoyment.

The nature of auto shows has changed dramatically since the days of the great GM Motorama. In those days, show-goers were dazzled by concepts that few had seen. Cars were created behind locked doors with teams headed by guys like Bill Mitchell. There were no spy shots in magazines, no Internet-spread rumors. A car you might see at the Motorama might be green-lighted into production and arrive at showrooms within six months. Production cars changed every year, so everything you saw at the show was fresh. The whole atmosphere was like going to the opening ceremonies at the Olympics.

Now when you go to an auto show, it’s basically like going from dealership to dealership talking to sales people. If you like window shopping for cars, the auto show is the place for you. If you’re like me and find the typical car salesman to be far less knowledgeable about his products than the seventeen-year-old kid with a Road and Track subscription at the Taco Bell drive-through window, then you’ll find the show to be less than helpful.

Indeed, the occasional interlude with a true knowledgeable product manager will yield no new information to that printed in the pages of auto publications for months. As for the standard show workers, expect them to try to convince you that the sky is green, the trees are blue, water isn’t wet, and that their cars are far better than any road test claims they are. Why do they do this? Because that’s the only information sales managers and product teams give them before turning them loose on the public.

The big draws for auto shows are new models and concept cars. Unless you’re in Detroit, Chicago, LA, New York, there will be no unveilings of any kind of new model or concept. For Seattle, the cars have already been shown for nearly a year on stages in other cities, or at the very least, in the pages of all the magazines and online. As the years have gone on, though, product launches have become less impressive. With such strict standards for crash testing, quality control and emissions, chances are that the car has been photographed and videoed dozens of times before it’s actually launched (on an average of three full years after the green-lighting of the concept). As for concept cars, depleted cash reserves means far fewer styling and image exercises.

There is definite truth to the fact that one has to see some cars to appreciate the lines. The Bangle-designed BMW 7 Series was definitely like that, being much more aggressive in person than on paper. Considering that you can see many of these cars in the dealerships, it’s not worth the money to see them with many thousands of other people.

As for getting in and sitting in cars, only expect to do this with currently sold mid range models. If you think you’ll be able to slide behind the wheel of a Ferrari California or Rolls Royce Phantom, think again. I’m sure they’ll let you sit in a Corolla, though. And what’s the use of just sitting in a car in terms of helping people make a buying decision? While sitting in a car can immediately rule out the uncomfortable and too-small ones, driving is what separates the herd.

Classics and special interest cars are also at the Seattle show, but I’ve seen most of these cars already…oftentimes two or three times before.

Readers will often ask “but don’t you just cover it, because it’s news?”

If nothing new is announced, no interesting cars are unveiled and nobody on the floor has anything important (or sometimes even factually accurate) to say, then my friends, there is no news.