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Detroit Auto Show: Behind the Scenes with Tracy Samilton

Michigan Radio Auto Reporter Tracy Samilton shows off her coveted credentials.
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio Auto Reporter Tracy Samilton shows off her coveted credentials.

 It’s a good show this year….unless you like “far-out” concept cars

The mood at the North American International Auto Show is upbeat. Sure, Europe’s debt crisis and the battered Euro have auto executives concerned, but so far that crisis isn’t stopping the U.S. economy’s improvement, albeit at a very measured (slow) pace. 

The car companies unveiling bread-and-butter cars this year are our own Detroit Three.  Ford unveiled a new, sleek, almost luxury-style Fusion; Chrysler unveiled a nice-looking small car, the Dodge Dart, that’s priced to compete at about $16,000.  And GM’s Buick unveiled a new small compact, the Encore, as the brand continues its push to capture younger customers.

Many of the concept vehicles being shown are serious ones, as in “we’re seriously considering this design for our next production car.”  The Lincoln MKZ concept shown Tuesday morning is “very close,” to what will go into production, according to Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who says current customers and dealers were consulted about what they wanted from the next MKZ.

The same is true for the Nissan Pathfinder concept, which offers a much more rounded look for the big SUV, and is likely to replace the more boxy styling of the current Pathfinder.

The glitz….the glam…..the dizzying amusement park rides

Cobo Center’s expansion has freed up more floor space this year, which automakers are taking full advantage of in order to better showcase vehicles. 

None more so than Ford Motor Company, whose Ford and Lincoln display appears to take up about the same land mass as Siberia.  The intent appears to be to suck you in and keep you there, interacting with the vehicles, the brand, and the company. 

The biggest draw could be what Ford is calling its “Cloud Journey.”

Cloud Journey is hard to describe. It’s a weird “beam me up, Scotty” interactive display. It’s an actual ride, so you have to sign two legal releases, which I didn’t read. Hopefully, Ford Motor Company does not now have legal rights to my son, although I have to admit he would make a super-cute spokesboy, much better than that “Zoom Zoom” kid over at Mazda.

Anyway, everyone sits on a cylindrical platform; you’re seat-belted in, and then the whole thing eerily zips 20 feet up into the ceiling, where you’re treated to a visually overwhelming Imax-style video about Ford’s vision of a brave new world of connected vehicles. 

Luckily, it’s a brief video. Before getting on, I didn’t stop to think that I not only suffer from fear of heights but chronic vertigo, which can be triggered by….wait for it…..Imax screens. I had to cover my eyes most of the time, peeking out from time to time to get a glimpse. This defense saved me from the embarrassing fate of being the first person to throw up on the Ford Cloud Journey display, which could NOT have been cheap to construct.

No contraband sniffing dogs…..but you DO need to show your papers

Make no mistake, press days at the Detroit auto show are an invitation-only event.  You must be a credentialed journalist and you must wear not only a badge around your neck, but a wrist bracelet, which you get only after showing ID and proving you are who you say you are.

Very nice, but very vigilant staff people sit at the entrance to the big media rooms, and they do check your credentials, every single time.  I asked one of them, “Does someone try to sneak in every year?”

He looked at me and grinned. “Someone tries to sneak in every single hour!”

The Detroit auto show’s version of celebrity appearances

Lots of important politicians visit during press days. Most are from Michigan, now that GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcies have become less of a high-value political football. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow and Congressmen John Dingell have made the rounds.  Governor Rick Snyder also makes an appearance, holding a round-table with students, and another one for foreign journalists. That second roundtable is related to the Governor’s initiative to make Michigan a bigger player in the global business scene, a follow-up to his first trade mission last year to Japan, China and Korea.

The other “celebrities” here are the CEOs of the auto companies.  These brave and unflinching individuals are heavily courted during packed scrums of journalists after each unveiling of a new car. 

Media scrums, especially auto media scrums, are not that far from rugby scrums, where a player drops a ball and both teams jump on top of it. In this case, the rugby ball is the unfortunate CEO, and reporters are scrambling to get his attention with questions, which, if the scrum is large, are shouted over the shouts of other reporters.  These scrums are quite intimate events during which I have made many new friends. 

GM CEO Dan Akerson helped introduce the Cadillac ATS on Sunday, and the Buick Encore on Tuesday.  Mr. Akerson often takes questions at a further distance from reporters – a more civilized practice, in my opinion – but when in Rome....

Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne is a challenge for broadcast reporters, as he always speaks in a low, calm, deep voice during his scrums.  A “low talker,” if you get the Seinfeld reference.  Broadcast reporters who delay their rush over to the scrum, and end up in the outer circle of it, will neither hear him nor be able to get their microphones close enough to gather any quotes. 

This year, Mr. Marchionne is sporting a new salt-and-pepper beard. I hope he keeps it, and trims it in different ways. That will give us something else to mention in our articles other than his never-changing wardrobe of black sweater, black slacks.

The ever-optimistic Alan Mulally, Ford's CEO, also made himself available for scrums, both large and small. On Tuesday after the Lincoln MKZ concept unveiling, he was asked how he feels the U.S. economy is doing.  Mr. Mulally is a glass-half full, or more often, completely-full, person. It would only be news if he said anything using the words bad, pessimistic, worried, concerned.  He didn’t.

What’s next

Press days end Tuesday, followed by industry preview days. On Friday – talk about glitz and glamor – there’s the big charity preview, a black-tie and satin gown event (tickets $250 each, not permitted on my public radio stipend), and on Saturday morning, the show opens to the public. (Tickets are a more affordable $12 each.)






Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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