Spend more than a day at the North American International Auto Show and you realize that there are many tricks to selling a car, and few involve the car. It can mean putting stuff on the roof, to convey a particular lifestyle through a kayak (Volkswagen), or a bike or snowboard (Suzuki). If you’re MINI, it’s a DJ and team of twenty-somethings who wear matching blue fleece jackets and tight blue jeans one day, and matching red sweatshirts and tight black pants the next. If you’re Ford, it’s the Ford VJ station, at which one can tape a video message to be displayed on a floor-to-ceiling screen. (“Does this have something to do with the technology in the cars?” I asked. “Nope,” an eager VJ told me. “It’s just for fun!”) Toyota has a game stage where you can win M&Ms for answering questions about watershed moments in Toyota history, like the 2000GT’s appearance in You Only Live Twice.
Other touches are more subtle. A lot of brands have a single clear vase somewhere in their display holding a bunch of one type of flower — an attempt at a dramatic yet humanizing touch among so much metal and glass. There are Amaryllis (Mercedes) and roses (Cadillac), Birds of Paradise blooming (Audi) and not (Pontiac), orchids red (Saab) and green (Hummer). Mazda has browning calla lilies, which seem like an odd choice if you’re selling something whose main virtue is its newness, but Mazda’s been around since 1920 so maybe they know what they’re doing.
But by far the most famous and most popular auto show accoutrement are the car girls, those easy-on-the-eyes young women with sparkly jewelry and patterns of movement and speech that haven’t changed since the shows of the ‘50s.
First off, though: Don’t call a car girl a “car girl,” because she’s actually a “product representative.” I know this only because I had lunch with a product representative for Nissan, in the lobby of the COBO Center. Her name was Caroline, and she had sharp, angular features and dark red hair. Caroline had on the outfit all Nissan product representatives wear: a fitted black dress with a large Nissan-red circle across the right side. For lunch, Caroline brought out two tiny Tupperware containers, one with slices of peeled orange, the other with slivers of yellow pepper; she ate the fruit and vegetable with a Slim Fast French Vanilla Shake.
Caroline is a regular on the auto show circuit. She’s not an employee of Nissan, but instead works through a talent agency here in Detroit. The 2008 NAIAS marks her first full year on the circuit; since fall she’s already been to auto shows in Anaheim, Long Island, Las Vegas, Miami, Boston, San Diego, and Phoenix, where you can rent a refrigerator for $10 if your hotel doesn’t one, so that you don’t have to eat out. After Detroit, she’ll head to Syracuse on February 5, and then to a few more shows before the “season” wraps up at the end of March.
Caroline likes the work. It changes every day. One day you work the morning shift, the next day you’re on at night. One day you work the Nissan information desk, the next you’re on the showroom floor. It helps to have in interest in cars, too, she says — it makes the job so much easier, since a lot of people end up asking you about cars. Life off the spinning stage isn’t all new car smell, though, what with product representatives running into each other on their slow trek around the country.
“You see the same people over and over at these shows” Caroline said, biting into a piece of pepper. “It gets pretty catty. It’s a lot like one of those model reality shows you see on TV.”
When you see people on such shows who claim to have a job as an “actor/model” — and there are a shocking amount who do — you imagine that this is the kind of work they’re talking about. Presenting a car is a little bit like acting (the passion for the product is forced; they could muster up the same amount for a Buick or a Bentley) and a little bit like modeling (they’re not hired for their chemistry degrees). But it’s not really enough experience in either field to help someone gain traction in just one.
And for all the self-confidence that supposedly comes with beauty, car girls tend to be a nervous bunch. I saw several pacing before their presentations, walking deliberately against the spin of the stage in tall heels, while they silently mouthed their speeches. When they finally begin, some have awkward pauses as they scramble to remember the next line. Others plow right through, smashing words and sentences together in an effort to be over with the thing as quickly as possible, like the Jeep girl: “Would-you-like-to-get-into-a-warm-car-on-a-cold-winter’s-day-well-wouldn’t-we-all!”
The sad thing about car girls is that they attract the least attention when they’re doing the thing they’ve worked hardest at. When they’re simply standing by a car, it’s an endless parade of guys with cameras. When they’re presenting a car, the guys wander off. It behooves one to take their cue. This is the moment when the car girl locks eyes with you, the last left behind. She’s nervous about her presentation, and you’re nervous for her, and so there you both stand, tense over words that neither of you is really even hearing.
Two days into a car show and all you want is a rest stop, a moment away from the spinning platforms and too-deep carpet and high-watt lighting. This is not easy to come by in a convention center with 2.4 million square feet devoted to excitation for two weeks. Solace can be found, however, in the driver’s seat of a 2008 Nissan Quest.
The Nissan Quest is a minivan, and minivans are unpopular among a crowd looking for car fantasies of breasts and manual transmissions, and not spilled sippy cups and baby wipes, which they thought they had left back in their own minivans up on Level C.
Slide into the Quest. Push the two buttons above your head, closing each of the side sliding doors. If you’re lucky, the right song will come on the radio, and you can turn it up.
To indulge in the Quest is not to fantasize about trips back to the supermarket because someone forgot the half and half. When it comes to cars, a memory of what was is always more powerful than the dream of what could be.
A minivan — even one with a Skyview™ glass-paneled roof and a Bluetooth® hands-free phone — recalls those first days of driving, before the Wrangler door broke and the Intrique was totaled. That first trip in the minivan, alone after the ride home from the DMV. Back when there were eyeglasses left in the cup holder, and you had to be home by 11, and couldn’t forget to pick up your sister. Back when it didn’t matter what kind of car you had, just that you had one to drive. • 18 January 2008