My last day at NAIAS is the first day the public’s allowed in. Before this, the COBO Center was open only to the press, and then only to people in the industry (or anyone willing to spend $75, instead of $12, to get in). But through next Sunday, several hundred thousand people will stream through — men in car-brand shirts and hats, women with books that they’ll read in the food court.
Auto shows excite the kind of people who are willing to put out money for what amounts to a walk-through commercial. They grab the large, glossy bags manufactures give out for free; they sometimes grab multiple bags, and stuff them into the first — bags destined to be folded up neatly by moms and wives and put under the sink back home. They grab every brochure they see. They grab posters of boring cars they’ll never buy. They take a lot of pictures of cars, which feels a little like videotaping Christmas morning — the kind of thing that seems like it warrants being documented, but is never looked at again.
I came to Detroit to learn more about American cars. Today, on my last day here, I learned more about the people who come to American car shows (and who are not necessarily buying American cars).
It’s easy to laugh off an interest in car shows, the idea that someone would get into an automobile and drive to and from a convention on more driving. But for better or worse, cars are manifestations of who we are. And for the visitors to NAIAS, the gleaming, spotless cars offer hope of fresh starts, of new beginnings driven to on heated leather seats.
There’s a lot to want to start over from. I walked through the parking garage just below the showroom floor, and saw the nicks and dents of life on display. There, cars tell stories of death (pink breast cancer decals), and of war (yellow Support Our Troops decals). Of kids leaving home, and of the high cost of kids leaving home (“My kid and my money go to the University of Michigan” bumper stickers). Of bleak Michigan winters (ice scrapers thrown on back seats), and of thankless jobs with long commutes (parking permits).
Just outside the main show, there are Army recruiters using video games to endear themselves to teenagers. There are representatives from Shell hoping to sign people up for a Shell credit card and capture all their lucrative gas-buying business. There are children screaming because no, they don’t want a hot dog, they want chicken fingers, and $5 Dippin’ Dots, too.
But inside, nobody’s late for work. No left two lanes are closed. No car payment is overdue — the genius of the auto show is that it allows you to fall in love with a car, without having the relationship cut short by technicalities. (“OK, Mr. Smith, we just did a credit check, and, well…) You don’t feel embarrassed because someone got into your ’97 Dodge Stratus and realized he had to roll down the window by hand.
Things are more pleasant here than they are out on the open road. On the auto show floor, strangers get into the same backseat, look around, and nod to one another. Dads who came with teenage daughters look down over their glasses at cars priced in the mid-teens, thinking, yes, maybe this one would work. Ten-year-old boys sit in drivers’ seats and slam the horn, only nothing happens, because the horns here have all been turned off.
And yet, down in the garage, the pleasures of life are on display, too. There are stories of hope athletic (Detroit Tigers flags), and political (Obama 2008, Romney 2008 stickers). Of achievement (graduation tassels), and of association (North American Fishing Club decals). Of vacations (Disney World license plate rings), and of a different sort of beginning (car seats).
We don’t always admit it, but the cars we already have are comfortable, even when the roof lining sags and the seat’s stained with coffee. They’re a room of one’s own, with a smell of one’s own. The fear of the first ding has long since passed. We can change the radio station without looking at the button. We know that the clock is four minutes fast, but we don’t fix it, because that would just ruin everything.
So after you’ve seen whatever it was you wanted to see at NAIAS, run your fingers along plenty of car doors, you take the elevator down into the garage. You find your car, and think there’s a lot more salt caked on it than when you came in. Maybe it’ll be time for a new one in another year or two, but this’ll work for now, you think. Then you open the door and are surprised because, unlike the cars upstairs, you left a Diet Coke in this one. And you’re happy because there are a few sips left inside. • 20 January 2008