WHAT is going on in Detroit?
Its annual motor show used to be the top one in the US, drawing virtually every brand on the planet and attended by countless news and motoring journalists – but things are going wrong in a big way.
The city, home to General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler, has fallen out of favour with Mazda, Mini, Volvo, Porsche, Mitsubishi, Jaguar, Land Rover – and now also Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, all of which have decided not to bother with it.
Detroit was founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac – yes, he’s the one North America’s most luxurious car was named after – and its motor show dates back to 1907.
However, it’s a frosty place in Michigan, with temperatures ranging from -5C in January to 22C in July – and guess which month the show is held in? Oui, the -5C one. (old Antoine was French).
He built a fort there and established a French settlement, where it soon became known as a fur trading post for New France – until 1760, when the Brits arrived and took it.
Next it was ceded to the newly-formed US and the Brits were sent packing in the 1790s, but took it back a few years later, were pushed out once more to be replaced by a mix of European migrants.
After some tumultous years of wars and race riots Henry Ford fired up his car company, then Studebaker followed suit and in no time others arrived, the auto industry flourished and Detroit became known as Motor City.
However, the boom years started to slow, carmakers started to decentralise, and its population dropped from a high of 1.9million in 1950 to barely 500,00 today. Many refer to it as a ghost town, with many abandoned homes and buildings, a rising crime rate and a big unemployment problem.
The unpleasant weather and parlous state of the city’s roads and bus services don’t contribute to it either.
In the wake of car companies withdrawing from the show, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organises the annual event, said plans were underway to change the date to October and to move it to another venue.
It has been held in the Cobo Center, a walled structure which precludes active displays of technologies such as autonomous cars and crash-avoidance systems.
An immediate problem is that the Cobo Center has a $15.5 million contract to keep until 2025.
The carmakers are being very diplomatic in their reasons for avoiding the deteriorating Detroit dump.
“We will continue to evaluate auto shows on a case by case basis relative to the timing of our product introductions and the value the show brings from a media and consumer perspective,” Audi said.
BMW said it was examining its presence at trade-shows and other engagements, while also exploring alternative platforms and formats.
“The overall goal is to communicate our ideas and plans regarding future mobility in the best way and achieve the greatest possible visibility for our products, technologies and innovations.”
Another factor is that the return on investment for car makers at such shows isn’t what it used to be.
Today’s electronic media does not really require journalists to attend the shows because car companies usually provide them with all the details of their new products online, allowing them to inform the public – without anyone actually having to trek to dismal Detroit.