The 2022 North American International Auto Show in Detroit opened its doors to media and industry professionals this week, with public days beginning tomorrow. NAIAS was once the pinnacle of the U.S. auto show circuit, with huge, over-the-top displays and reveals from domestic and foreign automakers alike. But the pageantry began fading even before the pandemic, and walking around the 2022 show — the first Detroit auto show since 2019 — the event was nearly unrecognizable.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2019, NAIAS already felt like it was slipping. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Bugatti were nowhere to be found at the convention center — their only presence was at a private show in a nearby casino. Porsche had left the building as well. The big, elaborate reveals were becoming more subtle. Vendors and collections that were previously relegated to the basement were now showing up on the main show floor.
In 2018, organizers proposed a solution: Starting in 2020, NAIAS would move from its traditional dates in frigid January to a more amenable week in June, around the time of IndyCar’s Detroit Grand Prix. The show would have an outdoors component, expanding the display opportunities for carmakers and vendors, and hopefully luring more people to spend some time in downtown Detroit.
Of course, it never panned out. In June 2020, the state of Michigan was just emerging from the strictest phase of its pandemic shutdown. The 2020 show never happened — the event center was converted for use as a FEMA Coronavirus field hospital — and the 2021 show was likewise canceled over Covid concerns.
So, here we are in 2022, with the show now pushed to September. People are out and about, pandemic restrictions are (mostly) gone. But the show floor was in a more depressing state than ever before.
Stellantis had a huge footprint at the show, displaying Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep products — but most of the automaker’s space was used for driving demonstrations, Jeep 4xes climbing over artificial rough terrain and Ram 1500s pulling stuff.
At the opposite end of the hall was General Motors. Cadillac had a small, sad display set against unadorned concrete walls. Buick had an equally tiny presence. Chevy had the largest footprint of all the GM brands, but even this paled in comparison to pre-pandemic shows.
Ford took up the majority of the main floor, with a dedicated display for the new 2024 Mustang. But more than anything, what was most notable was the emptiness — the swaths of blank walls, the shocking amount of bare space between cars.
In 2019 and before, not only was the show floor jam-packed with cars and displays, media days were a nightmare to navigate. Journalists had to fight through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to get a glimpse at any newly-revealed vehicle.
For 2022, the largest crowd at the show was the line for the Secret Service security scan while President Joe Biden was touring the show floor. The single biggest news event of the 2022 show, the debut of the new seventh-generation Ford Mustang, took place after the show closed its doors for the evening, down the street at Hart Plaza.
Honestly, coming in third on the list of most talked-about things from the Detroit Auto Show is this giant inflatable duck, right outside of Huntington Place off of Jefferson.
There was a time when this place was packed with displays. You could get lost in the fray, carrying a show-floor map to keep your bearings. I’ve gone to NAIAS every year since I was five. I remember the year Jeep brought aerial dancers who dangled on ribbons hung from the convention center’s rafters. I remember when Cadillac had its brand-new Northstar engine on display for the first time — and sitting on the empty show floor late at night, watching my dad, an engineer at Roush at the time, repair the display engine for another day of introductions. In 1999, I stood in what felt like the world’s longest line to get a Micro Machine miniature of Volkswagen’s New Beetle that toured the show circuit that year.
But that was not this year’s Detroit Auto Show.
Instead, Ken Lingenfelter had a handful of cars from his massive collection on display in the middle of the convention center, in space that was once fought over by the world’s largest automakers. A huge patch of bare floor separated his cars from the Stellantis display. On the other side was a replica Ghostbusters ambulance, alongside Fred Flintstone’s car.
So which automakers showed up? All of Stellantis, Ford, Lincoln, GM, Toyota, and Subaru. I saw a single Lucid Air at a small display alongside the tiny booths reserved for mobility-tech vendors. Lexus had a display somewhere outside. Most of the automakers present revealed their new vehicles days before the show — if they had anything new to reveal at all.
In the pandemic shutdown era, with auto shows cancelled, carmakers pivoted — first to online livestreams for new vehicle debuts, then to privately hosted events. Flying a handful of journalists and influencers to an exciting location to see a new model’s debut was likely more cost-effective than securing a footprint at a dozen different auto shows throughout the year — and at a private event, an automaker doesn’t have to compete with every other brand on the market to get eyeballs on the newest model.
On my drive home from the 2022 Detroit show, I thought a lot about the future of NAIAS. What was once the most hotly anticipated show of the year has become a drab shadow of itself. Aside from the Mustang (which debuted at a separate Ford event) and President Biden’s visit (which was more of a speed bump for the journalists covering the show), there wasn’t any excitement or hype. The crowd was basically gone by Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday’s spare attendance demonstrated just how sad things have gotten.
The pandemic changed so many things about life, and NAIAS organizers can’t be blamed for that. The show’s move from January to June to September was stymied over and over by the unpredictable changes of life under COVID-19's influence. But coming away from the 2022 Detroit Auto Show, I’m left wondering whether auto shows have a future at all.