Auto Erotic: Detroit’s auto shows


Auto Erotic: Detroit’s auto shows
by K.P. Greenberg

When I tell people that I write about the auto business it’s like I’ve announced to a room full of hypochondriacs in an elder hostel that I’m a urologist. They want to talk to me, badly. They are jealous. Jealous of what? The free cars I get, the meals at restaurants I couldn’t afford if someone weren’t paying? No, well, yes. And they wish they could take the mid-winter vacations to Detroit, to the North American International Auto Show, the epicenter of automotive lust, the premier transnational orgy of sheet-metal, in which Detroit’s lovely Cobo Hall, a vast shell of a place in which there are no directions, no bathrooms, and more wall to wall carpeting than Show World, is transformed into, well, Show World.

Before the doors open to the yammering, car-frenzied public, whom automakers cajole, seduce, suckle, titillate, stimulate and abuse in sundry ways, there’s the real event: Press days, the two or three days during which automakers cajole, seduce, suckle, titillate, and stimulate the press corps with hopes the press won’t abuse them. All of which revolves around the unveiling of “new product,” a vestal ritual involving revolving lights, mineral smoke, throbbing pornvideo music, and the climactic “taking off the wraps,” in which next year’s model, or this year’s concept vehicle, is undressed before craning, apoplectic car writers corralled into a space designed for one tenth their number, many of whom were up before dawn cleaning pebbles out of their car treads with runcible spoons, presumably.

But first, the national head of marketing for such and such takes the stage and sermonizes about the glories of the brand, fabulous year-to-date sales, the godless competition, and of course this year’s model, with more muscle, more passion (whatever that means), sexier lines, and more European Styling­­—all said as if the company were unveiling the unified field theory or world peace. Frenzied reporters then bum-rush the car to caress, smell, be photographed with, or just groan in carnal hunger, as they stare slackjawed at the all-new 2003 Avalon, Murano, Outlander, Aviator, Pilot, Excavator, Perpetrator, Insinuator, Incinerator, or Albatross.

Press days are set up so that from seven in the morning until seven at night, you walk forty miles within a space the size of a soccer field, and you stuff your face, shove various toys and CD boxes into your tote bag, and take notes while marketers launch into speeches that usually begin with "Well, we had a great year at Burox Motors." Meanwhile, one glances about furtively, looking for people to fuck back at the Marriott, so one doesn’t have to degrade oneself yet again with another night watching, with dick in hand, another of the adult offerings on the hotel tube.

The show’s totally about the food for me. At the show, when one is not sprinting from one exhibit to the next, one is stuffing food into one’s face hand over fist. That’s because almost all of the displays have thematic food of some kind. Mitsubishi, for example, had a fabulous tea bar, where East Asian college students made iced drinks with black edible balls floating in them. There were Swedish meatballs at Saab, weinerschnitzel at Audi, the sliders and Coke you got at the Ford exhibit, the endless buffet featuring little turkey blintzes and cauliflowerettes at Chrysler, the fruit freezes at BMW, the endless supply of Dove Bars at Dodge, the sushi bar at Honda, the strategically placed coffee bar with free baggies of chocolate covered coffee beans at Acura, the ice cream orange juice concoction you got at the Ford GT40 exhibit (no, that was last year, as were the mini tacos you got at the Subaru exhibit for the new Baja pickup thing). If it’s a luxury brand, say Lexus, you may even get a foot massage, when what you really need is a stomach pump because by now, the finger food you’ve been shoveling down is starting to add up.

Horribly, I wind up remembering the food more clearly than the vehicles, which is bad because I don’t write about food. What’s worse, by the time it becomes imperative to file some sort of news story on the event, most are eight sheets to the wind, nauseous and staggering around under the weight of "press material." The average auto show reporter, by noon, is bearing the weight of 160 press kits, and about 13.8 percent blood alcohol from the mimosas, bloody Marys, screwdrivers, and various other thematic concoctions meant to evoke brand spirit.

So it’s off to the press room, a refuge of sorts, up on the third floor of Cobo Hall, into which one stumbles, barely aware of how one got there, barely conscious, regaled yet again by food, usually anticlimactic cookies of some indecipherable flavor, maybe shape like car tires, compliments of a shock absorber company, or a maker of car phones, or rack-and-pinion steering. Reporters, now flatulent due to a volatile mix of spritzers, chocolate coffee beans, and endive salad appetizers, wander about this nausoleum, laden like Marley’s Ghost with canvas bags loaded with toy cars, booklets, more chocolate-covered coffee beans, more press kits. One person vomits, causing a chain reaction. After a group purge and cleanup, all collapse onto sofas provided, most dropping into a deep coma from which many will not recover. Someone offers you a little sandwich shaped like a muffler, you eat it automatically. More coffee, more cookies, try to get up, collapse again. At length, you stagger over to a computer console, compliments of some parasitic internet play like Carpoint or Edmunds and try to write something comprehensible about it all.

"Automakers are rolling out sexy new finger food this year with even more European styling than last year, plus a batch of crossover hybrid truck based car wagons, and car-based trucks, and scooter-based sports coupes, loosely based on tactical bombers." But in the back of your mind, you and the other reporters are suspending your disbelief. After all, if most Americans are like me, at least income-wise, they can’t afford the 2004 Nissan Tartar pickup. It’s a used, used, used world for us. That’s where the deals are. And in spite of the turntables, the music, the dry ice and the head of marketing holding forth about how the new model makes everything right with the world, when you buy his new car you lose half your investment the second you roll off the lot. A new car, it seems to me, is about the worst purchase one can make. Buy a house, buy a condo, by a razor scooter, buy a hooker, buy crack, but not a car. That’s my take, but of course I live in the auto industry’s equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta: New York, the only place in the U.S. where most people actually don’t drive. They take the subway, or walk, but they don’t have trade shows about that.


Contributor

K.P. Greenberg

K.P. GREENBERG covers the auto business for a marketing trade magazine. He is also an actor and playwright, whose monologue “For Real” will be produced at 78th Street Theatre in September 2003.

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