The 2020 cancellation of most of America’s major auto shows because of COVID-19 was a blow to both auto enthusiasts and the automotive industry.
The Denver Auto Show, staged annually by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, scheduled for the Colorado Convention Center from April 2-5, 2020, was postponed until September, and then cancelled altogether for the first time in 44 years, along with surrounding events – the Green Car Parade, Innovative Dealer Summit , Preview Gala and the inauguration of the Colorado Automotive Hall of Fame.
The Denver Auto Show is America’s third oldest after the first New York Auto Show in 1900, and the 1901 Chicago Auto Show. Denver’s first show was in 1902. Other major shows came a few years later, including Detroit and Los Angeles in 1907. Another show, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) in Las Vegas, showcasing automobile aftermarket products, wasn’t established until 1963.
Auto shows arose because of the growing popularity of motorized vehicles. There were almost 2,000 different manufacturers in the early part of the 20th century covering the gamut from steam to electric to gasoline engines, and they were produced all over America, although Ford’s first Model A debuted in 1903 and General Motors was founded in 1908, both in Michigan. Even in a Cowtown like Denver, cars were the coming thing in the early 1900s. According to Bud Wells in The Colorado Car Book, estimates of the business transacted as a result of the 1905 Denver Auto Show amounted to about a quarter-million dollars.
The first recorded auto show actually took place not in America, but in Paris in 1898. Le Salon de l’Automobile du Cycle es des Sports” reportedly required exhibitors to drive their vehicles to Paris from Versailles.
New York Auto Show: Another American First
The first New York show in 1900 was at Madison Square Garden and over a week’s time hosted 10,000 visitors who came to see 31 new “horseless carriages.” A star of the show was Ransom Eli Olds’ proposed “runabout,” or “Curved Dash” that became America’s first mass-produced automobile. Perhaps foreshadowing the popular “Camp Jeep” exhibit at today’s auto shows, including the Denver Auto Show, the New York show featured a ramp so various models could demonstrate their ability to climb and safely descend hills.
The New York Auto Show has been held annually, except for wartime breaks, now in April at the giant Jacob Javits Convention Center. It is still one of the most important and prestigious of the international auto shows – a showcase for what’s new and imagined in the automotive world.
Among the notable vehicles shown at past New York Auto Shows were the exhibit of the Pierce Silver Arrow concept car in 1933; a gold-painted MGA (the British roadster) in 1962 to celebrate 100,000 MGs built, most of which came to America; and James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from “Goldfinger.” By 1984, the New York Auto Show included more than 700 models; now it’s almost 1,000 vehicles. It is now the New York International Auto Show.
Clearly, automobiles were the future of personal transportation, so it was necessary to find ways for horse-drawn and horseless carriages to coexist, at least until cars took over entirely. Consequently, Connecticut enacted a speed-limit law in May of 1901, covering both horses and cars: 12 mph in the city and 15 mph outside of it.
Chicago: The Second City Is the Biggest
Chicago bills itself as the nation’s largest and “World’s Greatest” auto show, staged at the massive McCormick Center on the shores of Lake Michigan. The current show now covers more than a million square feet with more than 1,000 vehicles on display.
The first Chicago Auto Show in 1901, drew a crowd of 4,000 over eight days at the Coliseum Exposition Hall. The 1902 show displayed 100 models from 36 manufacturers, the majority powered by gasoline. A poster advertised “The Great Fournier’s Racer. Exciting Speed Contests. Seventh Regiment Military Band.”
The Fournier Racer was built by a Frenchman who established world’s records for speed, driving his two-seater to a 51.6-second mile. The speed contest was between two vehicles that mounted on friction wheels that emulated road resistance – kind of like a treadmill. A measuring dial indicated how fast each car drove a quarter mile. Chicago was the first major auto show to reopen in 1950 following the 1941-49 break necessitated by World War II.
Detroit: An American Show Goes International
Organizers of the Detroit Auto Show – now the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) – argue that they actually had the first American auto show, in 1899. That year, William Metzger, Detroit’s only automobile dealer, displayed two electric and two steam-powered cars at a show alongside sporting goods and fishing gear. Detroit’s first all-vehicle show was organized in 1907 by the Detroit Automobile Dealers at a beer garden. It’s been at Cobo Hall since 1960.
As Detroit was firmly cemented as the heart of the American auto industry – Motor City – the NAIAS has assumed major importance as a place to show off the newest of the new in automotive. More than 6,000 automotive journalists attend and the show hosts more than 800,000 attendees over the course of nine days to view more than 700 vehicles from many countries. COVID-19 caused a delay and eventual cancellation of the 2020 show. The only other break was because of World War II between 1941-53.
NAIAS is the venue for handing out the North American Car, SUV and Truck of the Year awards, highly coveted by both domestic and foreign automakers.
Los Angeles: The City the Car Built
As Los Angeles Auto Show opened in January of 1907, the Los Angeles Times reported, “There are towns in the East that boast an automobile to every one hundred of the population … Los Angeles, with a quarter of a million people, has an automobile for every eighty persons. It is without exception the banner automobile city of the world.”
Opening night brought out an estimated 3,500 people, excited to view 99 vehicles from 46 manufacturers. Attendance was so heavy that the show was extended a day. The Times reporter said there was a two-fold reason cars were so desirable: the all-season climate and “because we can afford it. … It marks an advance in the wealth and prosperity of the Southwest.” After all, this was the home of Hollywood and movie-star glamor.
Los Angeles got its first traffic signal in 1920 and traffic laws in 1925. The show grew to 120,000 square feet by the mid-1920s, much of it under tents. A huge fire destroyed the tents in 1929 but the show went on, reopening at the Shrine Auditorium one day later. Auto sales dwindled by about 50 percent from 1929 to 1930, but the show continued. It and other major shows moved their shows to November, as requested by President Roosevelt to boost the flagging economy.
After a 12-year break because of the war, the Los Angeles Auto Show returned in 1952. By the beginning of the 1960s the show, which had moved to the Pan Pacific Auditorium, had grown to 400 cars, encompassing domestic and imported brands.
LA Auto Show organizers created the Connected Car Expo in 2013 to showcase new technologies and in 2016 merged the Expo with the show’s press and trade days to create AutoMobility LA, which has become an important event on its own to highlight new developments in design and green energy, including the Green Car of the Year Awards.
SEMA: To the Trade Only
The general public isn’t allowed at the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s annual show in Las Vegas. This is where manufacturers show of some of their wildest dreams of how vehicles can be customized, pimped out, and glammed up. The 2019 show featured 2,400 exhibitors and 3,000 products throughout five halls; the 2020 show was cancelled.
SEMA started in 1963, organized by suppliers of performance products for hot rods. They called themselves the “Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association” and had several goals, including promoting their industry and creating some uniform standards for their products. Years later, the little guys that founded SEMA have become the big guys and the specialty products – “aftermarket” – industry, is worth almost $30 billion annually. Their quest to support ‘”ingenuity in action’ in the design and development of products” has been wildly successful and the SEMA show is popular with almost every sector of the automotive industry with a role in giving Americans the rides they want to express their needs and personalities.
Denver: The Biggest Show Between Chicago and LA
Denver’s auto dealers and the Denver Auto Show predated other Colorado icons. The ski industry didn’t get started until 1911, Rocky Mountain National Park opened in 1915 and the Broncos date back just to 1960.
The first Denver Auto Show in 1902 featured 15 models, including motorcycles, and ran for six days at the old Denver Coliseum. By 1908 the show had moved to Mammoth Gardens roller rink in Capitol Hill with 107 vehicles on display. It kept expanding, except for breaks during both World Wars, moving to the new Denver Coliseum in 1952 and then to the brand-new Currigan Hall in 1969, where it occupied all of the facility’s 100,000 display space with 325 cars and trucks
The show went dark for a few years in the early ‘70s, but was brought back by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association and the Metro Denver Automobile Dealers Association, and their president, William D. Barrow. Continued growth meant that when the Colorado Convention Center opened in 1991, the show moved again, remaining at the Convention Center, occupying as much space as available – usually about a half-million square feet – with more than 500 of the newest, best examples of automotive innovation on display. The
The Future of Auto Shows Is Still Rosy
There’s been a lot of chatter in the automotive world and beyond in recent years about the usefulness of auto shows, for consumers as well as for manufacturers and dealers. Some manufacturers have reduced or cancelled appearance at many of the country’s 60-some auto shows. Since the auto show dates back more than 100 years both in the U.S. and in Colorado, it technically is an antique. But are auto shows as an institution also antiquated?
German makers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, especially, have stopped participating in American auto shows. But there are ample data suggesting they are making a mistake. For example, a survey of attendees at dozens of auto shows indicated that while there had been a trend toward digital marketing, auto shows were still a powerful influencer of buying decisions. Foresight Research’s “2019-20 Auto Show Season Attendance Report©,” surveying 46 U.S. auto shows, showed 61 percent of them had higher year-over-year attendance and indicating their viability as a marketing tool.
Christopher Stommel, Foresight’s president said, “Some brands shifted marketing dollars toward smaller, more targeted events, especially for their new vehicle launches. But no matter how or where new product is launched to the press, it is still the local auto show where the largest number of consumers are going to first experience that vehicle. And the data shows that when a brand is absent, the consumer will take a closer look at the competitive brands who are on the show floor, and those brands end up benefiting with increased reach and consideration.”
Consumers still want to kick the tires, sit in the seats and revel in that new-car smell. According to Barbara Pudney, former VP of Paragon Group, CADA’s producing partner for the Denver Auto Show, “A third are looking to buy, a third are gearheads, and a third are looking for something to do. But those last two-thirds are still potential buyers.”
Coloradans have a long history of a love affair with their cars, so it’s likely the Denver Auto Show will continue to be a powerful draw as Colorado’s longest-running and biggest trade show.