We went to Detroit to see new cars, of course, but mainly to judge the body language of the Big Three — GM, Chrysler and Ford.
After the shocking reports of sliding sales, the tortuous negotiations over US government loan guarantees and a couple of disastrous appearances of the companies’ big bosses in televised cap-in-hand meetings with vindictive and small-time government legislators, there was no alternative but to go there and find out for ourselves.
There were instant signs that the US car industry was operating in reduced circumstances. Theatrical stage-shows were out. Show stand decor was sober and to the point. Nobody, but nobody, showed a concept without a purpose.
Officials manning the doors of Detroit’s Cobo exhibition Hall, possibly aware that organizers of the Los Angeles Show would like to put them out of business, were remarkably less officious and obstructive than usual. Even the famous ‘bomb dogs’ which used to sniff your camera bag before you took it into the hall, couldn’t be afforded.
It seemed to me that two of the Big Three showed relatively robust signs of continuing health. GM’s Rick Wagoner set a sober but determined tone at the show’s first big press conference, confounding the expectations of many reporters expecting details of heavy restructuring with a we-know-what-we’re-doing message.
Behind the main seating was a rather obvious rent-a-crowd of employees and retirees cheering every announcement and brandishing signs that read HERE TO STAY and GM CHARGED UP. Outside in the snow, all day long, was a much more genuine and spontaneous group of union demonstrators from the mighty UAW, demonstrating in favour of keeping their jobs and against their brothers working — more cheaply — for the likes of Honda and Toyota in southern car factories.