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If history recalls the 2009 Los Angeles motor show at all, it will be because it marked the moment the global car industry smiled again. This was no cheesy Cheshire cat grin, or really much more than a slight creasing at the corners of the mouth, but it was there, and it was unmistakable.

At the start, this seemed hardly likely. The show didn’t so much stumble out of the blocks as fall flat on its face, on account of its keynote speaker, Fritz Henderson, being booted out of his job as boss of General Motors the day before the show, the GM board showing it has lost none of its talent for truly terrible timing.

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The official reasons for Henderson’s departure – that he’d done a great job but that the pace of change needed to increase – seemed not to wash well among hard-bitten show-going hacks, and ever more lurid suggestions as to why he really went circulated until an understudy, the legendary ‘Maximum’ Bob Lutz, was drafted in to talk in Henderson’s place.

Lutz is now 77 and altogether too canny a public performer to so much as suggest what really went on; indeed, his comment that "you will see me exercising enormous skill in not answering your questions" garnered the loudest of the few laughs around the show.

But as the schedule of conferences played out, the underlying theme was clear: "It’s been terrible, but we’re still here and the worst appears to be over." Lutz said GM was now in a better position than it had been possible to imagine back in the days when Henderson took it into and out of bankruptcy. Even warmer noises were coming from directions as diverse as Porsche and Toyota.

Nor was there any doubt as to the direction in which long-term salvation lay, but historically compact, fuel-efficient cars haven't exactly been meat and drink to the US auto industry, and it seemed strange to see the lumbering giants of old meekly swallowing this painful but necessary medicine. But swallow they did, and without complaint.

Genuinely new product was painfully thin on the ground. Porsche launched the Boxster Spyder here partly because California is perhaps its single most important territory on the planet, but also because it’s not going to the Detroit show in the New Year which most other manufacturers are waiting for. Indeed, given the number of global launches that will visit Motor City next month, it seems that reports of its imminent demise as a tier one show to rival Frankfurt, Paris and Geneva have been exaggerated.

Still, even in LA we were not short of sights or, indeed, sounds, perhaps the loudest of which were the gasps of American showgoers upon the unveiling of the Ford Fiesta, which is at last set to go on sale on this side of the pond. If that initial, instinctive reaction is anything close to representative of what’s going to happen when Fiestas appear in dealerships around the States, Ford will have a winner on its hands.

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The 2009 Los Angeles show was a strange one. It was lacking entirely the pizzazz, confidence and hubris that once personified North American shows. Instead, it was small, quiet, cautious and, most of all, largely relevant. I rather liked it.

Andrew Frankel

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