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Opinion: Motor Bella auto show is a funeral procession

Detroit’s old-guard marketing whizzes are trumpeting Motor Bella this week because it will be the long-awaited end of a nearly three-year absence of auto shows in Detroit.

They’re playing up scheduled new-model reveals by Ford and Toyota, filling lots and a pavilion with 350 of the latest nameplates, and promoting plans for fleets of performance vehicles doing doughnuts on the one-mile track at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac.

But the sad truth is that the real motif for Motor Bella will be more like a funeral procession for the industry’s traditional marketing machine than a Woodward-type, dream-cruise horsepower festival amped up by spangly new sheet metal.

For there’s likely to be only a relative trickle of interest in Motor Bella by the international automotive press during the preview days this week, and nothing like a massive public response to the open Motor Bella show — in stark contrast to the winter-dominating event that used to be comprised by the North American International Auto Show at the TCF Center.

Tectonic developments have swamped NAIAS since its last showing in 2019, eternally ensconcing its status as Detroit’s last, wonderful traditional auto show. COVID canned the Detroit Auto Dealers Association’s gambit to move NAIAS outdoors in June of 2020, a strategic seasonal flip that aimed to take advantage of the whole city’s car culture and good summer weather. Then the pandemic also nixed plans for a scaled-down June 2021 show, which then further devolved into what will be staged at Motor Bella this week.

But NAIAS as we knew it was dead long before the pandemic spread. At its height, the press preview lured thousands of journalists, marketing types and online influencers from around the world to Detroit’s frigid January, where they stood rapt as brand after brand spent two or three days revealing the newest production hardware, concept vehicles, industry-changing technologies and optimistic forecasts.

A couple of high-fraternization “industry days” followed on the exhibition floor. Then the Detroit auto show opened its doors to an iconic black-tie children’s charity event, and finally to as many as 750,000 local consumers who welcomed the chance to ogle the new stuff their favorite industry was putting out.

Yet even as the TCF Center was expanding and modernizing; even as NAIAS itself could brag about dozens of news-making announcements each year; and even as show organizers accommodated a surge of media interest in electric and autonomous driving, huge fissures opened up under the whole affair and figuratively tumbled it right into the Detroit River.

Deadly competition came in two forms, and the Detroit auto show couldn’t effectively counter. First, as an adjunct to Silicon Valley’s invasion of the automobile through EVs and autonomous vehicles, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas boldly elbowed into NAIAS’s space by training an annual new focus on automotive technology just a week before the Detroit auto show.

Unfortunately, General Motors' CEO Mary Barra may have given CES the biggest assist of all by introducing the company’s ambitious, new, all-electric offering, the Chevrolet Bolt, in January 2016 at that show — and not at NAIAS.

At the same time, auto brands were beginning to worry about the end of the industry’s several-year strong run of increasing sales and wringing their hands about marketing expenses.

Increasingly, they could stage their own in-person reveals with a handpicked crowd at a location precisely of their choosing, or just launch new products online and via social media. Both methods have helped them avoid the huge expense of staging an extravaganza at NAIAS or other auto shows.

The auto-dealer association is talking bravely about bringing back a larger auto show to Detroit next year as well as repeating Motor Bella. But here’s betting the critical mass just won’t be there to do it. May the Detroit auto show we knew rest in peace.

Dale Buss is a veteran Detroit-area journalist and founder and executive director of The Flyover Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the economic interests of the heartland. It's at