Driving Progress

January 12, 2016

Back to Stories

By Matt Wolfe

Introducting part one of our two part series “Driving Progress; a history of the Detriot Auto Show. Credit for much of the reference material goes to Robert Szudarek, author of “The First Century of the Detroit Auto Show”. Photo credits go to the GM History Collection, the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library, and the Reuther Library Digital Archives at Wayne State University.

1899: The First Detroit Auto Show

Detroit’s first auto show was held in combination with a sporting goods show at the Detroit Light Guard Armory. In addition to a collection of animal heads, there were four vehicles on display; two steam powered Mobiles and two Waverly Electrics. The vehicles were provided by William Metzger, then the only automobile dealer in Detroit, and the driving force behind the shows creation. Metzger had set up a Speedonome (one of the first chassis dynamometers) where the vehicles would race each other.

1908: Changing of the Guard

The DADA was established in 1908 and has been the sponsor of nearly every Detroit Auto show since its inception. In addition to the DADA sponsored show, the final Tri-State Automobile and Sporting Goods Association sponsored show was held in 1908. Henry Ford played a fundamental role in the DADA show by lending one of his own advertising executives, E. LeRoy Pelletier, who became the manager of the show.

1910: Growing Grander

The 1910 Detroit Auto show was the largest ever with over 300 cars on display. Held at the Wayne Gardens pavilion (then the largest building in the city for such an event) on two separate floors, there were two seperate orchestras to entertain patrons at the opening of the show. In the center of the main room was an elaborately sculptured fountain filled with goldfish and surrounded by a circular seat. Over 12,000 people jammed into the show throughout the week, overwhelming many of the dealers and salesman.

1922: Guests of the General

1922 was another dual show year with one held at the Morgan Wright Factory in January and another at the newly completed GM building In October. The first show drew over 300 cars and 100 accessory exhibits. Some of the automotive accoutrements on display included the first “stop” lights, an automatic windshield cleaner, and a small 6 lb. vacuum cleaner. The show at the GM building drew 100 cars and was billed as a “Closed Car Show”. The interior was lavishly decorated in brightly colored silks, gold and silver cloths, and 14 ft. pillars with an ornate base.

1932: Hosting in the Hall

From 1923-1941, the Detroit Auto Show was held in Convention Hall at Woodward and Forest. The 1932 show featured the “Oldest Car in Michigan Contest” as well as a 55 car parade. 300 cars were on display as well as 50 trucks and commercial vehicles. A $25,000 miniature reproduction of the Detroit Desoto factory was also displayed at the show.

1941: “Open House Week”

For 1941, the Detroit auto show was not held in a central location. Instead, the week of the auto show was deemed an “Open House Week” for the participating dealers. Each partaking dealer displayed banners, streamers, and window corner fans to give their storefronts an attractive, inviting appearance. A parade consisting of hundreds of new models and ARMY vehicles ran down Woodward Avenue and Seven Mile Road to signal the start of the open houses. This was to be the last show before the onset of WWII resulted in a hiatus from 1942-1952.

1953: Back in Business

After a decade-long absence, the Detroit auto show returned at the Michigan State Fair Coliseum. Foreign models appeared in large numbers for the first time. The most expensive car at the show was an Abarth 1500, an Italian-built exotic purchased by Packard for research purposes. 1953 marked the first year the Auto Show was held at the Michigan State Fair Grounds, which would serve as the show’s location from 1953-1956.

1960: Coming to Cobo

1960 was the first year the auto show was held at Cobo Hall. Over 84,000 people attended the show’s opening on Friday. An hour-long TV special was broadcast on CBS and President Eisenhower was an honored guest speaker, becoming the first U.S. President to attend the Detroit Show. This was the first show since 1908 to not be sponsored by the DADA, and was instead sponsored by the American Manufactures Association. This was the AMA’s first show outside of New York City and included an “Auto Wonderland” exhibit demonstrating the manufacturing process for cars.

1965: A Fabulous 50th

1965 marked the official 50th anniversary of the Detroit Auto Show. To celebrate the milestone, the Henry Ford Museum supplied several of their own cars including a Stanly Steamer, a Detroit Electric, and an eight cylinder Cadillac. Mayor Jerome Cavanagh rode a Chalmers Pony through a ribbon stretched across an aisle inside Cobo Hall. Nearly 400 vehicles were displayed in the 300,000 sq. ft. exhibition space. The star of the show was the Oldsmobile Tornado, the U.S.’s first full sized front wheel drive car since the 1937 Cord. From this point on, the Detroit Auto Show would always be held at Cobo Hall.

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