A Midwinter Day's Dream: The Car Show

Even in a convention center crammed with fellow car buffs, Andy Pyzyk stands out. It's the final weekend of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and Cobo Hall is filling up fast. Mobs of people crawl over gleaming sheet metal and wait in line to slide behind the wheel of the latest convertibles and picture themselves cruising down the highway.

Andy, however, is the only one I see stomp on the clutch and throw a car into gear--never mind that his nine-year-old legs barely reach the pedals. I found him thrashing through gears on a fuchsia GEO Tracker. Andy has dragged his dad, Joe Pyzyk, all the way from Brookfield, Wis., an eight-hour drive. "He has always asked me to take him here," Joe says. "We got here right when it opened. Every car we look at he has got to sit in. This is the 50th car he has been in." Says Andy: "I was so excited. You can just climb in 'em and hit the shift a lot."

That kind of enthusiasm is what car dealers hope for when they sponsor an auto show--although they have someone a bit older than Andy in mind. Midwest auto shows aim to inspire a little new-car lust during the cold, slushy lull between last fall's new models and spring's seasonal rebound in sales. This year, it worked: A near-record 632,000-plus turned out for Detroit's show, many of them suburbanites making a rare trek downtown and jamming the city's People Mover elevated train.

VESTED INTEREST. I've had my fill of news conferences and unveilings during the press preview, but I decide to wander back to Cobo to see what real people think about Detroit's newest offerings. Finding "real people" in the Motor City, though, is harder than I reckoned. It seems every third person I talk to is in the business. A pair of men who must work for a headlight supplier peer at the Oldsmobile Aurora's headlights--and scurry away when I try to talk to them. A clutch of Chrysler dealers' wives inspect future merchandise. A couple of guys from a General Motors assembly line stop to admire Chevy's racy new Camaro.

Then I meet Andy. "He's absolutely car nuts," says his wine-salesman father. "My other son likes to fish." Andy subscribes to Motor Trend and Car & Driver and likes to hang out at local car dealerships. Besides the Tracker, he's partial to the Jeep Wrangler--"Sahara edition with stick shift," he specifies--the Mazda Miata roadster, and a Ferrari.

But while some like Andy come to dream, others come to shop. And Chrysler's Neon, newly arrived in dealer showrooms, is attracting some serious shoppers. A young couple trying to interest their kids in the Neon they're considering fight a losing battle until the older son darts off toward another display Neon, hollering, "That's the cool one." He has found the Neon that splits down the middle, opening like a clam to show the passenger space and engine. Better yet, every few minutes its air bags inflate with an explosive noise that startles everyone in earshot.

JAPANESE DUDS. Concept cars--carmakers' way of testing new ideas or teasing consumers with hints of cars to come--also entertain. The crowds around the Chrysler Expresso concept car always seem to be smiling, bemused by the bulbous yellow minitaxi. "It's like a Toon Town car," exclaims one woman. Another says its minimalist seats "look like lawn chairs."

The new hometown offerings are getting plenty of attention. But it's lonely over in Suzuki territory. Even at Honda, the crowd is sparse. Toddlers take advantage of the open space to scramble up and down the displays. Toyota's T100 pickup, struggling in the market, doesn't draw anywhere near the admirers that Big Three pickups do. The fudge stand next door gets more attention.

L.J. Ganser, an actor from New York City, is working his first trade show at Volkswagen's stand. He's having fun showing off VW's concept car, a bright yellow neo-Beetle that's a streamlined rebirth of the '60s favorite. Ganser has been working on personalizing his shtick. But all around him, models repeat monotonous spiels all day. "I'd like to run a seminar," the actor says archly, "to teach them how to sound interested in what they're saying."

Some attractions here are predictable, of course. Everyone wants to sit in the Corvette--and Lexus, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz draw plenty of tire-kickers. Kids are fascinated by Ford's Jurassic Park Explorer, done up in the same camouflage paint job as the vehicles in last summer's blockbuster movie. Adults swarm over minivans.

Detroit's show wasn't always such a big deal. Until five years ago, it was one of a string of regional shows that competed with Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York for the splashiest new-product launches and biggest floor displays. But in 1989, the Detroit show joined the international circuit, becoming a showcase for new-car introductions. Now, it competes with Paris, Tokyo, Geneva, and Frankfurt for top honors among auto shows.

LOVE BOAT. But maybe the show has become a bit too elegant. I miss the hucksters with high-octane, infomercial-style pitches for such stuff as car wax so impervious that even spray paint doesn't mar the finish. The best (or worst) I can find here is a guy quietly selling race-car paintings at $100 a pop, plus T-shirts, caps, pins, and the like.

I head downstairs to see the van conversions. This is more like it. A gray customized van with a tufted leather bed in back and an excess of lacquered wood trim is the ultimate in high-luxe tackiness. Another offers faux-Colonial spindled armrests and a built-in TV. And just as I'm wincing at a large van upholstered in maroon leatherette, an older gent calls out to his friend: "Hey, Fred, this is nice!" But it probably wouldn't appeal to Andy: No stick shift.

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