How Auto Shows "Yoostabee"

Before the glitz and the hype, there was glitz and hype. Just a different kind

That this is the season -- the dead of winter -- for auto shows was brought home to me on New Year's Day by an unusual coincidence.

We were driving along the Ohio Turnpike en route to Washington from Detroit. Traffic was light and we hadn't yet run into the heavy rain and fog, which would make crossing the Allegheny Mountains dicey before we reached our Potomac destination.

At this point my wife Karen was driving and, riding shotgun, I was reading Adventures of a White-Collar Man, the 1940 "as told to" (openly ghost-written) autobiography of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Sloan was then renowned as chairman of General Motors and the inventor, so to speak, of modern corporate management and much of what today we think of as common practice in the world's auto companies. I had just reached Sloan's reminiscences about an early -- he didn't indicate which year, but as you will see, it had to be no later than 1903 -- New York Auto Show.

Then we overtook two long, low-riding enclosed trailers pulled by Ford highway tractors with brightly-painted signs indicating the rigs were from DST of Romulus, Michigan. DST stands for Dearborn Steel Tubing, which for decades has handled building, moving, and displaying Ford Motor Company's show cars. "I'll bet they're carrying show cars for the Ford stand at the Washington Automobile Show," I told Karen.

The Ur-New York Show

What Sloan had to say about the pioneering auto show opens a unique window on history. At the time, he was the young co-owner and chief executive of the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company across the Hudson in New Jersey. Hyatt was manufacturing bearings for sugar mill machinery and, yes, bicycles -- and Sloan wondered whether the nascent auto industry was worth the time and effort of his partner, the factory's lone salesman.

"My recollection is that when I first sat and yarned with Henry Ford was before he was established as a manufacturer. It was at the automobile show. Quite early it had seemed good strategy for us to display our bearings there," Sloan recalled in 1939 when the book was being pulled together.

"Our stall was up on the gallery of the old Madison Square Garden. The front of it was a counter before that streamed an endless procession of spectators. The rear of our stall was the gallery's railing. Standing there we could look down on the main-floor crowd, see each exhibit, discover what the people fancied and likewise observe what was going on in the driving ring.

"Cars were put through their paces just as if this were a show of horses. It helped sales to show the customers that a car would really run. Indeed, up on the Garden's roof there was a towering ramp, an inclined plane, placed there just so the Mobile Steamer might demonstrate that it could actually go uphill. But there in the Hyatt stall we had a piece of unsuspected good luck.

"I heard Pete (Steenstrup, his partner) hail someone in the throng passing the counter. A tall, slender man stopped and, after shaking hands with Pete, lifted his derby hat to wipe his forehead. After tramping around the show, he was tired.

"'Come in,' insisted Pete. 'Where could you find a better place to rest? Sit down at the railing and see the show from a box seat.' Then he introduced me. The visitor's name was Henry Ford.

"Pete and Mr. Ford were on friendly terms. Pete had first found him in a little room in a loft building downtown in Detroit. There he was developing a racing car. So we three sat and watched the cars go round in the show ring below and talked, for hours I guess. Mr. Ford was tilted back in a chair, his heels caught in the topmost rung, his knees at the level of his chin.

"Much was to come out of our association with Mr. Ford; fabulous orders for roller bearings. But I did not suspect that I was talking with a man who was to take a foremost place among the industrial leaders of all times. No one has made a greater contribution to industrial progress," he concluded.

Sloan went on to comment, "Besides Mr. Ford, many of the visitors at the show were thinking of manufacturing some sort of horseless vehicle. We patiently listened to all their stories, because we were anxious to get every chance we could to introduce our roller bearings. But even Pete and I looked upon these people more or less as adventurers; certainly we did not recognize them as potential pioneers in the development of an industry that was to advance the economic and social status of humanity more than any other."

Infringing on the past

I've quoted Sloan at length because the book is long out of print and probably banished from most libraries, too, long ago. I picked up my autographed copy at the National Automotive History Collection duplicates sale for $20, ten times its original "sticker price." Moreover both the similarities to, and the differences from, today's auto shows are striking.

Then it was a manufacturers' and customers' show. Early cars were sold through distributors. Such dealers were often livery stables or blacksmith shops, already used to handling sale and maintenance of horses and buggies. For many decades, however, automobile shows have been sponsored and managed by local automobile dealer associations.

For example, the current North American International Automobile Show (NAIAS) at Detroit's Cobo Hall is a creature of the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association, but you'd hardly know it from all the auto companies' hoopla, which draws hundreds of automotive journalists from all over the world. The Chicago Auto Show next month is put on by the Chicago Auto Trade Association. And so on.

Obviously, these dealers are looking to convert show visitors into customers. The auto company stands typically are staffed by sales personnel from area dealers. What they don't have -- and don't need like they did 100 years ago -- is a test track inside the exhibit hall to prove to potential buyers that their cars actually work!

Both then and now, the big auto shows are a crossroads for industry executives - to meet informally, to host receptions, to examine one another's wares. To get ideas. To test the water. To sell cars.

Of course, the role filled by Sloan and his Hyatt bearing company at the early auto show - an automotive supplier, or vendor, showing off his stuff to auto companies - in later years came to be filled by the annual conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers. The SAE exhibit is almost as big a show as the NAIAS, filling the same space during its week-long meeting in early March, while technical sessions, news conferences and receptions are held elsewhere in the building or at nearby watering holes.

"The more things change, the more they remain the same."

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