New York Auto Show -- Hold the Tumbleweeds

With all the recent rhetoric about lousy auto sales this year, you would expect to see tumbling tumbleweeds rolling along through the abandoned Jacob K. Javits Center, for the New York International Automobile Show.

However, at least on Good Friday, the first day the show was open to the public, the show was jammed. Naturally, everybody through the turnstile doesn’t end up buying a car, at least not immediately.

And it is New York City, after all. The racy 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution drew a crowd, with young men snapping pictures on their cell phone cameras. But unlike most other cars on the show floor, the car was locked, with a security guard hovering over it. Inside, you could see where somebody had unscrewed the shift knob and removed it. To be fair, the same thing or worse also happens in other cities.

I tried making a comment to the security guard, but he looked right through me, without taking his eyes off the car. The Coldstream Guard couldn’t have done it any better — you know, the guys in the bearskin hats who are famous for not reacting, no matter what you do?

The March 21 crowd also included a lot of kids who were years away from their first driver’s license. Some teenage boys seemed to be reminding themselves that they were too old to make “Vroom, vroom!” noises behind the wheel.

It was complete pedestrian gridlock along Ultraluxury Row, where people gawk at brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini – and the tall, slim models wearing clingy satin evening gowns, showing them off. Those brands probably don’t sell too many cars that way, but they do get a lot of attention.

But for big-volume brands like Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Dodge, a lot of the overwhelmingly male crowd went through the appropriate motions of a serious shopper: slamming doors; opening and closing the glove box, and anything else that opens and closes; trying out the back seat; adjusting the mirrors; asking questions and requesting brochures.

“I need all the research available,” said a guy at the Kia stand.

“That’s a hot car!” exclaimed a young woman at the Mazda stand.

Somebody joked that the small, bare-bones Hummer HX Concept should be called the “Hum,” for short.

In these gas-conscious times, the Mini and Smart stands were thronged.

Leaving the Porsche stand, one adolescent boy was complaining to his father, “You sold it for no good reason, and they don’t make that one any more!”

The father patiently replied, “Well, there was a reason.” He refrained from saying, “And you’re it,” at least within earshot.

Also as you might expect, the Volvo stand drew a lot of families with kids and strollers, and I saw at least two pregnant women. Many families checked out the adjacent Land Rover stand, too.

Nearby, a black Mercury Milan turned endlessly on its turntable, with nobody in that huge crowd even glancing at it. I stood there and watched for a few minutes. For a second, I thought I saw a guy checking out the Milan, but he was on his cell phone, looking past the Milan for his buddy in the crowd.

The Hyundai stand drew a crowd, which could be a (very) unscientific indication that brands with a bargain-basement reputation could benefit from an economic downturn. One young man joked with his friends. “If you drive a Hyundai in Greenwich (Conn.), they’ll probably say, ‘Ooh, what is this? Is it an Italian car?’ ”

As they turned away from the Mercedes-Benz stand, a woman said, “That’s Mercedes, we don’t want that!” Her husband said, with much less conviction, “Yeah, we don’t want that.”

Maybe the tumbleweeds will come, by the time the auto show closes March 30, but it got off to a good start.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.