Auto Show Vet Longs for Toy Cars Takes Home Thumb Drives

Corrected

My fondest moments covering auto shows, after jostling with my peers at press briefings, have been collecting the swag -- toy cars, clocks, hats, even chairs emblazoned with logos of new models.

I’m sorry to report, that era is over.

At the preview to this year’s Detroit auto show, which runs until Jan. 25, I got my hands on exactly one toy car -- a 4-inch-long aluminum model of the Acura NSX supercar -- that’s already attracting $100 bids on EBay. Most of the other automakers were handing out ... thumb drives. Clearly more practical, the cheap memory stick holds megabytes of photos, video, facts and figures. Public-relations departments shape them into pens, bracelets, characters. Whatever. Not the same.

I called Jason Vines, a former PR chief at Ford, Nissan and Chrysler, to see if he felt the same way as me. He did.

“Give someone a cool tchotchke, and they’ll keep it on their desk and think about the car every day,” Vines said. “Give them a thumb drive, and it usually ends up in a drawer. It’s lost its romance when you do that, and cars are romantic.”

Vines went on to explain that the death of auto-show swag is largely about dollars and cents. Complicated press kits are expensive, costing on average 100 bucks apiece, said Vines, who was responsible for some of the most exotic swag in my basement. In the olden days, there were hundreds of kits handed out. This week there were very few, unless you count those beamed directly to websites and phone apps.

Dodge Viper

I guess you can’t blame the industry for being a little restrained, even when every major automaker on the planet is finally making money again. They haven’t forgotten a pair of bankruptcies, government ownership of General Motors, the pain of a job-sucking recession and other lessons of what happens when revenue doesn’t cover costs.

Still, the loss is keenly felt -- and not just by automotive journalists like me.

Vines said he has a pair of early press kits for the Dodge Viper sports car in his attic. He said he remembers one of those fetching more than $400 on EBay.

Larry Dominique, a former Nissan executive who now works for auto-value company ALG Inc., keeps the press kit for the Nissan Titan pickup in his basement, still in the wrapper. It was a big metal clip board, designed to look like something someone would take to the construction site, including a pair of work gloves. It also had information about the truck.

Having covered auto shows for 20-plus years, my collection of swag takes up four shelves in my basement. My personal favorite: a 1992 die-cast Dodge Viper.

Best Freebies

Car nuts have been known to bid hundreds of dollars for the best freebies on the Internet because they aren’t available to the public. My own father often asked me to snag the swag for his favorite car.

I’ve never sold freebies on EBay or anywhere else. But I couldn’t help checking. My 1997 press kit for the Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle, which was stuffed in an imitation Wheaties box, complete with actual cereal, is being offered for $129. A duplicate of my 2001 kit for the PT Cruiser, with three toy cars in a cardboard garage, is available for $70 to buy it now. A friend confided today he sold his NSX model for $130.

FCA U.S., known as Chrysler before it was taken over by the automaker formerly known as Fiat, boasted many of the truly over-the-top press kits of the 1990s. The Dodge Durango cereal, for example.

Clever Packaging

The company still makes an effort to keep the tradition alive with clever packaging of the thumb drive, said Rick Deneau, a PR guy who’s done work for carmakers at the shows.

“We don’t plan to walk away from it completely because reporters still like it, and we’re trying to set the image for our product,” he said.

In Detroit this week, Chrysler had a pen with a thumb drive secreted in the top. One for the Ram Rebel performance pickup was shaped like a bracelet. For the previously introduced Dodge Dart, the company commissioned a drive shaped like a dart. It was so popular Chrysler produced almost 20,000 copies, said Bob Evans, whose company Iconix has been making press kits for 30 years. Evans has watched first floppy disks, then CDs and now thumb drives and the Internet change the way automakers give out their material.

Which leaves precious little desk jewelry for this wistful reporter. The only other toy that got some attention was a plastic model of the Ford Raptor pickup that was dropped by drones to reporters.

Even the NSX toy car was the exception, not the rule, for Acura, said Jessica Fini, the PR person who shepherded development of the souvenir from Sunrich Toys in California. The company had 2,000 of the silver sports cars made, keeping 500 for company insiders who are also covetous, she said.

Cool auto-show swag has become so rare that reporters initially missed the metal boxes full of diminutive NSXs piled on the table near the real supercar on stage.

“We had to call them over,” Fini said.