THE dance routine was unmistakably Chicago, a blatant copy from the Oscar-winning movie and hit musical. But Daimler Chrysler AG’s chief operating officer Wolfgang Bernhard doing a rendition of the cell block tango with no less than six girls on the manufacturer’s latest minivans was definitely an original.
No one can fault the glitzy showmanship – it was a thoroughly enjoyable show – but if what Chrysler wanted to portray was sex, fun and excitement, the message being sent out to the world’s media could be more like growing desperation.
And so, that was how it was with the US’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers at the 2004 North American International Motor Show which ends today in Detroit: American confidence was tempered with an underlying desperation that was hard to ignore.
Across the Cobo exhibition hall at Ford Motor Co, until recently America’s second largest seller of cars and trucks, its chairman Bill Ford Jr made an explosive entrance in the manufacturer’s latest 300-horsepower Mustang with sparks shooting from its tailpipes.
But view the cars up close and you would see the reality of foreign makes threatening business, market share and jobs in the motor city translated into personalised number plates of defiance.
“Made in Detroit – as God intended,” said one. “Made in Detroit. That’s right, Detroit,” announced another telling sign.
Tongue-in-cheek humour from the boys at Ford, perhaps, but for the casual observer from abroad, it seemed like more of that growing desperation.
And this year, if there were more Asian faces than usual milling around among the thousands of journalists at the show’s media preview, it was because the biggest boy in town was throwing the largest international press party.
General Motors Corp (GM) had invited a media contingent nearly 100 strong from India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia to the motor show, helpfully identifying for them all the “not-to-be-missed” GM events and new product unveilings.
Meanwhile, top executives were being shuttled from one “exclusive” interview to another in between choreographed presentations to expound the central theme at GM: “Asia is very important to us and we’re going to be there in a big way.”
With the company losing market share in America – the latest sales figures showing a fall to 28.3% in 2003 from 28.7% a year ago – there is perhaps little surprise it is looking to the world’s fastest growing auto market for a silver lining.
In Asia though, competition would be tough from the far more entrenched Japanese and newer Korean manufacturers which have been making significant inroads into the US market.
How successful GM will be in Asia remains to be seen. But there were clear differences in approach between the American and Asian manufacturers at the Detroit show.
The US makers expounded on the performance of their new sexy toys while the less glamorous Asians sold on economy and being environmentally friendly.
Ford’s 2005 Mustang launch was followed by GM’s unveiling of its new 400-horsepower 2005 Corvette in the posh surroundings of the Detroit Opera House.
Chrysler, meanwhile, introduced its ME Four-Twelve, a massive 850-horsepower 12-cylinder car for those who absolutely need to go from zero to 60 mph in less than three seconds. (In this, COO Bernhard appeared as “James Bond”). One irreverent local newspaper reporter in Michigan described the prototype as winner of the “I must have swallowed an entire bottle of Viagra” award.
In contrast, the presentations from the Asian manufacturers were tame – boring even – apart perhaps from Honda’s impressive “robot humanoid” Asimo.
But although the high-performance American cars did create excitement at the show, as the Corvette and Mustang continues to do for GM’s Chevrolet and Ford ever since the 1950’s and 60s, Asian manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and Hyundai were the ones raking in the new sales.
As both GM and Ford started spending millions last week in marketing and giveaways to push sales through the slow start to the year in the US, a panel of journalists at the auto show had already decided on the North America Car of the Year: it was not any of the sexy new power-chargers, but the hybrid petrol/electric Toyota Prius sedan.