Auto Shows

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Almost immediately after the invention of the automobile, manufacturers and designers eagerly sought a venue to promote their inventions, discuss the future of this growing industry, and prove the worthiness of the automobile as a form of transportation. They soon discovered that automotive shows were an effective platform to share their inventions and new product developments to a fascinated public. Automotive shows are entertainment events open to the public for the purpose of bringing consumers together with automotive manufacturers and their products. These events frequently mix automotive technology with an entertaining atmosphere in order to provide information on new products, a place to dream about owning exotic cars, and an opportunity to relive past automotive eras.

Fledging Events for a Fledgling Industry

The first major auto show was held in Chicago on 23 March 1901. Dozens of other auto shows quickly appeared as this new invention brought out spectators, curiosity seekers, and doubters. Many of the earliest auto show participants were more likely to be attracted to the novelty of automobiles and the spectacle of the show rather than out of a sincere interest in purchasing a new car. For example, in 1907, the first auto show in Atlanta attracted 150,000 spectators over a seven-day period, yet only 1,300 motorcars were actually owned by its citizens at that time (Metro Atlanta Automobile Dealers Association). Compared to later auto shows, these early events were modest affairs, taking place under a single carnival tent or fairground. The Los Angeles Auto Show was originally held under a large circus-style tent. The now famous North American International Auto Show was first held at a Detroit beer garden in 1907, where seventeen exhibitors showcased thirty-three vehicles.

The earliest auto shows focused on automobile displays and demonstrations. However, given that the ordinary family attended these events for recreational purposes, show planners experimented with many other forms of entertainment as a way to entice widespread participation and acceptance from the public. Similar to circuses, fairs, and other expositions of that era, spectator-oriented recreational activities such as contests, races, live musical performances, and food were ubiquitous at these early auto shows. For example, the Chicago Auto Show included a test track for manufacturers and inventors to prove to a skeptical public that their automobiles actually could run. However, despite the obvious recreational quality of auto shows, shows during this era focused primarily on promoting automobiles as a viable transportation alternative.

From Automotive Curiosity to Obsession

In a span of just twenty years, the growing popularity of the automobile had moved auto shows into the mainstream of American culture. With this transformation also came a change in the characteristics and motivations of auto show attendees. That maintaining the public's thirst for new product designs and innovations would be essential to the growth of this fledgling industry was quickly apparent. In the mid-1920s, the adoption of planned product obsolescence allowed manufacturers to keep the public interested in purchasing new vehicles (and new designs) more frequently. This policy helped to ensure that public interest in new automotives would be sustainable. As competition intensified among the automotive Big Three ( Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Chrysler), auto shows were used to stimulate buying behavior and brand loyalty, rather than to merely prove the worthiness of the automobile. Automotive dealers partnered with the manufacturers to produce auto shows to showcase the newest innovations and styles that the different brands had to offer. Auto shows often provided the public's first chance of seeing new vehicles and style changes, comparing new models, and fantasizing about the latest automotive inventions/designs. The American public was no longer a passive onlooker, but rather an active participant in learning about and purchasing automotive innovations, and in defining how automobiles fit into both their work and recreational lifestyles. The growth in auto shows during this time period was remarkable. For example, attendance at the Chicago Auto Show grew from 4,000 in 1901 to more than 200,000 by 1941.

The Modern Auto Show

During the 1930s and 1940s, public interest in automobiles and attendance at auto shows was tempered by the hardships of the Great Depression and the manufacturing demands of World War II. However, in 1949, automotive supply and demand began to favor the industry. Auto shows made a comeback during this era and, in the early 2000s, remained a mainstay of American and international automotive culture. The addition of more extravagant displays and entertainment added to the excitement of the new automobiles and broadened the appeal of auto shows to an even wider family audience. It was during this modern era that the concept car became an important part of the auto show. Concept cars were futuristic designs that were used to spark public imagination and test new technologies or styles before they went into production. Concept cars were used not only to create excitement at the shows, but also to gauge market feasibility for new innovations on existing models. Public reaction to concept cars helped the manufacturers to determine which concepts were marketable and from which segment of the public they were desired.

As the automotive industry matured, different types of automotive shows came into existence. Antique and classic car shows allowed car enthusiasts to display restored vehicles, swap rare or discontinued parts, and judge the restoration efforts of fellow enthusiasts. Antique shows also offered its attendees a window into the history and development of the automobile and to reminisce about its impact on various time periods in American and world history. Demand in specialized automotive restoration and after-market customization also spawned the creation of after-market parts and accessory shows (such as the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association Show) as well as collector and historic car sales (such as the Barrett Jackson Automobile Auction).

In the early twenty-first century, the proliferation of specialized auto shows, product demonstrations, and an increased emphasis on entertainment continued to make auto shows appealing recreation opportunities. Throughout the last century, auto shows have reflected changes in American society, trends, and values. Car shows in the early 2000s were quite different from those of the earlier time periods. In the beginning years, spectators watched new cars being unveiled in a single stage show with glamour models and other entertainments. Current auto show attendees were more likely to browse massive event complexes, moving from exhibit to exhibit, while participating in interactive, computerized simulations and product testing. For example, the 2002 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) comprised 60 automotive exhibits, 54 new vehicle introductions, 614 automotive analysts, 257 television networks, and was viewed by 759,907 attendees (North American International Auto Show). Despite their recreational value, automotive manufacturers maintained that their reasons behind supporting auto shows were essentially the same as they were in earlier eras: to connect buyers with the products and stimulate continued purchase of new vehicles. America's love affair and obsession with the automobile remained as intense as it was in its early years. The widespread popularity and attendance at auto shows continued to reflect this fascination.

See also: Automobiles and Leisure, Auto Racing, Drag Racing, Hot Rodding, Open Wheel Racing, Sports Car Racing, Stock Car Racing


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Andrew J. Mowen