The date is a convenient break from the doldrums of winter, slotting nicely between Christmas and the start of F1 season. The trip to the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City offers us a chance to dream, or “smoke cigars,” as my girlfriend might call it.
Still, every major car purchase we have made in that span has been influenced by our experience on the auto show floor. It provides a wonderful opportunity to walk around and slip behind the wheel of whatever number of vehicles you might be considering, without the unwelcome pressure of a salesman on commission.
Or it used to, anyway. Last year, Cadillac decided Philadelphia wasn’t worth the time. This year, BMW and subsidiary Mini followed suit.
Indeed, Audi, BMW and Mercedes all chose to skip the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, once one of the premier stops on the world tour, as have a number of other big-name manufacturers in recent years.
Each automaker has offered a variety of excuses for their non-appearances, and over the years we’ve seen a variety of marques choose not to show up, typically related to the precarious future of the nameplate, but the current trend of well-established brands choosing not to participate is particularly troubling.
Whatever the reasons the boardrooms may cite, the impression left on the consumer is that we are not important enough for them to bother.
Some find the car-buying experience fun. For me, purchasing a big-ticket item — a house, a car, a college — is a painfully intrusive and discomforting experience. The auto show provides me an oasis from that. Forcing me into the dealer network just to sit behind the wheel of a car to “try it on the size” — an important part of the process for me as I don’t fit well into all cars — is a dealbreaker.
Nothing against car salesmen. It’s a hard, competitive world, and they are simply operating within the norms of that business. It’s simply not for me. It brings me no joy.
I’ll be the first to admit, auto shows aren’t perfect. It’s already hard enough that automakers’ catering to a public seemingly obsessed with godawful SUVs results in the vehicles seemingly dominating exhibits by a rate of four to one. That brands don’t seem inclined to bring a single example of a pickup truck with a long bed or less than four doors, or that anything comes with a price tag under $20K is annoying, but I’ll muddle through that. I understand businesses have to respond to trends.
But as I consider my next car purchase, how I feel I am valued by does influence my decision. I don’t expect companies to give much thought or consideration to me, after all, I am a very small part of the bottom line, but by not having an exhibit at my local auto show, you are making a statement I hear loud an clear: You don’t need my business.
Many years ago, in the city of Philadelphia (not L.A., Vegas, or even Detroit), a man sat his young son behind the wheel of an early model Corvette. A few decades later, that man sat behind the wheel of another Corvette at the Philadelphia Auto Show, and with a little prodding by his own son, made the decision to make his childhood dream come true.
That would not have happened at a dealership. The hoops he had to jump through in the dealer network to simply to get the chance to order the car the way he wanted, and how many times that almost scuppered the deal, make me confident saying if we hadn’t gone to that auto show, my dad’s trips to high performance driving schools and Corvette Bashes at the National Corvette Museum would not be happening. Sitting behind that wheel that day was a great motivator.
Automakers turn their backs on their customers at their own risk. Auto shows work.