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The Detroit hit parade: Memorable motor show moments

  • Detroit, no place for debutantes

    Press previews for the annual North American International Auto Show begin in earnest on 13 January, but the circus has already arrived in town.

    As temperatures in Detroit, Michigan, hover a touch above Kelvin, carmakers are finalising their displays, double-checking pyrotechnics and microphone cables, and generally checking their grip on brand messaging before the biggest auto show in North America kicks off.

    Detroit is a big show, by some measures the world’s biggest in terms of market penetration. As such, it has begat big moments since emerging from obscurity in 1989 as the rebranded North American International Auto Show.

    Herein, we present some of the most memorable product introductions, concept or otherwise, from a quarter-century at Cobo Center. (Photo: Chrysler Group)

  • Dodge Viper Concept (1989)

    It had been roughly 25 years since the debut of the original, factory-produced US kit car, the Shelby Cobra, when irascible Chrysler executive Robert A Lutz decided that a tribute was in order. In 1989, he surprised the enthusiast community with the Viper Concept: a crude yet curvy two-seat convertible with a snarling, Lamborghini-tuned V10 engine under its expansive hood. The Viper concept was a startling revelation from a company that had to that point been responsible for sensible “K-car” sedans and minivans. Purists marvelled at the simplicity of its design, and urged Chrysler to produce it.

    The takeaway: The production version of the Viper, which hit the streets two years later, strayed little from the concept, retaining its rambunctious, abuse-at-your-own-risk character. Chrysler would go on to produce other pie-in-the-sky concepts such as the Plymouth Prowler (1993) and Chrysler Phaeton (1997). (Photo: Chrysler Group)

  • Lexus LS400 (1989)

    Seeking a foothold in a luxury automotive market dominated by German brands, Toyota plunged head-first at the 1989 Detroit show with the launch of the Lexus brand. Although Honda beat Toyota to the punch, creating Acura several years prior, the first Lexus – the commodious, over-engineered, sybaritic LS400 sedan – was instantly deemed a competitor for Mercedes-Benz at a fraction of the cost. It was proof that luxury could be done, and done well, by a late entry – a feat that arguably has not been replicated since.

    The takeaway: The debut of the LS overshadowed the simultaneous launch of the Toyota Camry-based Lexus ES250, and stole the limelight from Nissan’s new Infiniti brand flagship, the Q45, across the hall. (Photo: Toyota Motor Sales)

  • Jeep Grand Cherokee (1992)

    In early days of the mid-size SUV craze, Jeep decided to launch the Grand Cherokee at the 1992 Detroit show by way of then-vice chairman Lutz driving it from the nearby Jefferson Avenue assembly plant to Cobo Center – replete with police and helicopter escort. But the truly show-stopping moment occurred upon arrival at Cobo, where a media scrum witnessed Lutz, with former Detroit mayor Coleman Young as passenger, ascending the stairs leading into the convention centre and hurtling the Grand Cherokee through a plate glass window.

    The takeaway: Such chutzpah was tough to top, but Lutz, who earned the sobriquet “Maximum Bob”, did his best at the 1997 show, when he and former Chrysler CEO Robert Eaton were depicted on boxes of a fictional “Durangos” cereal, to coincide with the launch of the 1998 Dodge Durango SUV. (Photo: Chrysler Group)

  • Dodge Tomahawk concept (2003)

    It is difficult to imagine the water-cooler conversation at Chrysler HQ that led to a motorcycle wearing the Viper’s V10 engine between two massive sets of tires. Enter the Tomahawk, a conceptual exercise that either repulsed or delighted show-goers for essentially the same reason: its frivolousness. But a cartoonish design exercise was hard to come by in this era of rigid Daimler-Benz oversight of Chrysler Group, a fraught relationship that would dissolve in 2007. The unexpected debut of the Tomahawk was made further memorable by its introduction: an on-stage delivery by leather-clad DaimlerChrysler chief operating officer Wolfgang Bernhard, depicted above.

    The takeaway: Somehow, the Tomahawk was deemed too uncouth for production. Bernard’s leather jacket also was not to be seen again on a Detroit stage. (Photo: Chrysler Group)

  • Chevrolet Volt concept (2007)

    The debut of the plug-in hybrid concept marked a turning point for General Motors (GM) in its effort to meet ever-more-strict global fuel economy standards. Former GM chairman Rick Wagoner joined – who else but – former vice chairman Bob Lutz at the unveiling. The Volt concept was eventually translated into a series production sedan, but not without a substantial toning-down of its exterior and interior styling.

    The takeaway: Dogged by an austere economy, a bankruptcy and a company-wide reorganisation, GM would take more than three years to ready the Volt for production. (Photo: General Motors)

  • BYD’s illicit ride-along (2008)

    There was no shortage of memorable products in 2008, ranging from Land Rover’s LRX concept (which begat the hot-selling Evoque) to the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. Perhaps no reveal, however, generated as much chatter as plucky Chinese upstart BYD Auto and its F6DM Ferrous Battery-Powered Dual Mode Hybrid. Undaunted by pesky regulations and eager to show off the hybrid’s capabilities, BYD chairman Wang Chuanfu (above) conducted an unscheduled test drive on the show floor – and directly into another press conference – with a correspondent from

    The takeaway: Few unscheduled incidents have occurred since at Cobo, save for the Detroit Free Press’ coverage in 2012 of a Lincoln MKZ concept that suffered a smoking door panel shortly after its introduction. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty)

  • The recession show (2009)

    In 2009, the once-swaggering Detroit show was a shell of what it once was, much like the city that hosted it. With the banking crisis reverberating in every economic sector, some automakers withdrew from the show entirely, while others scaled back their media conferences and presentations. No-shows at Cobo included Ferrari, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Porsche and Rolls-Royce, in addition to Nissan and Infiniti, which also cancelled appearances at the subsequent Chicago auto show.

    The takeaway: The 2010 show was a similarly dirge-like gathering, preceded as it was by the 2009 bankruptcy and bailouts of GM and Chrysler. The bankruptcies, however, gave the proceedings an unmistakable whiff of hope, something that would buoy the 2011 show. (Photo: Stan Honda/Getty)

  • Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (2013)

    With apologies to the Viper and Ford GT, few bombastic American supercars appeal to the collective conscience of enthusiasts like the Corvette. At an off-site event prior to press days for the 2013 show, GM president Mark Reuss, accompanied by vice president of global design Ed Welburn and nearly the entire Corvette engineering team, presented the Corvette Stingray to a crowd of fans, dealers, celebrities and journalists. The event was repeated almost note for note the following day on the show floor, but the excitement of the previous evening, with the cover coming off the ‘Vette, was downright electrifying.

    The takeaway: The tidy press kit from the launch of the Corvette, composed of a Stingray badge and other I-was-there paraphernalia, was being hawked on eBay almost immediately after the car’s reveal. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty)

  • To be determined… (2014)

    With previews for the 2014 edition kicking off on 13 January, it’s still anyone’s guess which cars will dominate discussion – and dreams – in Detroit and beyond. Rest assured, BBC Autos will bring you the product news as it is made.

    Follow us on Facebook and keep up with happenings around the Motor City and the Cobo Center floor on our Twitter page. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty)