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Automakers strike sober tone at Detroit show

For a show that’s normally heavy on the ritzy parties and celebrity sightings, there’s an unusual sense of practicality at this year’s Detroit auto show.
Image: The Ford display at the North American International Auto Show
It's not exactly austere, but the Detroit auto show is being done more thriftily this year.  Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images

For a show that’s normally all about ritzy parties and celebrity appearances, there’s an unusual sense of practicality at this year’s Detroit auto show, and it extends right down to the showroom floor — literally.

At the General Motors display on the main floor of the massive Cobo Center, carpeting has replaced the more lavish wood and tile flooring the automaker usually uses to cover the 121,000 square feet of display space where it shows off its newest cars and trucks.

Cost-saving measures like that have shaved millions of dollars off GM’s budget for the show, said Timothy Peters, GM’s assistant director of global auto shows.

“This is a significant saving,” said Peters, who declined to say how much money GM is spending on its displays and vehicle unveilings.

“The Detroit auto show is the single largest auto show in the world, and we expect to get over 700,000 consumers here in the next few weeks, so to say it’s a significant investment for us is the best way to characterize it,” he added.

The Detroit show is the most important event in the auto industry's yearly calendar, but with sales in a free-fall and the Big Three U.S. auto manufacturers desperately trying to avoid collapse, automakers are keen to show they have what it takes to survive the recession.

That starts with showing they’re not wasting taxpayers’ money. Just before Christmas, General Motors and Chrysler got at least $13.4 billion in emergency federal funding as part of a package to keep them out of bankruptcy, but that’s only expected to keep them in business until March. Ford has said it doesn’t need any money from the government, but might need a loan in 2010 if the economy worsens.

When it comes to cost savings, GM didn’t stop with its flooring. The massive graphic displays on the walls behind its vehicles are printed on removable aluminum panels this year instead of drywall so they can be packed up and taken to future shows, said Peters. The new lightweight displays have halved construction time for the show to 55 days from 100 days in the past, he said.

Automakers are cutting costs in other ways. Chrysler has discarded its tradition of turning the firehouse opposite the Cobo Center into a beer hall for visiting journalists, while GM skipped its annual GM Style car and fashion show, which in the past has featured celebrities like Kid Rock and Mary J Blige. Mercedes-Benz has cut costs by showing its vehicles in another venue, and Honda avoided a formal press conference for its Insight hybrid.

A number of automakers, including Nissan and Porsche, skipped the show altogether.

As if to show that taxpayer money is being well-spent, the Big Three avoided overly flamboyant displays in events unveiling new vehicles to the media as the show opened.

Last year, Chrysler introduced its revamped Ram pickup flanked by a posse of bull-whipping cowboys and a herd of 120 cattle stampeding past the Cobo Hall. This year, Chrysler’s presentation was far more subdued — it simply showed its newest cars, as did Ford, while Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm led a mini-parade of GM employees to introduce 17 new and promised vehicles.

“It’s all about business this year,” said Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst with consultancy IHS Global Insight. “The Detroit auto show has become an industry trade show for the year, and it’s focused on product. You can’t do away with the flashiness entirely, because the automakers have to capture the media’s attention, and that’s not easy to do, but this year the focus is on what’s coming up in the near term; what’s going be in their showrooms and get you excited in 2009.”

Paul Gallo, a GM engineer, participated in the mini-parade Sunday holding a sign that read “40 MPG” — a reference to the Chevy Spark, a fuel-efficient minicar for the U.S. market that GM unveiled at the show. He said GM is cutting back on expenses internally as well as at the show.

“When I travel for work there has to be an ironclad reason for it, and it’s approved at a high level. Before it was business as usual, but now everything is closely scrutinized. We’re being very fiscally responsible right now.”