It was September, 1957, and the Toronto Star was there at the CNE Motor Show to record the unveiling of a new car. A photograph shows two smiling blondes, at a signal given from the president of Ford of Canada, taking the wraps off an Edsel. It was a car said to appeal particularly to women. “There were as many feminine ‘Gee whizzes’ as male when the wraps came off,” the Star reporter noted.
That brief story reminds us that more has faded from the auto shows than Edsels. We no longer go to auto shows the way a previous generation went to the CNE Motor Show, to see the new models. Before the CNE Motor Show ended in 1967, it coincided with the annual model change for the cars, when all the cars changed at once. Car makers still from time to time unveil their new cars at auto shows, but it’s not the same.
And what happened to those smiling, comely young women who “graced,” as the Toronto Star headline writer put it, the automobiles they presented?
This weekend marks the fortieth anniversary of the Canadian International AutoShow, the successor to those long-ago CNE extravaganzas. It’s a good occasion to look back and reflect on the tradition of auto shows — what has gone and what has remained. To this end, a writer named Robert Szudarek has provided us with a useful history entitled The First Century of the Detroit Auto Show, documenting the prototype of all such exhibitions. (Detroit is still among the top three auto shows, along with Frankfurt and Beijing.)
The Detroit Auto Show began in 1899 as the Tri-State Automobile and Sportsman’s Show, consisting of bicycles, firearms, fishing tackle and sporting goods, as well as automobiles. There were stuffed animal heads also on display, a reminder that potential car buyers were considered to be hearty, masculine sportsmen, at home in the outdoors. Small matter to them they were not protected from the elements when driving a car.
France at that point was the world’s leading auto maker, and the source of much innovation. According to Szudarek, for example, the French originated the concept of the engine mounted in front and covered with a hood, a change evident among cars on display in the 1902 show. By 1903, however, the Michigan car industry was rapidly catching up with France, with companies such as Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Packard well established in Detroit. The stuffed animal heads soon disappeared, and in 1907 the last bicycle was displayed.
Certain elements of the show were present from the beginning. Entertainment, for example, was always on offer. In the early years, an ensemble called Finney’s Orchestra played such tunes as “Plantation Melodies” and “Dainty Dames.” In 1978, to pick a year at random, the featured entertainers were Woody Herman, Bobby Vinton, Della Reese and that immortal rock group, the Detroit Wheels. Fantasy, inseparable from music and from the marketing of automobiles, was also laid on thick. In 1927, the exhibition building was converted into a baronial castle, with hangings of tapestries and displays of knightly armor. It was one more indication that the stereotypical car buyer as fly fisherman and shooter of wild turkeys had long since vanished.
Not least among the mix of enduring car show elements were the models, the swimsuit contestants, the beauty pageant winners who circulated the hall as “floor girls” or stood by the car and explained its features to interested males. They learned to smile politely on the one hundredth occasion when a man would ask, “Do you come with the car?”
Szudarek chronicles it all, every new wrinkle in this parade of beautiful women. In 1933, to highlight the new “sleek and rakish” look of the cars, women in evening clothes were featured, “just to demonstrate to the public exactly how the wife or daughter would look surrounded by several hundred or several thousand dollars worth of automobile,” according to Szudarek. In 1935 carnivals were the theme, and the women wore resort clothes. In the late 50s, women wore gowns that matched the car’s exterior. In 1968 go-go girls with silver miniskirts brightened the hall.
I haven’t seen much of this in the last few editions of the Canadian International AutoShow, but the tradition seems by no means dead, even if lying dormant in Toronto. Last year, for example, the Beijing Auto Show was roused by a BMW model in a “revealing” diamond-studded dress. Li Yingzhi, the model in question, known as the “Beauty of Qingdao,” her home town, was scolded by a government watchdog for the “negative social impact” of her appearance, but it made her a celebrity and superstar model.
Recently, Complex magazine dubbed models, some of whom make a living out of auto shows, “booth candy.” They ran a piece entitled “The 50 Hottest Girls at the 2011 L.A. Auto Show,” which included one Etalvia Cashin, a model for Nintendo and someone who clearly lives in a different world than I do — among her credits are an appearance as a “host” in a “Webisode” and a “guest star” in a “Webseries,” and she says things like “I love playing as Yoshi. And I love using the drift option.”
“Yoshi” I believe is a character in Nintendo’s Super Mario series. “Drift option,” I have no idea.
The connection with auto shows is not difficult to discern. As it happens, Nintendo debuted a “gamer-themed car” at the L.A. Auto Show, the features of which I remain in ignorance. The uncertain picture I do have of a “gamer-themed car” does remind me of the musings of the French intellectual, Paul Virilio, on the subject of the automobile. Virilio believes we inhabit time and not space. This means the car of the future will not actually go anywhere but will itself be a kind of cinematic environment. You just enact the drift option and sink into a kind of flickering trance.
Leave it to French intellectuals to come up ideas like this. My own view is that these notions are their revenge for losing world auto supremacy to the upstart manufacturers and mechanics of Detroit a century ago.
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