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After World War II, the era of the dream car began at shows, explained Mr. Anderson of the Henry Ford museum.

“Fantasy vehicles that could fly,” he said. “You start to really see ones that are over the top.”

Show attendees entered a world of white-walled tires and gleaming convertibles, on top of the far-fetched concept vehicles promised for the near future.

“The design was all-important,” Mr. Alberts said. “It used to be that simple 30 or 40 years ago. You had to appeal to a younger crowd.”

The first Washington Auto Show was in 1921, when 20 car dealers hosted a show in an effort to sway the skeptical public on the benefits of a “horseless carriage.”

Out of that grass-roots effort, the auto show took off. In its nearly century-long history, the show has been canceled only because of war and recession.

“When the bottom fell out, the auto industry was looking to prioritize where it put its money,” Mr. Alberts said. “A lot of people were testing out different areas, and a lot pulled out of auto shows.”

Shows got smaller, fewer and further between, until the country began to recover. Companies that had pulled out of shows came back in after realizing how important it was, Mr. Alberts said, boosting the number of exhibits at the show, and in turn, the number of attendees.

“Everybody wants to be in the game, the public eye,” he said. “It’s a reflection on the culture and the economy and what a big play it is. Cars are a reflection of lifestyle, personality and finances.”

But that doesn’t mean car shows can’t have that magical feeling again, historians say, even in leaner times.

“The new Corvette has 25 to 30 miles per gallon, which is unheard of in a sports car like that,” Mr. Anderson said. “Cars are not going to be driving themselves in the near future, but you do see more computers in cars. This really is a golden age of cars, even though they’re not flying yet.”