What ever happened to the cars of tomorrow?
Many years and many miles ago, cavernous exhibit halls would be packed with thousands of gawking spectators jostling around the newest machine from Henry Ford, or sneaking a glimpse at the stunning female models who were on display as much as the cars.
Some of the shows looked more like a World's Fair, with enormous banners highlighting the heavyweights of car production, bright lights casting a gleam on steel and chrome, and perhaps even a roar from a lion might be heard above the show's noise, the animal brought in to capture what little imagination was as yet unclaimed by the prospect of a car that could drive itself.
No King of the Jungle will greet guests at the Washington Auto Show, but visitors can ride in a Fiat small enough to fit in a walk-in closet, take time to admire the curves of the newest Camaro, or learn how gas-guzzling giants are giving back to the environment.
"The shows themselves mirror greater cultural trends," said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich. "The first one [in 1900] in New York, the cars were sort of mystical in and of themselves, and at the time there was not a lot of public interest. The earliest shows were to attract dealers, but very quickly the public took interest. It was kind of surprising how early they became spectacles."
Through Feb. 10, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is the stage for 700 of the newest cars from manufacturers around the world. The two-level exhibit showcases luxury vehicles that cost more than a house along with more affordable options that still promise a fun drive. Sleek speedsters that get hearts racing with just a glance are parked next to sedans that have enough computer power in the dashboard to function as a mobile office.
But amid the bells and whistles, the focus of this year's show is on functionality and being environmentally friendly.
"The show is driven by the industry itself," said Gerard Murphy, producer of the event and president of the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association. "Functionality is becoming a watch word. A car has to be an extension of our house, our office, or even our briefcase."
Visitors walking into the second floor of the Washington Auto Show will be greeted by midsize sedans parked on bright white carpet or mounted on rotating stages. Bright lights that look like they were plucked from a movie studio shine down from the ceiling, illuminating the hundreds of cars parked in the tremendous room.
Despite the impressive exhibits, the signs and displays are smaller than they once were, explained show floor manager Ramon Cala.
"Everybody's downsized," the 25-year veteran said. "Before there were big displays and only one or two cars."
Prior to the recession, manufacturers had "lavish budgets" for shows, "but now people are doing more simple displays. They want to see more cars."
American car shows got their start roughly a century ago, said Rod Alberts, executive director of the North American International Auto Show.
"The first auto shows weren't really standalone, they were combined with fishing and hunting, because there weren't as many cars," he said. "The whole idea behind the auto shows since Day One is that they're always thrown by car dealers with the intent of helping to invigorate or motivate car sales during a slow time of year. Throughout the years, there are a lot of things that change, but auto shows in essence continue to do the same thing."
What has changed, however, is the experience.
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."
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