x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Detroit diary: Notes from a hectic Detroit motor show

Lawn tractors cut a swathe through competition, striking a balance between a dance troupe and the corporate board, and why the Michelin Man became the show's mascot.

Outside the main hall, just in front of the doors leading to the street, was a booth showcasing three vehicles packed with the latest in automotive technology, gleaming under lights. They could even be considered the supercars, the highest end of their niche, were it not for the fact that they weren't even cars at all. They were lawn tractors.

"This is an auto show, a home for automobiles," said Onney Crawley, director of brand management for Craftsman. "And because these tractors have a lot of auto-inspired features, we thought we could communicate that well here."

And, indeed, the world of lawn tractors seems to have merged more into the car world than I ever imagined. The three Craftsman tractors on display have features that include fuel injection, independent four-wheel traction control (who loses control of a lawn tractor?), cruise control, electronic ride height adjustment (for that perfect cut of grass), a differential lock and power steering - and, of course, a cup holder. "People come to our booth and ask why we have tractors here, but when I go through all the features, a light bulb goes on," smiled Crawley. "They get it."

Topping out at US$6,499 (Dh23,900) for the high-spec CTX 9500 Garden Tractor, it might offer a cheaper yet still relatively luxurious alternative to some of the other vehicles in the Cobo Center hall.

Lotus floats around halls

Why was Dany Bahar roaming the Cobo Center halls? I noticed the CEO of Lotus Cars, dressed smartly in a grey suit and carrying his own coat, enter the hall with his mobile phone pressed to his ear. But Lotus wasn't even at the Detroit show. Perhaps he was scouting for a buyer for his car company, which is said to be for sale by its Malaysian owners. He walked for a bit, talking and texting, and met up with a friend. They checked out the Mercedes stand and then wandered off.

A Mini disappointment

Part of the experience of any motor show is, once the presentation is done, that you get into the mad crush with all the other journalists for USB press packs at the manufacturer's stand. You can end up with 10 or 20 by the end of the day, and some of them are cool little things. But I didn't get one from Mini. The company is too tech-savvy for that, so instead I lined up to type my email address onto an iPad so they can send it to me that way. Great, I expect the weekly spamming to start soon. But if I owned a Mini, at least I could access it from my car.

Volkswagen a step out of sync

Why do car manufacturers feel the press wants to see dancers up on stage? Volkswagen introduced its hybrid Jetta and E-Bugster concept under flashing stage lights and surrounded by young, hip, urban twentysomethings doing some sort of interpretive dance. It got a little embarrassing after just a few seconds and had more than a few journalists rolling their eyes. Maybe it was to help deflect some of the boredom surrounding its offerings, a way to make its four-door hybrid saloon "cool". But at least it was a bit more interesting than the Porsche event; unveiling a hot car like the 911 Cabriolet can indeed be turned into a yawn-inducing affair by introducing the entire board of the company one by one. Whatever happened to just using tall, attractive women?

Never tyre of Michelin Man

No matter how exhausted I got roaming the halls, no matter how much my toes pinched in my leather shoes, I always found a smile on my face when I passed by the Michelin stand. The Michelin Man, that big, white, puffy, smiling mascot for the tyre company, was standing there all day waving to passers-by and getting his picture taken. I'm not really sure I felt happy because of that cute, friendly grin on his face or if it's because I knew that, underneath that massive suit, the guy inside was probably feeling worse than I did. Thanks, Michelin Man.

RenCen keeps rumours alive

General Motors' dominating headquarters on the waterfront of Detroit, the seven-tower complex known as the Renaissance Centre, has a history just about as surprising as its halls and walkways are bewildering. Construction on the RenCen started in 1972, and it was home to the Ford Motor Company until the mid-1990s, when the firm decided it wanted to move to the city outskirts in Dearborn, Michigan. Its cross-town rival, GM, snapped up the buildings. A persistent rumour about the RenCen is that Jimmy Hoffa, the former union boss with alleged mafia connections who disappeared in 1975, is buried underneath the complex's foundations. Construction of the RenCen didn't finish until 1977.