Spotting this Rambler-like soft top on the Fiat Cabrio sent the writer’s imagination into a fever dream of then-and-now comparisons.
The New York International Auto Show has ancient roots. It is one of the oldest opportunities for auto manufacturers to show off their wares, dating back to 1900. You would hardly know it to go there, however.
The earliest shows were held at Madison Square Garden and later at the Grand Central Palace (at the site of the current 245 Park Avenue). The current venue is the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where it has been held since that facility’s completion in 1987. Like the facility, the vehicles and displays are very much forward looking—there’s no hint of, say, Chrysler’s 1924 display in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt New York), nor of a young Henry Ford’s meeting a young Alfred Sloan at the 1901 show in Madison Square Garden (now the site of the New York Life Building).
Nevertheless, the Auto Show (everyone calls their local International Auto Show simply “the Auto Show,” or at least we did when I was a regular attendee in Detroit), was full of largely unacknowledged throwbacks to the past and quite a few interesting tidbits just begging to be incorporated into older cars. Here is a cross section of what jumped out to this old-car guy, and why:
The Saratoga Auto Museum once again had an interesting display of vintage cars at the south end of the lobby—one that is free to the public even if they don’t purchase tickets for the NYIAS itself. This year included a number of prewar luxury cars and a fascinating 1929 Packard boattail speedster with actual racing pedigree.
An emphasis on motor camping and outdoorsy pursuits harked back to the days when the automobile brought the freedom of travel to hundreds of thousands who had previously been tied to rail schedules (and rail lines) or the slow pace and short range of equine travel. It also provides a nice antidote to the doom-and-gloom of self-driving car prophecies. It’s hard to imagine the delicate Waymo dragging itself down an old fire road in pursuit of its owner/lessee’s ideal camp site.
Mopar (Dodge, really) continues to market aggressive, performance-oriented designs and the powertrains to back them up. While nothing new was unveiled to compare with last year’s Demon, the Demon theme was prevalent among the Challengers and Chargers on display, including a nifty 3D drag-racing simulator with full-size Demon bodies. We had graphic designers Judi Dell’Anno and Josh Skibbee test them out for us—Judi won two out of three races. Not only is the muscle-theme a good throwback to the heyday of performance in the ’60s, the emphasis on 3D (Chevrolet had a “4D” test drive too), immersive experiences brought to mind the optimistic futurism of the ’40s and ’50s.
Chevrolet was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its truck line with plenty of nostalgia on hand, but mixed with a bit of retro-futurism. Check out the heritage bowties in the pre-1950s style attached to a modern Chevy pickup, and the visible-register-pump style (phone) charging station.
Even Ford, a stubbornly forward-looking company at this point, had a few nods to its own history, including the most-recent iteration of the Bullitt Mustang, and a 1950s-style hot rod coupe built from Legos with which to photograph their giveaway Lego figures. The truck line’s powerful-and-efficient engines and 10-speed automatic transmissions also stirred the imagination of the not-so-purist old-car enthusiast who could easily imagine such items quietly retrofitted to an earlier vehicle.
Buick’s new Avenir trim line (which we at first took for “Avenu” as maybe a play on “Park Avenue,” but no, it’s French for “future”) is an effort to establish Buick as GM’s traditional luxury brand—a contrast with Cadillac’s evolution to a luxury-performance nameplate. We couldn’t help but think of the brand’s 1936 self-reinvention and multiple occasions in the 1950s when new, higher trim lines were introduced to increase a marque’s panache.
Two test tracks were on hand for visitors to experience a thrilling ride on the proverbial “professional driver, closed course,” of advertising. The shockingly quick, 300-hp Toyota Camry was one, and the impressively nimble Jeep line was another. The obstacle that involved climbing and descending a staircase put us in mind of early 20th Century publicity stunts with automobiles climbing the stone steps of Beaux Arts governmental buildings.
Last, but not least, color was everywhere. In the last couple decades, we’ve despaired of color returning to car lots. It seems everything was finished in some kind of trade-in-friendly metallic greige. But suddenly, strikingly bold colors applied in unconventional styles—matte, non-metallic, pearlescent, and multiple combinations thereof—are available from many manufacturers. Colored interiors are also making something of a comeback, with all of us noting with pleasant surprise that the aforementioned Toyota Camrys sported red-leather guts.