To those crammed onto it, Delta flight DL19 from Heathrow to Detroit on Sunday felt something like the school bus on the first day of a new term. Awash with industry executives and motoring journalists on the single direct flight that now exists between Britain and Motor City, there was the usual gossip, the usual banter and the usual discussion as to whether this would be the year in which Detroit finally emerged from the protective carapace it threw around itself when its world imploded towards the end of the last decade.
Talk to the locals, the off-duty cops and firefighters employed by the thousand to drive the buses, cars and limos that, according to your place in the pecking order, will ferry you from airport to hotel to conference hall to dinner and back again, and they will tell you Detroit is on the way back. Problem is, Detroit has been on the way back ever since it all went wrong.
Those of us who’ve been making this journey for 20 years or more remember the city and its Premier League show as it once was, when characters like Bob Lutz and Lee Iacocca – figures who’ve passed into industry folklore – used to take centre stage in the Cobo Hall and then launch cars by driving them through walls or dropping them from the roof. No matter that these cars and, as often, trucks, were of little interest or relevance to an industry recognising that the path to long term prosperity lay in globalisation – it was fun. And I remember too realising how bad it had got when I attended a Chrysler press conference amid lurid rumours of bankruptcy and its senior officials simply refusing to answer our questions.
I went this year more in hope than expectation. As if it needed it, Detroit now has another threat to deal with and, painfully, it’s homegrown. This is a show from a bombed out city that must compete not only with cool and classy Geneva but also the ever expanding monster shows in Beijing, Shanghai and the one we all love to hate in Frankfurt, but now also Los Angeles and New York, both of which are rather more attractive destinations even before you factor that Detroit is timed to plunge you into the depths of the Michigan winter.
It was minus two degrees when we arrived, inconveniently on the Fahrenheit scale used in the US. That’s -18 deg C, before you factor in the wind chill. That’s a temperature that goes from interesting to unamusing in precisely four minutes. Four more and you’ll be walking into strange buildings just to shield yourself from it.
But Detroit copes. There’s never any traffic here because so many people have left, and crime has fallen too, ‘because there’s no one left to rob’ according to the delightfully cynical chap who took me out to see what’s left of the once vast and state of the art Packard factory which exists now like a bleached skeleton, all its flesh having been gnawed away in the 59 years since a car last rolled of its production line.
And so to the show. Few of the industry glamour pusses ever bother with it these days. Bentley and Maserati showed up, but of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and McLaren there was no sign. The big reveal? Well there was a new Audi Q7 which is more important than it sounds because it’s platform tells us stuff about the Bentley, VW, Porsche and Lambo SUVs that will be spun off it, but I guess the most anticipated event was the unveiling of the production version of the Honda NSX, a car that’s been trawled around the show circuit in concept form for years.
But then something happened and we all noticed because these days it’s pretty rare. A car manufacturer produced something quite unexpected and were it a small hybridised shopping car, that would probably have been enough to get many of us cooing about having something to report. But it wasn’t: it was the new Ford GT and for its looks alone it briefly made this city feel more like Gotham than Detroit.
Hacks heard it had been unveiled at press conference in an adjoining arena and fled the other stands to walk, trot and even run over to Ford to see it. But it wasn’t there, nor was it in the arena. It was in transit between the two and would remain so for some hours while the world’s press wondered whether to continue with their chores or wait for it to turn up. I had not choice but to work on, but checked back as often as I could until it appeared between and original GT40 and the 2005 GT.
Once the sheer shock of its appearance had subsided and I’d digested the news that Ford was actually to build it, it occurred to me that while its presence was unrivalled by any Ford in history, for sheer beauty the ten year old GT was prettier still. Not that this bothered me in the least. Of perhaps greater concern was the news that it was to be powered not by a Holman & Moody 7.0-litre pushrod V8 (OK, I never really expected that), but a twin turbo 3.5-litre V6. I’ll reserve judgement until I can find a way of driving it, but neither that nor its paddleshift transmission are for me the most natural choices for such a car.
Elsewhere while there was not a vast amount to see, there was plenty to talk about. Porsche’s R&D boss Wolfgang Hatz confirmed there will indeed be a Cayman GT4 this year an even more sporting Boxster and that the new GT3 RS will be powered by a brand new flat six engine. A version of this engine will then be used as the basis for all 911s from the end of this year and, get this, they’ll all be turbocharged. Why? Not to increase power per se, but to fulfil Porsche’s part in driving down the CO2 emissions of the VW Group.
Over at Mercedes the boss of AMG Tobias Moers told me he was working on a Black Series version of the new AMG GT which sounds encouragingly insane and that the C63 AMG coupé we’ll see at the end of this year will be the maddest yet, far more mad than the saloon and estate versions we’ll drive next month.
And then there were the names. Bentley and Jaguar’s big announcements were not their new SUVs in person, but simply what they’d be called. We learned that the Jag will be called F-Pace, the Bentley the Bentayga. I think the Jaguar name is awkward, the Bentley’s something closer to awful but, as colleagues more charitable than I continue to remind me, we’ll get used to them. Perhaps. I’ve been trying to get used to ‘LaFerrari’ for almost two years without discernible progress.
As for the Honda, it looked really good, a little cleaner than the concept but still full of proper technology, like individual electric motors for the front wheels that not only provide four-wheel drive, but the most direct form of torque vectoring imaginable. Some pronounced themselves disappointed, but I think only because its silhouette is now undoubtedly familiar. And it was having to share the show with the Ford GT.
I boarded the bus home in a far more positive frame of mind, pleased to see Ford make such a bold statement and right at the other end of the scale, GM produce a fine looking electric hatch called Bolt with a ground-breaking 200 mile range. The big two as they must now be considered as Chrysler has been absorbed into the Fiat Group, were on better form on home soil than I have seen since the crash. I’d not yet say the Detroit Motor Show was back, but for the first time in more years than I care to count, I think I see it in the distance, it’s moving in this direction and at a decent speed, too.