The Chicago Auto Show is the place for the general public to play with cars
By Paul Abelson
If you take about 1,000 cars, light trucks and concept vehicles and put them in a world-class exhibit hall in Chicago’s McCormick Place exhibition center, do you think you could attract a million visitors? What if you added four test tracks scattered within more than a million square feet of exhibit space (a fraction of the total available) where you could ride with professional drivers as they highlight the capabilities of the vehicles they’re demonstrating?
If you put all that in one huge building, you’d have the Chicago Auto Show, the largest display of cars in North America. Detroit, the Motor City, claims its North American International Auto Show is the major car show in the U.S., but it is only about two-thirds the size of the Chicago show. New York claims more visitors, but it doesn’t have the space or the attractions Chicago does. Los Angeles, which shares International Show status with Chicago and New York on a rotating basis, gets its prestige from the design bureaus and Asian importers headquartered there.
Chicago is where manufacturers the world over come to take the pulse of the American public. Chicago is where “the people” come to see cars. In fact, the Chicago Auto Show draws a significant number of visitors from seven states. Researchers are constantly sampling attendees’ reactions to the cars on display.
It started in 1901 in a corner of the old Chicago Coliseum, a 58,000-square-foot exposition hall. Back then, it was known as the National Automobile Exhibit. Sixty-five manufacturers displayed their wares, but not all made cars. As with today’s show, accessory makers were there too. A dazzling collection of the latest automobiles were parked on a show floor about the size of a football field. To give visitors the experience of riding in these new horseless carriages, a wooden track one-tenth of a mile per lap was built around the perimeter of the Coliseum.
The next year the show was renamed the Chicago Automobile Show. Instead of an indoor track, there were friction rollers, the dynamometers of the day. Carmakers could bring their products to the rollers to show how fast they could go, but in a safe environment. After that, test tracks gave way to displays of cars.
On the move
During the ensuing century, the Chicago Auto Show had several venues, growing as the city’s exhibition halls grew. In 1936, it moved to the International Amphitheater near the old Stockyards. There, it had more than four times the space, at 255,000 square feet. In 1961, it grew again to occupy 300,000 square feet in the brand-new McCormick Place.
Disaster almost shut the show down in 1967. Just four weeks before opening day, McCormick Place burned to the ground. After some scrambling and a few disappointed exhibitors, it was back to the Amphitheater until 1971 when the new McCormick Place opened its doors. It’s been there ever since — sort of.
In 1997, the show was moved across Lake Shore Drive to the newly opened, 840,000-square-foot McCormick Place South Hall. That expansion brought even more manufacturers to Chicago. By 2005, the show was ready to make history once more. Management added part of the North Hall, bringing the total area to 1.2 million square feet. Among the exhibitors now in the show, the U.S. Army displayed an array of light combat vehicles including the versatile Stryker and up-armored MRAP trucks.
To help fill the added space, Chrysler built the show’s first modern-era test track. For safety and insurance purposes, all cars and trucks have to be driven by professional drivers, but that didn’t dampen the crowds’ enthusiasm. Even today, many attendees dash to the indoor tracks as soon as the gates open to ride in the latest vehicles and see how they perform.
This year, four manufacturers had tracks. Chrysler’s ran only Jeeps. The track required the driver to navigate some dirt embankments, buried logs and a few fairly large rocks on the way to a huge, steep bridge at the center. The bridge appeared to have an almost 30 percent grade (30 feet of vertical climb for every 100 feet of horizontal distance) and, after a brief pause at the top, the descent was just as steep.
Ford highlighted the new Explorer on its test track, while Chevrolet built an environmentally friendly track for the Volt. It was lined with grass and had beds of tulips to emphasize the benefits of an electric hybrid car.
My favorite among the test tracks was by Toyota. It was built like a construction site, complete with articulated front-end loaders, bulldozers, piles of construction materials and barricades to convey the image. The road was dirt, with sections simulating steep hills and high banked turns. There was even a stretch of galvanized drainage pipe to ride on.
Trucks make an appearance
This year, commercial trucks got a great deal of attention, not just from attendees, but from manufacturers as well. Ram, formerly Dodge Trucks, introduced the Tradesman, a short cab, long bed pickup designed for work, not luxury. But it still has a 5-liter Hemi V-8 standard. The truck can be optioned to tow more than 10,000 pounds.
Ford had an array of light-duty work trucks, ranging from Class 1 Transit Connect delivery trucks and taxicabs to Class 3 F-350s and E-350 cutaways fitted with vocational bodies and equipment. There was even a bare-frame chassis cab.
The Chicago Auto Show celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2001, but since there were no shows during World War II and through the 1940s the 100th show took place in 2008. The 104th version of North America’s largest and oldest automobile show will run Feb. 10-19, 2012. Maybe more manufacturers will entertain visitors with even more vehicles put through their paces on even more test tracks.