Detroit 2013: Secret World Live

2014 Corvette Stingray
How my NAIAS experience began. All photos by Randy Stern

It was great to be back in Detroit.

It was in 2006 when I first visited the Motor City. It welcomed me with a trove of history unlike any city I had planned to visit. Despite some bright spots, the Detroit was still trying to find itself. The city felt knocked down with neighborhoods too frightening to pass through because of an image that overshadowed its want of a return to progress and prestige.

A reversal of fortune sparked a positive future for Southeastern Michigan. The rebirth of Detroit was highlighted in a Chrysler commercial two years ago. It featured a powerful image – the sculpture of Joe Louis' mighty fist that stands not far from Detroit's epicenter. That steel fist symbolized the toughness of a city that needs its signature industry to stay alive.

This is why we mark our calendars for January on the global automotive scene. Detroit is the destination. The North American International Auto Show is the draw.

Interestingly though, I had never been to NAIAS. It was never in my cards to do so. On a small budget, I would wait until the next month where I could follow up on everything that debuted in Detroit at the Chicago Auto Show. That all changed when I received an invitation last month to join the festivities in Detroit. At first, I was a bit leery, but once the details came about – I jumped on board.

I answered the call of NAIAS.

It is not an overstatement that Detroit rolls out the carpets and pulls out the stops in terms of auto show drama. Strategically plunked in the middle of the global auto show calendar, one would expect the world debut roster to be beyond belief. For Media Days, credentials are sent to every corner of the planet. Industry people dust off their finest suits and business dress to meet the mass of the media corps.

When the dust settles in a matter of two weeks, one would expect the memories to linger through the rest of the global auto show schedule. Memories where the glimpse of the hot new debut out of Detroit would show in places stretching from Chicago, Minneapolis, Geneva, New York City, Shanghai, Melbourne, Seoul and many other stops along the auto show circuit.

After all, NAIAS is the most important auto show stop in North America.

Though I was credentialed to attend the media preview, I came here with a mission given to me by my hosts. It was more of a guided tour of media days, rather than a dive into the scrum at every preview. Not that I mind being guided, but rather to pace myself and explore a singular perspective that actually is amenable to my own automotive background.

Who invited me to partake in this opportunity to participate in these media days? It would be a host with a familial history to mine. Often on here, I talk about the origins of this work and art. It began with a 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Starfire Convertible and was crafted by an even bigger 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan. Perhaps it was somewhat apropos that General Motors would be my host for my inaugural foray into NAIAS.

Renaissance Center

In this work, I have been fortunate to present some of GM's products to you. I was also fortunate they invited me to see some of the programs they held in the Twin Cities over the past two years. When the invitation came – I was indeed hesitant initially. Through my own mental processing, I considered the pros and cons of going on this trip to Detroit.

It is no secret that OEMs would sometimes invite social media influencers to these programs. I just happen to be on someone's radar in and around GM – an influencer with a passion for this work and the subject matter. For someone trying to build a larger presence and deeper influence, I took this as a compliment and accepted the invitation.

The approach I took through this guided media preview was to be the curious onlooker. To observe the motions of my hosts through group interviews, deeper examinations of their debuts and current products and to master the knowledge of the OEM's products and business strategies – to the level I have of maybe a few others.

It is not that I claim deficiency in comprehending GM's latest technologies and product line. Quite the contrary, being exposed to various levels of infotainment interfaces, electric drive technologies and other vehicular design and engineering facets of GM's lineup. With decades of history behind me, I welcome the guided tour that my first OEM would provide through its latest vehicles, global strategies and upcoming technologies.

What I found was another entry into this very important auto show. This guided tour provided a perspective that only a few people could ever observe and absorb. The phrase I would use to describe this level of access provided to my fellow travelers and I would be apt using a title of one of Peter Gabriel's album – "Secret World Live."

Welcome to the C7 Reveal

The program began the night before I hit the floor of Cobo Hall. At a secret location where Detroit has been claiming itself through old industrial complexes, one of the show's biggest stars revealed itself. In an atmosphere akin to a huge underground club with well-dressed company personnel, select members of the automotive media corps and an even more select group of the brand faithful braced a wet evening in old industrial Detroit to witness something extraordinary.

On a stage full of imagery of its history with an eye into the future – the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray made its first appearance. The seventh generation of America's true sports car was reborn – and it is hungry for action.

The first reaction was part-eye pleasing, part-curiosity. The 'Vette has always been America's answer to the great sports cars of Europe. Since 1953, GM made sure that its fiberglass-bodied two-seater had an eye on the likes of Jaguar, Porsche, Maserati and such to keep up with performance and driving dynamics to satisfy the hardcore American audience, as well as global enthusiasts.

The 'Vette has never been pleasing for everyone. Perhaps the C7 would be the one to bring the 'Vette to the global stage on the track as well as carving out the Stelvio Pass. From what I've seen, the gap between the 'Vette, the Porsche 911 and the Nissan GT-R has been tightened. The new Stingray is not the Corvette we had known for the past 60 years. Maybe this is a good thing that there was a global intention in its look and the ambitious engineering that went into the basic formula of this front-engined, rear-drive, two-seat, Small Block V8-powered American sports car.

This event was not just about the Corvette Stingray. It was about experiencing a side of Detroit I only read about. A side of the Motor City that loves to party and revel in its success – with a dash of the glamour of Los Angeles in the backdrop of Detroit's most important economic engine. Having dreamed of wondering what it was like to attain the "golden ticket" in this career, the astounding display of Detroit's aspirations was simply staggering. It was delicious. A humble boy from Reseda, California – a gay one, at that – could not have been satisfied with being allowed to partake in this display of the Motor City's engine of industry.

The next day, it was down to work on the floor of Cobo Hall. There were plenty of debuts going on – all of which I was unable to attend live. The General Motors program guided through several of the latest products, technologies and services. As much as people either applaud or criticize GM for their recent history, the reality is that the company is doing their best to retain their leadership in the industry. Using Twitter to either ask for assistance on new vehicles or owner issues is one piece that keeps the company's edge going. Their commitment to full or partial electric propulsion vehicles is another that GM wishes to distinguish them in the global marketplace. It was all quite impressive, overall.

Chevrolet Spin

On top of their current and future offerings, Chevrolet offered a small selection of vehicles not sold in the USA. Amongst our group, we were very impressed with the Spin MPV, a three-row crossover product selling mainly in Southeast Asia. Though you might not think it would exude quality, it truly does. The astounding fact was the level of quality in the Spin – it was truly on par, if not better, than the North American-built products.

The same was said of the Latin America market Onix hatchback. Though it may appear to take several cues from an older model – the Celta – it is a clean subcompact five-door hatch made simple enough for leveraging low-cost ownership. One step inside reveals a higher level of trim, more comfortable seats and a simplified version of the high quality interiors seen across the Chevrolet lineup.

In all, GM is making sure that Chevrolet translates well across borders and oceans than its home market of North America. This was reiterated by Mary Barra, Senior Vice President of Global Product Development, in one of a series of group interviews with social media influencers. There are a few global products that are sold universally with some differences in content, powertrains and body styles. The Spark and Cruze are recognized on every continent – though both are sold as Holdens in Australia and New Zealand – as brand ambassadors for the bowtie. Barra explained that Chevrolet's product mix actually depends on the needs of individual markets with consideration to local regulations. This would also mean adhering to market demands, especially where in some places car ownership is an absolute premium to the point of one-car households, rather than our familiar multiple-vehicle homes.

Other GM executives and personnel were offered for both individual and group discussions. Though I wanted to talk to several key people, including Vice President of Global Design Ed Welburn, I opted instead to fulfill a continuing story related to my other outlet, Lavender Magazine. My only individual interview from this program was with Adam Bernard the chairperson for GM PLUS, the company's LGBT employee resource group. As of going to press, I continue to work on the write up of the interview ensuring it would work with Lavender and other outlets interested in the story of GM's leadership amongst the automotive industry in terms of employment equality.

Mark Reuss

One of Tuesday's highlights was a brief roundtable discussion with Vice President of North American Operations Mark Reuss. He joined us for a brief time before the unveiling of the Cadillac ELR fielding questions about defining the company in context of its brands and his approach to his job. The answers Reuss gave were backed by an enthusiasm for his role in changing the way GM sees itself in North America.

For decades, GM always had the air of a leader. The company "won" every time, but the spoils only stopped at some random executive's office. When the Cadillac ATS won the North American Car of The Year Award on Monday, Reuss simply sat in the front row of the ceremony, fist clinched in accomplishment. Instead of him accepting the award on stage, Reuss stated that the ATS team came up to accept the award. Reuss explained that this was intentioned for the team responsible of the victory to know what it is like to be a winner, rather than someone above them in an office somewhere.

Watching Reuss respond to our questions prompted another observation. GM has a leader who is truly engaged and excited about his job. Reuss truly wants to share that excitement across the company. This is not exactly a paradigm change, but rather a reflection upon Reuss as a change agent. A prime example was when he formed the GM Performance division. Reuss' enthusiasm propelled the aftermarket parts and accessory division to engage enthusiasts in the short and long run. Despite some images that usually show him as a serious man, Reuss' exuberance for the job remains in tact as he steers GM's North American operations towards post-bankruptcy sales and financial success.

2014 Cadillac ELR 3

Perhaps this notion of focusing on the team rather than its leader was more apparent at the ELR reveal. Everyone involved in the development of the extended range electric coupe was lauded in creating a luxury product with its feet firmly planted in efficiency and sustainability. Though it is essentially a Chevrolet Volt underneath the Art&Science body, Cadillac ensured us that it exuded the current levels of luxury and high levels of detail now expected in every ATS and XTS sold in North America. If anything attracted the first award for the car, named the Best Production Car by Eyes On Design at NAIAS.

The ELR won not just on a visual level. Say what you will about the Volt – it formed the basis of the balance between performance, solid driving dynamics and efficient alternative propulsion. The added equation of a premium brand and an air of luxury elevate the Volt to the ELR – similarly as the Lexus CT is a more luxurious and sportier tack on the Toyota Prius it shares a chunk of its platform with.

Where the ELR differs from any Cadillac before is a lack of lineage. This is a fresh new branch off of the old Cadillac tree. One could try to link back to the Eldorado – the personal luxury coupe that defined the segment in 1967 before its extinction in 2002, but it would not be fair to do so upon the ELR. This is a fresh root for the Crest-and-Wreath – a needed shot in the luxury brand's arm to cement relevance in this highly competitive part of the vehicle market.

For the time I was with the General Motors' group, I had plenty of space to explore the show on my own. This also included meeting several of my colleagues for the first time and reconnecting with others from previous endeavors within this work. Part of my meanderings was to connect with other members of my culture and community who reside within all sides of this industry. I always took comfort in knowing that having other LGBT and allied colleagues, contacts and supporters alongside me make this work easier to execute. It is a lesson I take to heart every time I participate in anything involving the automotive industry.

Renaissance Center

Another lesson I have to constantly remind myself about Detroit is that the hostile form of corporate rivalry from the past is no longer part of this business. Everyone knows everyone else, regardless of employer or contractor. Friendships were forged across corporate lines and some may have worked elsewhere before moving on to their current position. There are no silos to place people into – a lesson in post-TARP/bankruptcy Detroit.

I could get into the vehicles I saw other than the Corvette Stingray and ELR, as well as other stories from NAIAS. That would require a few more pieces to write in the coming days. However, I am grateful for this opportunity to come to Detroit to experience this great auto show. If there is a next time, I want to do this alongside my friends and colleagues on a different level. There are also other shows to work – Chicago being my main one overall.

Thank you for being good hosts – Detroit and General Motors – and showing me a secret world I would have continued to dream about being a part of. I now leave this show in your gracious hands.

DISCLAIMER: Travel and event logistics provided by General Motors.

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