Over the weekend, I did some digging through my archives and found a set of photos that made me feel nostalgic. They’re from the 2003 Detroit Auto Show, a time when auto shows were bristling with metal and life, the closest most enthusiasts could get to the cars they read about in the magazines. Almost 20 years later, the car world’s switch largely to online debuts to avoid competing for media coverage, but that really leaves the fans feeling left out. Let’s head into the Autopian’s time machine (we couldn’t afford a DeLorean so it’s a Hyundai Pony) and head to Cobo Hall circa 2003.
Full disclosure, these photos aren’t even remotely close to being professionally scanned. The actual setup is a Canon T6i on a tripod hovering over my coffee table, so forgive the results for being a little bit shit. Still, I felt like it was worth showing you all an auto show from the past, from a time when the future was very much still powered by gasoline. So, let’s put our minds back roughly twenty years and experience the 2003 Detroit Auto Show like it’s the first time.
First up, let’s stop by the Volkswagen booth, where the flashy new Touareg is on display. Available with all sorts of luxuries you’d never expect to see on a Volkswagen, this SUV was an ambitious play by the brand that brought us the Beetle.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that this is 2003 and the New Beetle hadn’t completely fallen off the desirability curve. Here’s a hot Turbo S model, with a jumbotron in the background playing the ad where a Golf GTI falls out of a tree. Wasn’t the Drivers Wanted era fun?
Next up, Toyota has this hot concept SUV called the Rugged Youth Utility that just debuted at this show. The name’s rubbish, but the bright blue paint coats styling reminiscent of the FJ40 Land Cruiser. Oozing retro cool, the Rugged Youth Utility is the sort of concept car you want to see on the showroom floor. It would take another three years for the visually-faithful FJ Cruiser to make that happen.
Sure, the massive wheels and the interior styled after a Meccano set wouldn’t make the cut for production, but the spotlight-equipped mirrors, funky rear doors, and even the blue paint could be found on the production model. Oh how quickly dreams can become reality.
Speaking of dreams, let’s talk exotic cars. At this point in time, Ford still owns Aston Martin, so it makes sense that the latest Aston Martin concept would debut at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show. Called the AMV8, it’s meant to take the cool and exclusive British brand down-market, aiming more towards the Porsche 911. Compared to the 996 model, the Aston looks light years ahead, with styling that you just know will look great in 20 years’ time.
Of course, even the Aston Martins that have been on sale for a few years still look fabulous. “Die Another Day” may have been incredibly cheesy, but the Vanquish was the absolute star of that film. While the real version can’t turn invisible, it’s still a rare ultra-powerful GT car that turns heads everywhere it goes.
If it’s a GT car you want, how about a car with GT in the name? The Bentley Continental GT is brand new for this year and features almost mythical stats. Its six-liter twin-turbocharged W12 pumps out 552 horsepower, more than a Ferrari 575 has to offer. Despite all of the big Bentley’s bulk, it can still run from zero-to-sixty in less than five seconds on its way to a top speed of almost 200 mph. Thrilling stuff.
Mind you, that aforementioned Ferrari 575M isn’t a bad choice either. Sure, it may be a reworked 550 Maranello, but its wailing V12 still sounds the business, and the prancing horse is a rather revered badge.
Then again, nobody really came to the Ferrari booth to see the 575M. They came to see the Enzo, a 651-horsepower flagship supercar named after the founder himself. Words almost can’t describe how hot this car is, it’s the most powerful road-legal thing Ferrari has ever made up to this point, inspired by Formula 1. If there’s ever a star of the show, this is it.
Of course, the Enzo was far from the only supercar at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show. Ford is back with a version of its GT40 concept, now simply called GT. Now painted red with a set of white stripes, this reborn American icon is all about kicking ass and taking names. It may not have the sheer power of the Enzo, but it should be a damn sight cheaper.
How’s this for a manufacturer that you never expected to bring a fast car to Detroit? Oldsmobile is as good as dead, yet GM still rolled out an Aerotech for all to see. You remember reading about this when you were young, a silver bullet intent on showing the world what America could do. It’s a pity Oldsmobile now peddles re-worked Grand Ams and Envoys, because this brand used to make some really cool things.
As you wander back through the hall, your eyes start to wander, too. Mitsubishi has a decked-out Evo, just like your wildest Gran Turismo fantasies come to life. Ford has this funky new concept called the Model U, and Land Rover’s decked out a Freelander in all manner of off-road gear. The auto show is one of the most amazing places in the world for a car enthusiast, and one you don’t see ever changing.
Oh how naïve we were.
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Definitely was at that one – I may have photos from even older NAIAS shows at my mom’s house…
Awesome I was there! Thanks for the trip down memory lane ????
The question marks were supposed to be a car emoji
Cool to see these. Shame this year’s show was dismal. Basically just the big three with fleets of crossovers, and Toyota and Subaru each bringing like 2 interesting cars.
I appreciate this dive into nostalgia. I’ve attended every Chicago auto show with my dad since 1995. We used to most of the day, easily, at McCormick place; our hands numb from carrying bags with every brochure I could find. Now we spend about 3 hours, moving at a leisurely pace.
Not to sound like an old man, but those shows were a lot of fun. I’m sure a lot of us (readers and writers) can heavily attribute our auto enthusiasm to the auto shows of yore.
I attended the DIAS from ’96 – ”02. I learned that any reveal that involves stairs is going to be a disappointment. They revealed the New Beetle in the basement and the Thunderbird was elevated on a platform. The seats face the wrong way in the New Beetle and the T-Bird was scraped out of the bottom corner of the parts bin. Both objectively good looking cars as far as retro cars go though.
This is a very interesting article, and one that has caused me to do a bit of looking back myself. I have, for many years (including at that point), thought that the early ‘00s were a low point for the automotive world. Supercars have never excited me, and the cleaner styling of the previous decade gave way to bulbous, busy, fussy vehicles. To make no mention of the retromodern fad. Nissan did it best with the Pike Cars, and to my eye, no manufacturer has gotten retromodern correct since. Oh, and custom car culture around this time period?? Yeesh.
Still though, it’s neat to see these old auto show pics. I don’t like the era, but it’s still neat to look back.
For what it’s worth, Google makes an app called PhotoScan that guides you through taking several photos of an image or document that you want to scan and then does some kind of magic to remove any glare and optimize the image. It works pretty quickly, had pretty good results, and is a lot easier than trying to dangle a DSLR over a coffeetable.
I know this sounds like an advertisement, but I’ve got no skin in the game. I’m just a guy who likes easy ways to digitize printed photos.
In fact this is a Google product that people seem to like and works pretty well so they’re probably going to axe it soon. I’m also a guy who’s still bitter about losing Google Reader.
I’m also salty about the death of Hangouts as a great all-in-one tool. Instead, Google had to make Duo, Chat, Meet, and Messages (which admittedly, does its job well for texts). Voice is still here but it’s on life support. And don’t get me started on the beauty of Project Ara.
Typical Old GM to drop a cool concept branded with a name they had announced would be canceled two years prior.
… you know, I’ve got a bunch of these from NYIAS.
Turbo S Beetles are extremely underrated cars and crazy deals right now, imho. The CUP-inspired bumpers, billet interior touches, lowered suspension, larger brakes, and nice leather interior coupled w a 6spd manual transmission and detuned 180hp/180ftlb 1.8T made a pretty fun drive. I picked one up a few years ago for $4500 that was extremely clean, and chipped with a unitronics stage 2 chip which bumped it up to 235hp/275ftlb! Thing has been a great car for 5 years now, just about to hit 170k on it.
If it were a comparable GTI 337 (special bumpers, 6spd, aluminum bits) it would have cost $8-12k in similar condition, so you basically get these at less than half price compared to the golf bodystyle.
The other Mk4 from that era worth noting is the Audi TT 225, fantastic looking car, but after driving one, idk… I like the beetle a lot more. The TT is so low and you sit so far back you can’t even see stoplights. Beetle might not keep up on a track but it’s just a silly amusing car to drive, especially once you chip it.