Back in 2009, I started a tradition. I would round up a group of my friends, board a train, and visit the Chicago Auto Show. I’ve been doing this for 14 years now and often I’d go twice, once for the media show and once for the public show. Through it, I feel like I’ve watched the slow death of the auto show. Chicago became such an afterthought that I missed the 2022 show without even noticing. This year, I came back and dragged my wife along with me. In doing so, I rediscovered the joy of an auto show.
I still remember my first time at the Chicago Auto Show. I only discovered that the show existed because a car dealership gave me a free ticket while my parents were trying to buy a car. It was 2009 and I was 16 years old. In the year prior, I had fallen deeply in love with the Smart Fortwo. I learned the brochure front to back and could tell you the specs right off the top of my head. Heck, I drew Smarts while bored in my high school classes. In 2009, I kicked off a tradition by rounding up my friends, boarding a Metra train bound for Chicago, and visiting the show. I still have pictures of the cars that I took back in 2009.
In the years since I returned to each show and got to watch Chicago evolve with the times. Thanks to my own personal car blog (which no longer exists, sadly) I was eventually able to score media passes to the show. I still brought my friends to the public show and even though we couldn’t afford any of the cars, we still had an unforgettable time.
We’d do silly stuff like make our way over to Scion-where there was always some EDM thumping-and try to cram everyone into a Scion iQ. Then each of us would go to our favorite brands, sit in a car and just dream. I did a lot of sitting in Smart Fortwos years before I bought my first and I’ll never forget those days.
Sure, the Chicago show didn’t have the fame or importance of Detroit, but automakers still put in a great effort. There were plenty of concept cars to see. Displays would sometimes be so tall that you could see them before you even entered the show floor. There was lots of fun that you could have at various displays. Sometimes you could have some fun at Hot Wheels at Chevrolet and walk away with a limited edition Hot Wheels Camaro, or find a Lego booth at another automaker where you could assemble your own car. At one point, Scion liked giving out papercraft models of its cars.
The Chicago Auto Show peaked for me in 2015, when I got the rare opportunity to meet Tanner Foust at the Volkswagen display.
Then, I competed with Foust and Scott Speed at setting hot laps in iRacing. I didn’t beat Foust, but I beat Speed! Foust is an awesome guy, by the way, and despite the jokes, he’s not short. I’m 5 feet, 6 inches tall and wore 4-inch heels when meeting him and he was still taller than me.
Sadly, it seems a lot of this has been lost in recent years. Nowadays, when you go to Chicago you’ll encounter lots of empty space and countless automakers just don’t show up.
This year, the list of missing automakers includes Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Genesis, Porsche, Mini, Land Rover, Audi, Lincoln, Jaguar, Mitsubishi, Volvo, and probably a few others that I’m missing. Cadillac technically wasn’t there, either, but you could ride in a Lyriq on one of the many test tracks. Chicago has long been known as a truck show and you would usually find conversion vans, dump trucks, shuttle buses, and ambulances, but aside from the same dump truck Chevy has been hauling out to every show, almost none of those showed up.
Chicago is so light this year that the dead space is filled up with massive test tracks.
This area is where you’d normally find the likes of Kia, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mini, and some other brands. Kia moved to another hall and Subaru moved to the space that would normally be occupied by Land Rover and Mini.
Yet, despite all of this, Chicago was actually really fun this year.
Rediscovering The Fun Of An Auto Show
What changed this time around is that I brought my wife, Sheryl, with me. Sheryl told me that she had never been to an auto show of any kind, so I had to change that. For years, I’ve been driving to the show. I don’t really know why I stopped taking the train, but I decided to relive some of the past.
We left Sheryl’s Prius in a parking lot and boarded a Metra commuter train pushed by this beautiful EMD F40PH-3.
We took that to Chicago Union Station, where we transferred over to an articulated bus that scooted us to the show. Ah, the memories that trip brought back.
At the show, Sheryl found herself amazed, much like I did 14 years ago. Sure, this show wasn’t nearly as grand as the 2009 show that I started my show at, but she was like a kid and playing with all of the cars that she had only seen in traffic or in videos before. It wasn’t long until she found her favorite new truck, the Ford Maverick.
Even better is the fact that it was painted in the one color that her eyes are capable of seeing, yellow.
Prior to this show, she’s only seen Mavericks on the road and on YouTube. Now, she got to play around with one with me. We marveled at the low bed height and the fact that this truck is actually pretty compact. For her, the truck was even better than she imagined. I captured this picture showing her pure glee about this little truck.
Next, we made our way over to Toyota, where the car on the turntable was the Prius. As a third-generation Prius owner, Sheryl found herself disappointed with the new one. It’s the most normal that a Prius has ever been and she found herself disappointed with that.
Personally, I’m still blown away by how good the Prius looks nowadays. The Prius becoming a hot car might be the biggest upset of 2022 in the car world.
My favorite part of the Toyota display was a set of customized Land Cruiser overlanders from Australia’s Patriot Campers.
Sadly, these SEMA Show builds aren’t vehicles that you can buy here in America, but you can buy the company’s camper trailers. More on those in a separate piece!
Later, we found ourselves at Volkswagen, where both of us were saddened that cars like the soon-to-be discontinued Arteon aren’t more popular in America. This is a really neat car and it has the kind of attention-grabbing design that something like the Volkswagen Phaeton should have had.
Alas, Americans have voted with their wallets, crossovers and SUVs are in, sedans are out.
The Magic Of An Auto Show
The real fun happened downstairs, where I decided to get Sheryl into some electric cars. The closest thing to an EV she’s driven is her Pri’s EV mode, and that doesn’t really count. Volkswagen had an ID.4 on hand while Kia brought an EV6 GT-Line, an EV6 GT, and a Niro EV.
For whatever reason, I thought Sheryl got exterior pictures of the vehicles from her EV quest, so I didn’t take any. Apparently, she didn’t, either. Just picture the dark underbelly of McCormick Place behind this ID.4:
She first took a ride in the ID.4. Sheryl expected the ID.4 to drive like the Prius in EV mode, and she was blown away that EVs have their own completely different driving dynamics. Watching her discover how EVs drive in real time was a treat. She spent her whole drive in the ID.4 saying words like “wow” and “this is so different.”
After driving the ID.4, she was excited to try other EVs. Sheryl felt that driving the VW was addictive, but the controls weren’t intuitive. So, she began a quest to try a bunch of EVs.
She later took the wheel of the Kia EV6 GT-Line. Immediately upon taking the wheel, she made a comment that this car made a ton of sense. The Kia, to her, maintained the futuristic interior look but without moving controls to weird places. Indeed, she hopped right in and got the car going without the Kia rep telling her what to do.
The drive did something else to her, too. My wife is a woman who dreams about Subaru B9 Tribecas, Mazdaspeed3s, turbo Subarus, and once bought an Oldsmobile LSS in Alabama and brought it home to Illinois. Thanks to me, she’s driven a lot of other cars. None of them, she says, can hold a candle to how the EV6 drove.
The Kia rep let her open the taps on the test course and that 225 horsepower motor let the electric little crossover rip. At least from my point of view in the roomy back seat, the EV6 kept its composure as Sheryl pushed it around the pothole-ridden circuit. She came out smiling from ear to ear and Sheryl loved the drive so much that she now calls the $48,700 EV her new dream car.
That right there made me remember the value of auto shows, even if they aren’t as grand as they used to be. Someone has a new dream car and a newfound respect for a brand because of a fun visit to a show.
All of this was great fun, and together, Sheryl and I saw cars that we could only otherwise see by driving all over northern Illinois and visiting dealerships. Since we aren’t that weird, it’s something that we don’t ever plan on doing. Thus, an auto show remains great for this. You can experience tons of cars at once without a salesperson breathing over you and without staring at press photos on a computer screen.
Granted, it seems that seeing cars online is still the future, but I still see some value in being able to see cars in person outside of a sales environment.
So, the next time you see an auto show in town, round up your friends or your significant other and go. These shows aren’t what they used to be, but they’re still worth a visit.
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Like a lot of you I grew up going to auto shows as a kid (Atlanta, in my case) and I enjoyed the NAIAS (Detroit) for most all the years I lived there, until the late 2000s. But for me, I think the magic of new-car auto shows is permanently gone. I don’t bother with the Chicago show any more, not even for work. But where the magic *does* still lie, for me, is Detroit’s Autorama.
“You can experience tons of cars at once without a salesperson breathing over you and without staring at press photos on a computer screen.”
This is exactly why I like going. Seeing the concept cars can be fun but really the chance to crawl around in the latest models and get a feel for if they will work for you without any sales people around is worth the price of admission.
The Auto Show is the one thing I miss about living in NYC, because it was always a huge event there, at the Javits Center. The Phoenix Auto Show was incredibly lame this year, barely any cars there.
I’m headed to the show this Saturday with my dad. We’ve gone every year since 1995 (Covid being the obvious exception). Back then (oof, I’m at the age where I start sentences with that phrase), we would easily spend 6 hours at the show. Our hands would get torn up from carrying two bags loaded with brochures, desperately trying not to crease the posters (anyone else remember the transparent Mercury MC4 and Tiburon Magic-Eye posters?). The one and only time my mom came with, she stood in line for an hour for the VW New Beetle plastic-injection molded model. I think she was just tired of walking. For me, the Chicago auto show was the best holiday second only to Christmas.
The show is bittersweet now. It’s a ghost of what it used to be. While the south hall was always relatively spacious (it used to be held in the Lakeside center – that was PACKED), it was absolutely barren last year. I can’t remember the last time we walked out with a brochure. Now we can casually stroll through and be done in a couple hours.
My dad and I still have our tradition. We still park in the 18th street lot. We still get our tickets at the lower level to avoid the lines. We still go to Laschet’s for dinner afterwards, though now it’s a very early dinner. We’ll keep going until we can’t.
I have one of those New Beetles somewhere. I think that was the last year I went, 1998? My dad and I went every year from 1979 until 1990, though. The posters and brochures and giveaways were the best part, until the next year when you realize you still have all of last year’s stuff and haven’t looked at any of it in eleven months…
Orange is cool, but Ford needs to offer yellow on the production Maverick. And green too 🙂
It is School Bus Yellow.
What they need to do is offer said Yellow on the XL Maverick, even if it costs a massive amount as an upcharge. I don’t want any grey, white, or black cars, and if I’m going to buy a new car its going to be in a lively color. If I were going to get a Maverick I’d get an XL Maverick but the color choices for said Maverick trim are horrible
That’s the perfect opportunity to take that upcharge for the color and get a vinyl wrap!
The FP40 is iconic
Last year was pretty surreal, going to the show on a weeknight (okay, it was Valentine’s night)–it felt like my buddy and I had ALL of McCormick Place to ourselves. No lines for rides, even! Even compared to the early/pre-COVID days of 2020’s show, it was sad to see a significantly condensed version of the show.
Of course, how about the exhibitors who make the cars I actually want to see? Not gonna’ be there. Upside? Parking was a snap, on-site. I’m hoping the show will suck a bit less when we make the road trip there this week (either tomorrow or Thursday).
I’ll be there Sunday with the family. Sad to hear about the big trucks not being there as that would be the highlight for my sons.
There was at least one big military truck there.
Milwaukee auto show is in a week or two, I’m really looking forward to it. My wife isn’t really a car person, but she loves going to the auto show with me. It’s an unexpectedly good date night.
Autopian meetup at the Milwaukee show? Mercedes?
You know what, let’s do it! 🙂
Let’s do it!
I’ve never been to the Chicago auto show, but I bet it would Make Me Smile. Especially in the Beginnings, after all it’s better than a plain old Saturday In The Park. But later I’d be asking Does Anyone Know What Time it Is, because by 25 or 6 To Four you need to queue up by the exit to leave. 🙂
Seriously I used to love going to the NY Auto Show back in the day with my Dad. It’s where I met one of my first loves, the mistress commonly known as the 1994 Impala SS. Still lust after one to this day.
While I disagree that the statements that the Maverick is a Truck, is compact, and has low bedsides I do agree that the IRL School Bus Yellow (Ford calls it Cyber Orange) is the best Maverick Color and that it looks great in said color.
Ford just needs to start calling it what it is instead of using stupid names like “Cyber Orange”.
Went today with my brother who is a Lexus Mechanic. Blown away by getting into the Ionic5. Saw one in France last May and loved the look. It looks amazing. SO does the 6 and the KIA 6 is very well designed too. Mercedes, Audi, Volvo, Land Rover, Mini, Jaguar, Mitsubishi, (Tesla?), (Rivian?), Lincoln, Cadillac and that joke of a BMW exhibit can just go feck off. The best exhibit was Subaru. And that candy apple red Lexus convertible was crazy beautiful. Also I want that yellow Maverick too Mercedes.
I’ve been going to the Toronto show most years since I was just about four, going back for the first time since 2020 on Friday (work event). I’m excited to go poke and prod a handful of things I haven’t seen up close yet (Maverick is up there), although I imagine it’ll continue to have some of the budget cuts that’ve been becoming apparent in the past few years.
I’m more excited though, we’ve also got a motorcycle show on this weekend – in addition to hopefully being quieter (still a little squirrely around people), I’m taking my kid, as he’s three and a half and digs motorcycles, so he’ll hopefully enjoy it.
Used to go to the shows every year, but now like you saw half the manufacturers aren’t represented. It’s not decided by the company but local dealers, was told by a BMW dealer they will never go again after some BS lawsuit that someone filed supposedly injured by a car on the floor. My kids use to go crazy and abuse everything.
When the Gladiator was just coming out the dealer had it behind the velvet rope in Boston, my Jeep friend was pissed. Two weeks later in Providence the dealer gave full access to it which my son properly jumped all over. Next year in Boston the same dealer had the Fiat Miata convertible behind the rope, seriously it was a 25k new production car. Guess it’s FCA Stellantis dealers not wanting people to see how cheap a new model is before sales ramp up…
BMW was there.
A few years ago, I went to the Chicago show with the man who is now my fiancé. He had never really been to an auto show, but he came along to humor me. His perspective changed as soon as we entered the floor at McCormick Place through the middle escalators (no line!) and I got into a Volvo.
He was stunned. “Wait, you can get IN the cars!?”
We had a great time. Mercedes, glad you and Sheryl had such a good time. And we agree about the Maverick in Grabber Orange.
I finally got to go to the Detroit Auto Show last year and basically no one was there besides the Big 3 and Toyota. I was immensely disappointed. Meanwhile six months earlier at the boring old Cleveland Auto Show they were pretty much all there. It’s odd that the small time shows are now the only ones where you can see most of the manufacturers. Sure, the concept cars are from last year, but if you just want to see what’s available that’s apparently the place to be.
Thank Mercedes, that brought up a lot of great memories. No longer living where it’s easy to go to a show (looong drive) is depressing. All through the 90s, I took my step family to the Houston auto show. The kids had a blast, always ending up carrying a heavy bag of, well, everything, that then ended up on their walls. Seeing so many makes and models, having the ability to sit in and check out the cars (no driving unfortunately), helped me so much in deciding potential buys. Wow do I miss that.
Even got to check out the all new Subaru SVX, which I quickly found didn’t fit (could barely even get in it), but it was so cool to check out. Never considered a Subaru until I saw that radical design for the time. Why that one sticks out, who knows, but it was among so many concept and “coming soon” models, you couldn’t help but get a thrill from seeing it all.
Auto manufacturers are missing the boat in my opinion, not making more effort to really hype up and get people to these shows, it sold me on more than one car, many many times.
Amongst other things, auto shows have become the victims of car makers’ incurable tendency for premature ejaculation, their obsession with the internet and “controlling the message”, and their pack of beagles mentality vis-à-vis the Next Big Thing.
The rot started with pre-show one-make shows, so the surprise of new announcements was removed from the main show. That was followed shortly announcing everything on the internet days or even weeks before the show, increasing the sense of déjà vu if you do actually attend the show. The final nail in the coffin was wanting to be part of the Next Big Thing: the Milan Salone, Goodwood Festival of Speed, SEMA, CES, Tokyo Auto Salon, etc. etc. Somebody puts on a show at an event that is “blue ocean” for car manufacturers, next time around they all race off there like a pack of beagles on a scent, and the auto show environment gets diluted by another degree.
Now almost the only reason to go to an auto show is what got Mercedes (Autopian Mercedes) excited – actual physical contact with lots of cars at the same time, but that sort of relies on them being unpopular. In the heyday of auto shows you had to queue or get in a clusterfuck to get near anything worth a close look.
Glad you enjoyed it. My first auto show was the Baltimore International Auto Show circa 1993. The highlight of the day was getting to meet the already legendary John Davis of Motorweek.
Since you enjoyed Chicago are you going to hit up the NASCAR race when it comes to town?
This years LA auto show really rekindled the old magic for me.
The big three hall was full of actual driving experiences that (If you had the time and patience to wait in line), you could hop in a Bronco and drive over some obstacles, or head over to pull a giant weight in a RAM 1500 and all of this inside the actual hall which made me wonder how the hell they got a pass to run multiple ICE vehicles in an enclosed place all day long.
I remember back in the 90’s going to the Detroit autoshow when they actually still put on “shows” every hour or so to launch a new model.
Oh man this takes me back…I remember going in the late 80s and hauling those bags around with enough posters and flyers of cool cars to paper my entire bedroom!
If memory serves, wasn’t Chevy giving away life-size Michael Jordan posters one year?
“…and countless automakers just don’t show up.”
The last new auto show I attended was in Seattle in 2010. Saab had reserved a space but didn’t bother to show up, which under the circumstances was understandable, so the Spyker representative (also at the time understandable) parked this in Saab’s spot instead, without explanation. It was a bit unexpected after following the official floor map to the Saab exhibit and yet, alas, it did not represent a bold, new direction for either company:
Thanks for reminding us how fun it can be to discover new cars at a “big” car show. Too bad a lot of car dealers don’t feel they are worth getting involved in anymore. The last car show here in Raleigh was basically all trucks and huge SUVs, which I don’t need, with very few if any EVs. I hope this year’s has more hybrids and EVs. Or maybe it’ll be cancelled like the past 3 years’ shows.