Detroit Auto Show: What's A Car Without A Concept?

They are the rock stars of the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall in Detroit. They come with loud music, fog machines, dancing girls and acrobats. One even came with it's own skating rink.


"They" are the concept cars. They are the future of the automobile business. Or not.

"At the beginning we're pretty blue sky. We're thinking anything, and we're purging allot of ideas. We encourage the designers to open up the flood gates and let the creativity pour out." Carl Zipfel and I are walking around the Hummer concept vehicle, called the HX, unveiled here in Detroit. He's Director of Design for Hummer. "We basically told the designers, 'Come up with the next generation of the Hummer.', and this is what they came up with. It's a beauty. Sort of a "green" Hummer mated to something from the "Transformers". Wild."

Wild yes, but practical? Actually nobody cares if it's practical or not. Concept cars by definition are flights of fancy, almost design exercises for those assigned to them. And because of that, they create the most fun, and the most "buzz" at the show. Nearly everything else the 7,000 members of the international press that are here see they already know about in some form or another. The concepts are about the only thing that will get a real rise out of the audience. It's automotive show business at it's best.

"And Bob Lutz came over and pointed to this sketch right here, and he's like, 'I want to see that as a show car' I didn't know what to do I was so excited." David Rojas is a young GM designer that along with two other recent graduates of design school here in Detroit were assigned to the Hummer HX project. They worked on it for two years making over 700 sketches.


Once it was decided that it would be unveiled at this year's show, the designs went over to the Design Fabrication Studio in suburban Detroit. It's here that each piece on the car, each nut, each bolt, is made to design specifications. Once assembled the concept is an actual working vehicle. Of course it may end up being the only one ever made.

"Allot, probably all, of it's future rests with what kind of response we get at the show, mostly from the press. If it creates enough "buzz", then there's a good chance it'll be a production car someday. If it doesn't, this will be the last we see of it." Carl Zipfel and I was talking next to a Hummer truck version that will be unveiled at the Chicago show. It was a concept last year, and is a production car this year.

There are over 50 new cars and trucks being unveiled at this year's show, ten or so of those are concepts. And while there has been a move to make concepts more realistic in the last few years, mostly because of cost, they are still more creations of the heart than they are of the mind. Even in Detroit there's a place for fun.

"We've always got something in the works, " Zipfel says, "We're already working on next year's concepts. I have a desk full of drawings."

Another show, another concept. Follow the ice skaters.

'Mike On America' will be filing reports from Detroit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on an hour special and on Power Lunch, from 12 to 2p eastern. Then we're moving on to Pennsylvania and New York. See you along the road.

We'll be driving a concept car of our own.

Questions? Comments?