The Detroit Auto Show with Jewish Commentary
Born as a car show cum fishing and hunting show in Detroit’s Beller’s Beer Garden in 1907, the North American International Auto Show — NAIAS — has proliferated into a mammoth 750,000 square feet of display space in Cobo Center, including 25,000 square feet of new space opened up in the ongoing Cobo renovation process, expected to be complete by the 2014 auto show.
Considered one of the top five auto shows in the world (with Frankfurt, Shanghai/China, Geneva and Paris) in terms of number of press, visiting executives and new product introductions, the 2012 show will give auto enthusiasts a whopping 40 unveilings over which to ooh and aah.
With 40-plus vendors and more than 500 vehicles to view, even King David, Judah Maccabee and Simon Bar Kochba might stand in the doorway scratching their celebrated heads, uncertain how to attack.
So we assembled a crack crew of veteran Jewish road warriors and up-and-coming young guns (and one auto show insider) to share their battle plans.
Aaron Robinson is a technical editor at Car and Driver Magazine (and this writer’s brother), Brett Berk writes “Stick Shift: The Gay Car Blog” for VanityFair.com, David Gluckman is an online editor at Car and Driver and David Zenlea is an associate editor at Automobile magazine.
For the insider’s view, we turned to Joe Rohatynski of the Howell firm Rohatynski and Harlow, which does PR for the North American International Auto Show.
Native Detroiter and L.A. transplant Aaron Robinson probably isn’t the only auto writer whose boyhood bedroom housed a passionately curated collection of Dinky and Budgie die cast models.
But before the Car and Driver technical editor graduated to a garage littered with the full-scale innards of such auto exotica as the Lamborghini Espada, he was surely one of very few budding autophiles to own a souvenir model Sabra — the Israeli-made car which, myth has it, camels liked to chew on.
As a young racing aficionado, Robinson was an avid reader of Road and Track’s Formula 1 coverage.
“I figured out, probably around the time of my bar mitzvah, that I was probably not going to be a racecar driver. At a very early age, I was trying to figure out how to get paid to do something I just wanted to do anyway.”
He did, inevitably, try auto racing, concluding that it “requires a certain amount of ‘jockness’ that I never had. I don’t like going fast, and I don’t care about winning.”
According to Robinson, whose earliest memory of the Detroit show was “being really cold,” the auto show is a great place to shop for cars.
But don’t just look from afar.
“You want to sit in [the cars], sit in the back seat, pull all the levers, try everything. Swing your legs in. Adjust the seat if you can; close the door. Don’t just look at them.”
For the non-shopper, he says, the big thing to look at is the concept cars because it takes an average of four years and as much as $1.5 billion to bring a new car to the market.
“Every production car to some extent is a look at the past,” said Robinson. With the concept cars, manufacturers are “lifting up their skirts and showing you what’s on their minds. The concept cars give you a glimpse into the future.”
The Insider: Joe Rohatynski has worked with the auto show for more than 15 years, visiting with his own father when he was a kid and later with his own three sons. When Volkswagen showed the Concept One in 1994, he said, there were no plans to put a new Beetle into production. “Everyone went nuts,” said Rohatynski, and four years later, the reinvented love bug rolled off the Volkswagen line. Definitely check out the concepts.
Brett Berk is known in auto circles as the author of VanityFair.com’s pop culture car column “Stick Shift: The Gay Car Blog.”
As early as his bar mitzvah, Berk showed precocious flair, adorning his bar mitzvah cake with a Deusenberg, the elegant jazz-era status symbol driven by the fashionable likes of Tom Mix and Rudolph Valentino.
Berk is the rare auto writer who doesn’t write about what he calls “the engine-y stuff.”
“I don’t really understand how an internal combustion engine works,” he joked.
“Cars are a fashion accessory,” said Berk. “They express who we are and how we see ourselves.”
What best describes Berk? The author of the article “City Gay/Country Gay” drives a 1972 GMC Suburban at his upstate New York home and a 2004 BMW 325i to go back and forth to the city.
One of his favorite “Stick Shift” pieces is last April’s “A Very Stick Shift Passover! Ten Jewish Car Writers Share 10 Automotive Plagues.” “The whole minyan of car Jews — we got them all together,” said Berk.
Unsurprisingly, Robinson, a serious serial Lamborghini restorer (after 10 years restoring the first one, he sold it, regretted it, bought another) contributed the plague of “Italian Irresistibility” — “for a beautiful car is like a beautiful woman, and Adonai blesses the world with both so that you shall know the meaning of the term ‘high maintenance.’”
Among Berk’s picks at the NAIAS are the new BMW 3 series; the new Mercedes SL; the Cadillac XTS sedan, with its new entertainment interface; the 650 hp Mustang; and the elegant Cadillac Ciel convertible concept car, which Berk loves.
An Oberlin graduate with a master’s in education, Berk taught both preschool and university creative writing before coming out of the closet as an auto maven. In college, he confessed, he used to hide in the library secretly reading Car and Driver.
The Farmington Hills native remembers going to the car show with his own father.
“I would insist on getting into every car on the floor.”
Berk offers the following survival advice for parents who hope to create great auto show memories:
“No. 1: Be patient. Set a time limit. Set up the expectations. Run through the rules. The biggest mistake parents make is not being proactive. Turn it into something manageable as opposed to something overwhelming. Talk about what their expectations are. Also, take the People Mover if it’s not bankrupt by then.”
The Insider: Rohatynski suggests WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Family Day on Friday, Jan. 20, for families. The day will feature musical performances, giveaways and opportunities to meet Channel 7 on-air personalities.
Groves High School grad David Gluckman followed his passion for all things wheeled at his “Crusin’ with David”-themed bar mitzvah — the cake was sculpted into a Plymouth Prowler — to the University of Michigan School of Engineering before he “decided that maybe I wanted to write about cars instead of designing door handles.”
The 27-year-old pursued a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he also got his commercial driver’s license and drove a bus.
His taste in cars? “I like the big stuff for no real useful reason.”
In a recent “Rental Car Olympics” comparison for Car and Driver, Gluckman chose a Lincoln Town Car.
“I think they’re huge and old and completely hilarious.”
A lap in reverse established the Lincoln’s genetic line as the same as the Crown Victoria police car, which, unlike your average automobile, does not have a speed limiter in reverse. The delighted Gluckman discovered that the Lincoln could do 63 mph backward. “That was a lot of fun. We didn’t break the car, but we definitely broke the rental agreement.”
In his free time, Gluckman reads, listens to music, and “I try to meet nice Jewish girls and fail, to my bubbie’s dismay.”
And he rides a bicycle “because even when I’m exercising, I need to be wheeled.”
“For the hometown crowd,” Gluckman’s auto show must-sees are Cadillac’s new ATS compact luxury sedan, and he casts a second vote for Ford’s 2012 Mustang Shelby GT500, which will, he says, be the “most powerful American car on the market when it goes on sale this year.”
David Zenlea, 26, is the assistant editor of Automobile magazine. He’s also still looking for the patient woman who wouldn’t mind a carpet of car paraphernalia on her garage floor — there’s currently a Pontiac in bits on his.
“I like sitting on my butt in front of a brake rotor,” said Zenlea.
He advises against taking a date to the auto show.
“I’ve taken dates to an auto show — not a good thing to do. Unless they’re really invested in you.”
When they find out he’s an automotive writer, “they’re interested for a second and then their eyes sort of glaze over.”
Automotive writers can generally be found tooling around in one press car or another, but Zenlea laments, “You never have the Porsche 911 when it’s time for date night. It’s usually a Nissan Cube.”
His ideal car is the Mazda Miata.
“It’s very much an automobile journalist’s car. This car is so right.”
Applying the Berk standard, what does that car say about him?
“It probably says that you’re an auto journalist,” laughed Zenlea.
The Boston native says he was definitely one of those kids who played with cars.
“When I wasn’t quite verbal, I would point at hubcaps. I would be able to point at a Chevy.”
Zenlea graduated from the University of Maryland with a background in Jewish studies and journalism.
“I was always going to write,” he said.
“It’s something to write about,” he says about cars. “I like almost everything about it. I really love driving.”
In college he covered Washington, D.C., and developed a taste for automotive business news.
“All that little intrigue. I find it interesting because at the end of the day, they’re producing something that everybody recognizes.”
It’s a little tough to be an observant Jew in the jet-setting world of automotive journalism where a kosher meal is “a little thing in cardboard” (in addition to visiting a globe full of auto shows, auto writers generally stalk exotic vehicles in their natural habitat).
“I’ll just tell them I’m a vegetarian because it’s easier.” But, he said, that doesn’t play in some parts of the world. Once, after being assured that the cook had him covered, he was served a plate of prawns that were “still squirming.”
His tack at the auto show is to “start at one side — very methodical. I walk the whole floor and commit to the fact that my feet are going to hurt.”
He starts with the domestics because “it’s still their show. This is their town.
“It’s a very good choice out there for consumers. Everybody’s raised their game a lot. There really are no real lemons out there.”
Zenlea credits the influx of Japanese cars with raising the bar across the board.
“A lot of companies are fighting to get your money.”
The Insider: Rohatynski’s advice for visitors: “Look for the new technology because it’s really, really fascinating how cars have changed, especially in the last five years. Come and expect to learn. Ask as many questions as you can.” Rohatynski also notes that today’s auto show models, far from being just pretty faces, are product specialists who attend classes to prepare for a show. “They’re like walking, talking Wikipedias. In some cases they’re bilingual; in some cases, they sign.”