A look at auto introductions through the years
It's all about the show
Chicago Auto Show at the Coliseum
Toronto Armouries Show 1912
CNE Automotive Building
1935 Chevrolet Turret Top
1934 Chrysler Airflow
1938 Buick Y-Job
BMW at the 1951 Frankfurt Motor Show
General Motors Parade of Progress
Corvette at the GM Motorama, 1953
Volkswagen at the 1951 International Automobile Exhibition
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL at the 1954 New York International Auto Show
Honda Sports 360 at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show
Honda Exhibition in Hiroshima Prefecture, circa 1968
Mustang debuts at the 1964 World’s Fair
Mustang on display at the 1964 World’s Fair
Honda 1300 sedan preview, October 21, 1968
1977 Tokyo Motor Show
Nissan booth at the 1977 Tokyo Motor Show
Nissan booth at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show
Nissan introduction at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show
Honda Civic wins “Japan Car of the Year” for 1973
Honda Accord Sedan debuts at the 1977 Tokyo Motor Show
The last GM Motorama, 1961
2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited debut at Detroit
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Each year, automakers debut their brand-new models to the press, and to the public, at auto shows around the world. But these shows have been around for a while—almost as long as the automobile itself—and we’ve collected a wide variety of some great photos, like this one from the 1973 Tokyo Motor Show, for you to enjoy.
The first auto show in the United States was held in New York City in 1900, featuring a variety of gasoline, electric, and steam vehicles. The first auto show in Chicago was held a year later, and included an indoor oval track where people could test-drive vehicles. (Most people had never driven a car, and it’s reported that a few crashed through the track’s guardrails.) Today, the current Chicago Auto Show is the largest and longest-running in the United States. Los Angeles saw its first auto show in 1907.
Toronto residents got their first look at a car on public display at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in 1897. A Transportation Building went up on the exhibition grounds five years later. Because the CNE ran in the summer, but new models came out in the fall, a second show was held later in the year at the nearby Armouries Building. This one featured such brands as Packard, Detroit Electric, Ford, Reo, and Cadillac. The display on the right is from the T. Eaton & Company department store, which briefly sold cars until its “goods satisfactory or money refunded” guarantee slammed up against early vehicle reliability—or lack thereof.
Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition auto display moved into a new building in 1909 after the Transportation Building burned down. It initially featured all types of conveyance, but by 1911, horse-drawn carriages were gone. The display was renamed the National Motor Show in 1916 but soon outgrew its building, and in 1929, the Automotive Building was constructed. It showcased cars until 1967. The structure still stands, but it’s been modernized into a convention centre.
Auto shows have always been places to see the unusual. In 1935, General Motors introduced the first all-steel roof, dubbed the “Turret Top,” which replaced the wooden frames and canvas inserts most cars used. The company demonstrated the new roof’s strength by sending a couple of people up to dance on it.
The streamlined Airflow, introduced at the National Auto Show in New York on January 6, 1934, was supposed to be Chrysler’s breakthrough car. But it was too far ahead of its time, and while it’s a hot collectible today, buyers back in the 1930s didn’t warm to its radical styling. Critics made it worse by saying the Airflow was “flimsy.” In response, Chrysler built a sand pit at the Chicago World’s Fair and hired race driver Barney Oldfield to roll one over each hour, and then drive it away to wait for the next show.
The Y-Job was the first concept car, designed and hand-built to showcase new technologies and styling cues to see how they worked and to judge public response. If all went well, bits and pieces might show up on production models. Depending on what the automaker is concentrating on, concept cars can range from engineless styling bucks to working models that can be started and driven.
Known as the Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (International Automobile Exhibition), the modern Frankfurt Motor Show is described as the world’s largest. It began in 1897 with a modest display at a hotel in Berlin. Here, BMW debuts its 501 Barockengel, the first model it produced after the Second World War.
While the public usually went to the car show, the car show sometimes came to the public. In 1936, GM fired up its Parade of Progress, which took a travelling show across the country to illustrate several modern developments, including a jet engine, microwave oven, television, and diesel-electric engines. In 1939, a second parade started at the New York World’s Fair and included twelve purpose-built buses, called Futureliners, which were filled with animated exhibits behind their fold-out side panels. The war brought an end to the tour, and a third one planned for 1956 never got off the ground.
Between 1949 and 1961, General Motors held a show called the Motorama. Civilian vehicle production stopped during the Second World War so factories could make war supplies, and styling went on hiatus. When the 1946 cars came out, they were warmed-over designs from 1942, and so when the all-new 1949 models came out, GM took them directly to the public in Boston and New York. The second Motorama was held in 1950, in New York only, where 320,000 people showed up. The 1953 version, presented at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, featured futuristic concept cars, but it was the new Corvette that stole the show.
The Beetle had a long and difficult birth due to the war, but it was on track by 1951, when this model made an appearance surrounded by flowers. This also marked the first Frankfurt Motor Show.
Vienna-born Maximilian Hoffman, an avid car enthusiast and racer, moved to New York in 1941 and made his fortune in costume jewellery. That allowed him to open an auto showroom and start importing European cars. He was the first to import the Beetle—two of them, actually—and he became a Mercedes-Benz agent in 1952. His portfolio also included Jaguar, Fiat, Porsche, and BMW, and he often suggested vehicles that companies should make. One of those was the race-car-based gull-wing Mercedes 300 SL, and he was a vital force in getting the car to market—and to the New York show, of course!
Honda was already the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer when it began making cars and light commercial vehicles in 1962. It set the stage with its Sports 360, a small sports concept that debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show that year. It didn’t go into production, but it led to the S800, which was built until 1969. Honda recently recreated the Sports 360 and presented it at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show alongside the S660 sports roadster it will build for the Japanese market.
Not all of Honda’s displays were as glitzy—or as crowded—as the Sports 360’s debut. The company set up small exhibitions to draw attention to the sales offices it was opening around the country in the late 1960s.
Ford’s pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York was the setting for the unveiling of the all-new Mustang by company vice-president Lee Iacocca on April 13. The car officially went on sale four days later. That was a Friday, and by the end of the weekend, some 22,000 had been sold.
Several cars were on display, including this one in a tranquil indoor setting, and a bright red fastback that sat outdoors near one of the park entrances. The GT350 was also shown at the fair.
The 1300 was a pet project for Soichiro Honda, and it featured an air-cooled engine and front-wheel drive. It was meant for export, although it never got to North America. Built as a sedan and coupe, it was plagued by production problems and a high price tag, and was only built from 1969 to 1973. Here, journalists crowd to get information at the car’s preview, held at the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo.
The show started as the First All-Japan Motor Show on April 20, 1954 at Hibiya Park in Tokyo. Even though few people could afford a car, some 547,000 visited the ten-day event, which primarily featured trucks and motorcycles, along with 17 cars. The show ran each year until 1977, when it was held every two years. It became an annual event again in the early 2000s, but is now back to every second year.
Thanks to worldwide demand for small cars brought about by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, Japan became the world’s number-one vehicle exporter in 1977. Domestic car ownership was also rising, with more than 30 million cars registered in the country. For the first time, non-Japanese brands were show in a separate hall at the show, which apparently caused some friction with the European and American manufacturers. There was also a display that outlined the development of the Japanese industry from 1945 to 1967.
The theme of the 28th show in 1989 was “Freedom of Mobility: A Taste of Real Life and Luxury.” For the first time, Korean passenger cars were on display, along with parts manufacturers from Spain and Finland. A strong Japanese economy, along with new tax structures on automobiles, spurred interest in luxury and performance cars this year.
The earliest car shows were mostly decorated with drapes and flowers, but as time went on, someone got the idea to put beautiful women beside the products. Somewhat surprisingly, feminism failed to make a dent in the practice, which continues at car shows today. The 1997 show introduced hybrid vehicles, as well as luxury models such as the Volkswagen W12 and Maybach.
At this display, the Civic shows off the first of three consecutive “Japan Car of the Year” awards it would win from Motor Fan Magazine.
The Accord hatchback went on sale in May 1976, where it met with immediate success and was named the Japan Car of the Year. The four-door sedan debuted the following year at the Tokyo Motor Show; this cutaway provided a look at the interior. By the end of 1977, the hatchback and sedan models sold a combined 83,941 units.
For 1961, the last of the eight GM Motorama events were held in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Some 600,000 people visited the displays, but it was the end of an era: television sets were becoming common household items, and GM realized that TV commercials could reach far more people, while costing far less than the travelling shows.
While it isn’t the biggest show, the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit each January, is still the place to see and be seen. Until the U.S. recession brought a new fiscally-responsible calm—the media reveals can sometimes border on boring these days—automakers did whatever they could to land that top spot on the evening news. No one could top Chrysler, which drove a Jeep through a window, dropped a pickup truck from the ceiling, and even held a cattle drive on the street outside. In 2007, the company buried the new Wrangler Unlimited in six tons of mud, and unveiled it by having firefighters wash the dirt away. Here’s to the good old days!