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Chicago Auto Show: Calm Amid Chaos

Despite general chaos in the car industry, when the 101st edition of the nation’s largest auto show opened for its 10-day run on Feb. 13 in Chicago, it was pretty much business as usual with both display halls nearly full and little apparent skimping on the manufacturers’ displays.

Chevrolet unveiled its Corvette Stingray concept at the Chicago
Auto Show. It drew from Bill Mitchell’s 1959 Stingray race car
and the ’63 split-window coupe.

This year there was as much speculation prior to the Chicago Auto Show as to what wouldn’t happen as what would, due to the chaos in the automotive industry. When the 101st edition of the nation’s largest auto show opened for its 10-day run on Feb. 13 at the McCormick Place complex, it was pretty much business as usual with both display halls nearly full and little apparent skimping on the manufacturers’ displays. The show is presented by the Chicago Automobile Trade Association (CATA).

Despite their well-publicized troubles, the Detroit “Big Three” (Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor Co., and General Motors) displays and public commentary therein gave no hint of the storm clouds surrounding their business.

Chevrolet pulled off one of the show’s biggest surprises by unveiling the Corvette Stingray concept styling study. With a working example due to appear in the upcoming movie “The Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen” as the car character Sideswipe, it was decided to bring it out into the open.

Ed Welburn, General Motors vice-president of Global Design noted the Stingray emulated two great Corvettes of the past: Bill Mitchell’s Stingray race car of 1959 (which was the same shade of silver) and the ’63 Corvette split-window coupe.

Welburn indicated that the appearance of the styling Stingray, which had no drivetrain, might have been a last minute decision. From the crowd reaction, it was a good one. Other vehicles from both “Transformers” movies were also introduced.

Ford paid homage to more recent history when it introduced the 2010 Taurus SHO, returning a performance version of its sedan to the company’s lineup. The original SHO was introduced in 1989 and remained in the lineup through 1999, and featured Yamaha-sourced V-8 power.

The redesigned 2010 Taurus, first shown in Detroit a month earlier, enters the performance segment with a Super High Output (SHO) EcoBoost twin turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6, rated at 365 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. Direct gasoline induction is part of the package.

Getting this to the road is a SlectShift 6F55 six-speed automatic with paddle shifting and torque-sensing all wheel drive. Suspension enhancements, interior upgrades and 20-inch tires and wheels are part of the SHO package.

SHO should come to market this summer and carry a list price of $37,995.

Over in the confines of the third member of the Detroit Three, Chrysler LLC, the news conference was not about the past, but rather the future as 2010 models of the Dodge Ram 2500 through 5500 Heavy-Duty trucks made their debut along with a 6.7-liter Cummins diesel to motivate them.

However, searching the Dodge display found promotion of the new Challenger going great guns. There were large posters and nifty sets of Challenger trading cards (complete with bubblegum) given out to waiting youngsters of all ages.

One of the specialty Challengers (of which there are several) on display was the Mr. Norm Super Challenger, which was first seen in the SEMA show last fall. It was noteworthy because Chicago is the home of the famed Grand-Spaulding Dodge, where many performance cars came forth in the heart of the muscle car era under the guidance of Mr. Norm Kraus.

Only 100 Mr. Norm Challengers are planned for 2009, and they are available through all Dodge dealers. Packages for SRT-8 Challengers can be optioned with Kenne Bell superchargers and intercoolers that produce from 637 to 900 hp. Dress-up packages emulating past Mr. Norm creations are also available.

Another manufacturer looking back a couple of decades was Mazda, which introduced the 1990 Miata MX-5 at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989. Miata went on to a long run as a successful sports car in the British tradition, with nearly 900,000 sold. Today, it remains true to its ’89 mission.

Mazda’s press conference was a 20th birthday party for the Miata, and a good part of the display featured examples of Miatas over the years. Included were the 14th Miata ever built, an early Club Sport, a ’95 M Speedster and a ’99 single-seat Mono Posto, the only one ever built.

Topping off the Miata showcase was the introduction of the 2009 model, with a 167-hp, two-liter four, a kindred spirit to the original 20 years ago.

Introduction of major new models was considerably toned down this year at Chicago, as the deepening depression in new vehicle sales seems to be building. A generic presentation area was set up in the area between the two display halls and Hyundai, Suzuki, Acura and Subaru were among the press conferences held there.

While press conferences have little effect on the public portion of the show, they do give a barometer of future products and the relative health of the various entities. 

The general consensus from this side of the fence was that Kia was the big show. For its introduction of the new 2010 Forte sedan, a Chicago blues band gave a great show to a packed audience. This reporter remembers back to early Kia conferences that were lucky to attract a couple of dozen members of the media. This year’s attendees numbered in the hundreds.

To mark the first 100 shows, the CATA published a new history book covering each of the shows from 1901 through 2008, much of it in color. Titled “First to One Hundred: History of the First 100 Chicago Auto Shows,” it was authored by Old Cars Weekly contributor Mitchel J. Frumkin and Chicago Tribune auto writer Jim Mateja. It was on sale at the show for $20. There was also a large display at the show of photos and information from the book, blown up to poster size.

Of course, new vehicles are only part of a major auto show. Restored historical vehicles expose showgoers to where we have been. Volo Auto Museum, which has had a vehicular presence at the show every year since 1977, continued this year with variety again being its display’s theme.

Also there were two corners of the show dotted with everything from cars to trucks to hot rods from DriveChicago Classics from

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