Detroit Motor Show

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I’m more of a road man myself: tarmac, verges, signs, bridges, roundabouts, the timeless joy of the Little Chef on the lonely highway. But cars never really got me. From Toad of Toad Hall to Jeremy Clarkson, evidence indicates that an interest in fast cars compensates for a slowness of thought.

I appreciate they’re the most significant product that human endeavour has produced – a massive industry fuelled by the liberating dream of escape, of individual freedom, of man-machine-motion. But the things themselves? I’m happy behind the wheel of my wife’s Vauxhall Corsa.

A car show is, of course, about cars, but it’s also about the dream of the culture that creates them. And, this year, despite the ultra-confident, self-assured corporate visions, the possibility lurks that their dream might vanish. The Detroit Motor Show takes place against a backdrop of local and international crisis. Motor City has lost thousands of jobs and the brands that defined US car culture are in decline. Globally, the dream is becoming obscured by the clouds of recession, the dust of oil field conflict and looming environmental disaster.

The response? Car design is pushing the limits of size, speed and luxury while simultaneously claiming sustainability as a kind of mantra of self-preservation. The new Dodge pick up – launched at the show in cod Wild West frenzy with cowboys and a cattle run along Washington Street – makes its small contribution to a sustainable future: five per cent better fuel efficiency. The response of Hummer – producer of extreme mechanical fantasies – is to make a slightly less giant model that only exaggerates its similarity to a kid’s military toy.

The whole of the show revolves around what’s termed “the reveal”: the moment of accelerated striptease when the silky drape that hugs the car’s contours is whipped off to reveal the new model. Once exposed, cameras zoom in pornographically on chrome orifices, folds of steel and the sheen on the buffed skin. At Land Rover, the build up is so monumental and portentous it sounds like an Imperial Starship with Jean Michel Jarre on board, with a PA announcement by the same guy who voiced the Nuclear War warnings. Man, it’s significant.

It’s here that you’ll hear phrases like “A diesel-powered Super Sports Car!” over a heavy rock sound bed, or a German accent shouting, “The Power! The Tradition!” They are as much ideological rallies as they are a way of promoting a product.

There are the events too, most of which are baffling. During the introduction of the new Audi TT, Bryan Adams wanders onto the stage for a bemusing acoustic version of The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You. Over at BMW, a troupe of satin-jumpsuited street dancers throw robotic shapes to euphoric trance – it’s like a ritual dance from the future, lit in the kind of ultraviolet that makes you feel as though you’re in geostationary orbit. Quite possibly it’s a modern dance interpretation of the stand’s uber-Teutonic strapline: “More Efficiency”.

Each stand sets a scene for the brand and its models: Mini is shiny black and neon, like an 80s nightclub, complete with resident DJ and juice bar; Audi has a stage-set version of a high modernist villa; Jeep creates a rocky outcrop with a skeletal Rocky Mountain lodge; and Ford is super-bright and completely bland.

The concentration of brand identity is so saturated that the patchwork of floor materials could be an essay in contemporary corporate aspirations. As it changes from stone flags to mirrored metallic to deep pile carpet to pseudo grass, you feel the values encoded beneath your heels. And the activities on the stands are just as brand-centric. Bentley has a 1950s-style craftsman wearing an apron, involved in some intricate work with hardwoods and leather. Lexus has set up a spa where you can be massaged among silver birch trees and executive cars. At Land Rover, a Club Class-style lounge is filled with piles of culture books – Andy Goldsworthy, Chanel, one of those “100 architects” books, Monocle – and people drinking Guinness. Elsewhere, in a thoroughly unreconstructed display that only Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini could possibly put on without a hint of irony, girls pout and pose, leaning across the bonnets of over-powered, ridiculously sculpted cars.

In an annex, past a security guard, down a staircase and behind a curtain, something else is happening. It’s here you’ll find the emerging manufacturers, solar-powered models and a selection of pimped-up cars presented by Dub magazine that parody obsessions with power, presence, technology and luxury. And it’s here that I found my favourites. In a stand that looked like it should be selling strawberries in a lay-by, there is a line up of cars – produced by the Li Shi Guang Ming Automobile Design Company – that might well have popped out of a cartoon: Postman Pat’s van with a Yellow Submarine makeover. They have the most beautiful names: A Piece of Cloud, The Book of Songs and the amphibious Detroit Fish.

Cars in their current form are not inevitable conclusions; they are extreme results of one strand of thought. There may well be other ways to perform their most important role: devices that interpret the cultural idea of journey, that engage with the romance of the open road, and which become the physical manifestation of individual freedom in the landscape.

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