Throttle-Back Thursday: The first North American International Auto Show was packed with wacky concepts, important reveals

The Detroit show has been around since the dawn of internal combustion, but it went international in 1989

January 10, 2019

Detroit’s big automotive expo wasn’t always the North American International Auto Show. In fact, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the NAIAS name -- and with its next big move, a jump from January to June, slated for 2020, this is the perfect moment to glance back at the show’s history.

The first Detroit auto show, or at least a Detroit show that included a handful of autos on the premises, is said to have happened in 1899, when auto dealer William Metzger snuck two electric and two steam cars into a sporting goods exhibition. It grew along with the region’s automotive industry, changing venues along the way. Notably, for a few years beginning in 1902, it was held in Detroit’s Light Guard Armory, a cool castle-like structure downtown.

International automakers -- Volvo, Isetta, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Porsche -- began showing in 1957 (interestingly, none will be on the floor this year, though we’re willing to give Isetta a break), and the show moved to Cobo Hall in 1965.

Through all this, the show, which was (and still is) put on by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, was fundamentally consumer-focused. It was a chance for potential buyers to check out a whole bunch of new sheetmetal in one place before hitting up their local dealership. Big debuts and concept cars were great to the extent that they drew crowds, but making sales, not news, was the show’s objective.

By the late 1980s, however, DADA was looking to shake things up; rebranding the Detroit show as an international event would, it hoped, put it on par with international blowouts like Tokyo or Frankfurt. And so the North American International Auto Show concept was born.

Production car debuts at the inaugural NAIAS included the Lexus LS400, the Infiniti Q45, the GMC Cyclone and GM’s trio of dustbuster minivans. Things were wild on the concept front, with the Dodge Viper R/T-10, Pontiac Stinger, Plymouth Speedster and more grabbing eyeballs and capturing imaginations. For reasons we, three decades later, do not fully understand, Autoweek awarded the Chrysler Millennium, a cab-forward safety car concept, our best of show.

Check it all out in the excerpt of the Jan. 23, 1989 issue of Autoweek on the source link.