Rearview Mirror: The history of auto shows

As soon as the first cars were built, automakers had to market them. Many people got their first glimpses of new technologies at local fairs and travelling expositions and the solution was obvious: display these newfangled machines at dedicated auto shows.

The first major auto exhibition in North America was held at Madison Square Gardens in New York City on November 3, 1900. Several auto clubs had formed across the country, primarily to lobby for road construction, and the show was held by the Automobile Club of America. It was the oldest in the U.S. and two years later it joined with eight other clubs to form the American Automobile Association (AAA), best known today for its roadside assistance program.

The early auto industry was packed with small new companies, and 69 of them – none of which are still around – attended that first show. Automakers were still unsure which fuel would take the crown, and electric and steam-powered cars outnumbered gasoline ones. The brands on display included Locomobile, Winton, and a prototype from Oldsmobile, still independent from the not-yet-formed General Motors.

Cars weren’t cheap; prices ranged from $280 to $4,000, at a time when the average annual wage was about $600. Even the entry fee of 50 cents was steep, but 48,000 people visited the week-long show. Most arrived in horse-drawn vehicles and had never driven a car, and there was an indoor track for them to take their first spin behind the wheel. That was shelved the following year, when a flood of new exhibitors didn’t leave enough room for it.

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GM’s “Parade of Progress” travelling show in the 1930s featured a fleet of specially-built buses that held displays inside. General Motors

Chicago held its first show in 1901, while Los Angeles waited until 1907. That city made headline news in 1929 when an electrical short-circuit ignited a blaze and the show, held in four large tents, burned to the ground and destroyed more than 300 cars inside. Against all odds, the organizers cobbled together a smaller show nearby that opened the next day. The tents had been next door to an auto wrecking yard, whose owners simply pulled down the fence between them and hauled the burned vehicles away.

Toronto residents reportedly got their first public look at an automobile in 1897 at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Five years later the annual fair added a Transportation Building, but to accommodate vehicles that hit the market after the summer CNE closed, another show was held later in the year at the nearby Armoury Building. In addition to automaker displays, it included one from the T. Eaton & Company department store, which briefly sold cars. It dropped them because of the spotty reliability of early vehicles, which caused an issue with the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” guarantee.

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Ford showed off its new Mustang in its display at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Ford

Torontonians were becoming serious about automobiles, and the 1910 display at the CNE was the last to include horse-drawn carriages. It became known as the National Motor Show and, in 1929, moved into the brand-new Automotive Building, which featured cars until 1967. The building is now the Beanfield Centre convention facility.

Montreal held its first auto show in 1906, while Vancouver added an auto display to its annual exhibition in 1912, when there were 1,769 motorized vehicles registered in the city.

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Firefighters unveil the new 2007 Jeep Wrangler at the 2006 New York International Auto Show. FCA

Throughout the years, as cars gained popularity, so did the shows. Automakers entered into a symbiotic relationship with other new technologies, and large auto displays were part of various World’s Fairs held around the globe. In 1936, General Motors created its own travelling show, dubbed the Parade of Progress, which not only showcased cars but such radical new equipment as microwave ovens and television. Three years later, its parade included Futureliners, a fleet of twelve purpose-built buses with displays inside their folding side panels. Following the Second World War, the company held a series of travelling auto shows it called the GM Motorama, but with the increasing popularity of television, it made more sense to take its money there for national advertising.

Auto shows were also popular worldwide. Berlin held its first Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung show in 1897 at a hotel. It was interrupted by the two World Wars, and in 1951 was moved to Frankfurt, where it carries on today as one of the world’s largest motor shows. The Geneva International Motor Show, another important global exhibit today, dates back to the 1905 Swiss Motor Show, when 17,000 visitors checked out 37 display stands.

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An advertisement for GM’s 1961 Motorama. General Motors

Japan held the first Tokyo Motor Show in 1954, with 547,000 visitors checking out 267 vehicles, most of them trucks and motorcycles. By 1964, the vehicles had more than doubled, and 1.16 million people came through the doors.

Auto shows had long been a “first look” at new models, but the rising popularity of the Internet and its sneak-peeks, along with the financial crisis of 2007-2008, put a dent in attendance. Recently, some automakers have pulled out of shows – most notably at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which will move its event from January to June in 2020 – to spend their advertising dollars elsewhere. Whether auto shows survive as we know them remains to be seen, but they certainly have their history behind them.