North by Northwest

The Detroit Auto Show is moving and adding new elements to better compete in a world upended by COVID-19 and the emergence of new mobility platforms.
Track Time - Unlike a traditional auto show, Motor Bella will feature cars driving on the track at M1 Concourse in Pontiac. Other activities include press and industry days. // Courtesy of M1 Concourse
Track Time – Unlike a traditional auto show, Motor Bella will feature cars driving on the track at M1 Concourse in Pontiac. Other activities include press and industry days. // Courtesy of M1 Concourse

For the first time since its inception more than a century ago, the North American International Auto Show is scaling down and moving 25 miles northwest of Detroit to a vast outdoor setting with its own racetrack (and much better weather in the fall, versus the winter). The new venue, M1 Concourse in Pontiac, will see new vehicles demonstrated on a 1.5-mile track or an off-road course, and include rides with pro drivers and plenty of Northern hospitality.

That’s the story of the inaugural Motor Bella (Italian for “beautiful”) event, which will happen Sept. 21-26 at M1 Concourse, at the corner of Woodward Avenue and South Boulevard, where a GM truck plant once stood. The name was initially applied to what was to be a display of exotic and performance cars, one of several outdoor elements of a new take on the Detroit Auto Show planned for June (instead of January) 2020. But last year’s show was canceled due to COVID-19, then rescheduled to Sept. 2021 and relocated to M1, with added dynamic elements.

“We had (planned to have) a Motor Bella display of high-performance cars by the Detroit Athletic Club and the Detroit Opera House as an element of the June 2020 downtown auto show,” says Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association in Troy, the official host of an annual extravaganza that traces its roots to 1899.

“That June plan was super exciting, but the pandemic brought it to a halt. Then, coming out of the pandemic, we wanted to create additional experiential and activation elements where we could do things outdoors that we couldn’t do indoors. And September is typically a great month for weather in Detroit.”

Alberts says auto shows around the world are doing things differently to better engage with consumers. As of now, the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany is transitioning to include all forms of mobility and moving to Munich in September (ahead of Oktoberfest). The Tokyo Auto Show is rebranding as a “mobility” show and may not be run again until 2023. In the U.S., the Los Angeles Auto Show moved from January to November a few years ago, and the Chicago show happened in July this year instead of February.

Pontiac’s M1 Concourse is an 87-acre “playground” for auto enthusiasts. The facility boasts a twisty 1.5-mile performance track, more than 250 private garages, and its own motorsports club. It offers area-unique opportunities for enthusiasts to keep, show, and exercise their exotic, performance, and racing vehicles at a venue used for testing, training, marketing, team-building, and corporate entertainment activities. A new 28,000-square-foot event center will be ready to welcome Motor Bella, while an upscale restaurant and an open-air experiential village of auto and entertainment retail businesses are planned for 2022.

“M1 offers something few communities have,” Alberts says. “Most racetracks are an hour or more outside the nearest city, so having that here opens a door for us to do something bigger and more exciting than anyone has (done) before — not just kicking tires, but putting people in the products to experience them — that we didn’t want to pass up. And why not have Detroit take a leadership role in the mobility area of auto shows? If you have 87 acres and a racetrack, you can do everything from off-road to autonomous to electric to high-performance cars, as well as mainstream products. It’s the perfect environment for what we want to do.”

Motor Bella is the third of four major events at M1 this year. Motor Trend/Dodge Roadkill Nights (which featured drag racing on Woodward Avenue) and the Woodward Dream Show (in conjunction with the famous Dream Cruise) happened in August, and the inaugural American Speed Festival will follow Motor Bella from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3.

It’s not a traditional auto show, but a mobility-filled experience all about exploring the freedom and mobility of automobiles.

– Doug North, Chariman of Motorbella

Motor Bella 2021 will be a six-day event with press and industry days on Sept. 21 and 22, followed by four public days (9 a.m.-8 p.m.) through the weekend.

“We’re moving from a static to a dynamic environment, and it takes more to put on a dynamic event,” Alberts says. “But it will be very family oriented, with more things to do … hang out with the family, get refreshments, ride in the cars. If you take everything that was in Cobo Hall (now TCF Center) and put it outside at M1, every participating automaker will have its own area to display their new vehicles.

“Then there are the dynamic elements of on-track and off-road demonstrations, demo rides with expert drivers, and test drives on public roads. Every location is activation-oriented, and we’ll have areas for static displays and startups like we had downtown. We’re expecting more than 600 cars and offering a menu of opportunities for OEMs to demonstrate their products.”

A portion of the 1.5-mile track in front of the new event center, and the skid-pad nearby, will be filled with up to 500 new vehicles on static display, Alberts adds. “The rest of the track will be engaged nearly 100 percent of the time. Even when there aren’t product demonstrations by OEMs or suppliers, we’ll have something on track — Ferraris, Maseratis, or something else making noise — and we can take a car from the display area directly to the track within a couple minutes. We’ll also have a grandstand where people can sit and watch.”

Around 70 percent of automakers active in the U.S. are committed to participate, according to Alberts, and most of those that don’t come in at a corporate level will be represented by dealer displays.

The show is expected to offer a vast variety of products from some 40 different brands, including some that have opted out of recent Detroit shows such as Ferrari, McLaren, Lamborghini, Bentley, Rolls Royce, and other ultra-lux and hyper-performance cars. The vehicles will be located inside a large tent, and some of those will take to the track.

Since the last Detroit Auto Show in January 2019, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association believes there’s plenty of pent-up consumer interest. Alberts says M1 can accommodate as many as 40,000 attendees per day, and he expects upward of 150,000 people over the four public days. There will be some major new-product reveals by OEMs, as well.

During the press and industry days, as many as 150 startup, technology, and mobility companies will participate in an MEDC-sponsored “AutoMobili-D” showcase in the event center, while mobility panel discussions are scheduled for Sept. 22. Other AutoMobili-D sponsors include Aisin, Bosch, Magna, and Key Bank.

“The Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification are honored to partner with the Detroit Automotive Dealers Association at this year’s Motor Bella experience at M1 Concourse,” says Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer.

The Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, in collaboration with MEDC and other state agencies, works across state government, academia, and private industry to enhance Michigan’s mobility ecosystem and assist in the development of emerging technologies, electrification policies, and the growth of related businesses.

Doug North, chairman of Motor Bella, emphasizes that this year’s event will take the traditional Detroit extravaganza to the next level, “with multiple brands and mobilities represented, from hometown to international nameplates, autonomous vehicles to high-performance supercars, and everything in between.

“It’s not a traditional auto show, but a mobility-filled experience all about exploring the freedom and mobility of automobiles. And it will provide our show partners a cost-efficient backdrop to share all of their brands, products, and technologies in a fun and festival-like atmosphere,” North says.

Following Motor Bella, the American Speed Festival will make its debut at M1 Concourse on Sept. 27 with a (COVID-postponed) 2020 Motorsports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. It concludes on Oct. 3 with an all-sportscar and racecar exposition. In between will be two days of competitive lapping on M1’s Champion Motor Speedway course, a high-end Dine and Drive Tour, an elegant Checkered Flag Ball, and more.

“We’re looking to create an event that will celebrate the past, present, and future of the automobile,” says Tim McGrane, CEO of M1. “This year, we’re featuring the historic Can Am race series and honoring Jim Hall out of Texas, who was legendary with his Chaparral cars. We have five classes of cars that will do timed runs, and the Chaparrals and some others will do demonstration runs. We’ll get cars out on the track for spectators to see that they wouldn’t see at a race event, because they’re never put into a competitive environment.”

The event promises notable social and lifestyle aspects, including 15 different items on the menu each day, executive chefs and sommeliers offering cooking demonstrations, and a miniature M1-replica radio-controlled course where people can watch pros run nitro RC cars and be taught how to run electric RC cars on the same track.

Moving forward, plans call for both a Detroit Auto Show and a Motor Bella in 2022, according to Alberts. “Why not have multiple events throughout the year, with festive environments and consumer engagements, instead of just the one?” he asks. The 2022 downtown Detroit show will likely be in September (not January), and will include outside activities.

“That auto-show element of being able to walk around and see all the vehicles in one place at one time will still be there at Motor Bella,” he says, “but this is an auto-centric event offering experiential and engagement opportunities that you normally couldn’t offer with an indoor show — putting people in cars and smelling, seeing, touching, and experiencing technologies. We’ll test the waters this year to see how it works. We’re getting a lot of great feedback on it, so we’re excited to see where it could be headed.”