2011 Chicago Auto Show: Mid-Winter Fix for the Chi-Town Car Guy

HAMMOND, IN: Since the dawn of the automotive age in 1901, the annual Chicago Auto Show has been providing a mid-winter fix for those of us who consider ourselves to be “car guys”. Throughout the past 100 years, the venues have changed, but the new car spirit has remained constant.

After touring the 2011 show during Media Day prior to the public opening Friday, Feb.11, it was impossible not to think about our previous experiences at Chicago Auto Shows long past. After all, isn’t that what old guys are supposed to do?

I wish I could be certain when my first trip to the Chicago Auto Show was, but I know beyond a doubt I was at the International Amphitheater as a nine year old car freak for the Feb. 1956 show. My dad was also a fan of “hot” cars, and was driving a 1954 Buick Century 2 door hardtop at the time. There are those who feel that the 1954 Century was probably the original “muscle car”; the Century featured the big Roadmaster V-8 “nailhead” stuffed in the “lightweight” Buick Special 2 door hardtop chassis. The Old Man was a feared “stoplight warrior” in Northern Indiana, and had acquired several “improper start” tickets to prove it. Years later, the Century would become my first car, and then the REAL trouble began! But that’s another story

As it turned out, the 1956 Chicago Auto Show had a much bigger impact on my life than I could have possibly realized at the time.

Having already experienced lots of local auto racing around the Chicagoland area (Illiana, Soldiers Field, Raceway Park, Santa Fe, etc.), I was VERY impressed to find a real, live Indy Car on display at the Auto Show. It was the Tom Binford-owned D-A Lubricants Kuzma/Offy roadster, and it was part of a small display advertising a brand new sanctioning body for the upcoming Indianapolis 500, called the United States Auto Club. And, yes I got to sit in it!

My big day became complete shortly thereafter when I discovered a small booth selling various automotive books, including the Floyd Clymer 1955 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook! After negotiating a two month advance on my allowance, I acquired my first Indy artifact, which I proceeded to take home and devour! A few months later, I attended my first “500”, and my life as a Speedway junkie had begun

Much later, I spent several years experiencing the Chicago Auto show, by then located at McCormick Place, in a completely different way.

In the fall of 1967, I embarked on a nine year career as a car salesman at a small, family-owned Dodge dealership in my hometown. The local Chicagoland dealers were asked to provide sales personal to staff the new car displays at the Auto Show, and I jumped at the chance. After all; why should I pay to go to the auto show when they would pay ME plus give me a funny hat to wear? How much better could it get?

As it turned out, it wasn’t quite the dream deal I had envisioned. Our shift in the Dodge display was 11AM-11PM, the pay was $125, and the people were, for the most part, rude and smelly! Fortunately for me, the beer garden was only one flight down! But I did get to see the Auto Show from the inside. One year, on a snowy weekday afternoon on the Chicago lakefront, I got to spend an amazing hour in the previously mentioned beer garden with legendary Chicago Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito, who was appearing in the Dodge display, and was just as bored as I was. I’m not totally sure, but I think it was an hour very well spent!

So suddenly it’s 2011, and it’s time for another Chicago Auto Show. A lot has changed over the years (i.e.; no D-A Lubricants Special no Tony Esposito, etc.), but it still somehow retains the magic. One thing I did notice was a serious lack of race cars on display. In past years, many manufactures would make liberal use of race cars as promotional tools but, for whatever reason, it’s not happening so much these days. I really don’t want to speculate as to why there is such a lack of motorsports involvement, but I suspect that the advent of video games and “smart” phones, coupled with our economic struggles, might explain it to some degree. I refuse to accept to possibility that auto racing is loosing it’s appeal to American automotive consumers

I also I hope I’m not guilty of wishful thinking

More than one million people will be attending the 2011 Chicago Auto Show, which runs from Feb. 11-20 at McCormick Place. Hopefully, you’ll be one of them!

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