It wasn't all that long ago that the Shanghai Convention Center was little more than a rice paddy, but this week, the sprawling facility will play host to what has rapidly become one of the world's most important auto shows.
By a quirk of the calendar, this year's big Chinese car show not only overlaps but threatens to overwhelm the New York Auto Show and its ability to garner valuable media time – a development that echoes the rapidly transformation occurring in the global automotive business.
Michael Dunne, the founder of Automotive Resources Asia – today a part of J.D. Power and Associates – recalls his first trip to China, barely two decades ago, when the roads were ruled by bicycles, motorbikes and buses, and the sight of an automobile was enough to draw everyone's attention. Today, the most populous nation on Earth is also the biggest automotive market, having surpassed the U.S. two years ago, never to look back.
[Image: Philippe Lopez/Getty]
Yet few could have anticipated that boom. Critics lamented the waste of time and resources when, a dozen years ago, former General Motors Chairman Jack Smith approved plans to put up an assembly plant in another rice field in Pudong, across the river from the old part of Shanghai. But if it was Smith's folly, it was on a par with Seward's Folly, the American purchase of Alaska from the Russians.
Even as recently as 2007, skeptics wondered just how much more growth the Chinese car market could support. But that year was a milestone for a number of reasons. One that many initially missed was the decision by several major Western automakers to stage significant global previews at the Shanghai Motor Show for the first time. That included the debut of the BMW CS Concept car – which would only eventually return to the U.S. and a domestic preview at New York's Jacob Javits convention center.
"This is an exciting market," Chris Bangle, the controversial former BMW design chief told me after the Chinese news conference, "and we wanted to demonstrate what this show means for us. Shanghai deserves the debut of some sexy cars as much as any other major show."
The other big Western preview, that year, was the Buick Riviera Concept – not surprising considering the brand's strong presence in the Chinese market. Indeed, GM's design chief Ed Welburn more recently admitted to me, if it wasn't for China, there would be no Buick today. Arguably, that might be true for GM as a whole, which last year sold more cars in China than in the U.S. for the first time.
Few will downplay the significance of the 2011 Shanghai Motor Show. By one estimate, as many as 100 different electric vehicles will be displayed by the scores of manufacturers participating in the event. That's no surprise considering the Beijing government's increasing emphasis on battery power to help it overcome the country's endemic pollution problems – and to reduce the Chinese dependence upon foreign oil.
But there will also be a sizable number of major launches by Western makers that might have, until now, been steered to New York. The BMW M5 Concept, for example, and even the 2012 Chevy Malibu. "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet"? Not anymore. Media attending the Big Apple event will only get their first look at the new midsized sedan days later.
The roster of top industry executives who headed to Asia this week is impressive, including the likes of Dieter Zetsche, Daimler AG's CEO, who will turn New York duties over to one of his lieutenants.
A sizable share of the media hordes who would normally be expected to pack the Javits center will also be in Shanghai, struggling to manage their chopsticks at the countless media lunches and dinners that will accompany the Chinese show.
All that said, the annual New York Auto Show won't be an also-ran. Organizers anticipate as many as 50 cars, trucks, concepts and crossovers will make their debut at the sprawling Ninth Avenue facility. And, if for no other reason than the City's vast media presence, you can anticipate seeing plenty of headlines datelined New York over the days to come.
But there's no question that the days when the U.S. and Europe dominated the auto show circuit are over – much as the old, industrialized markets are no longer the drivers of automotive sales growth.