When the California International Auto Show opens at the Anaheim Convention Center this afternoon, organizers are going to be counting the crowd like never before.
The turnout for the five-day event--traditionally a huge consumer draw--could help answer a couple of unknowns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks: How eager are Americans to heed President Bush's call to shore up the economy by spending? And how ready are they to be entertained by car show razzle-dazzle?
The event is the first major auto show in the U.S. since the attacks. Automotive analysts say attendance, which hit 500,000 last year, will be an indicator of consumer resilience and a measure of the health of the auto industry in coming months--and by extension, the health of the overall economy. Auto purchases typically are the second-biggest transactions consumers make in their lives, after their homes, and the billions spent on new cars and trucks make up 24% of retail sales nationwide.
As usual, the O.C. show offers plenty to draw a crowd: row upon row of gleaming 2002 models, plus pre-production vehicles and concept cars such as General Motors Corp.'s zippy 2003 Cadillac CTS (rear drive, chiseled styling) and Ford Motor Co.'s Forty-Nine (a custom coupe concept with a hyper-smooth, wraparound-sunglasses look). There's everything from hot rods to Lamborghinis, with the Shaq SST Expedition--a signature-edition Ford SUV designed to the specifications of Laker center Shaquille O'Neal--thrown in for good measure.
For budding car buffs, there's a Legoland area with blocks, play tables and race-car ramps. Sunday, the 15-and-under set gets in free.
For the futurist in all of us, there will be a display from winners of the Motor Trend international design contest that could well be a preview of the work of the 2010 crop of car designers. (The magazine is co-presenting the show with two area auto dealer associations; The Times is the show's sponsor.)
And there's nostalgia in the form of the 2002 Thunderbird, which pays homage to the T-Birds of yesteryear, and in real vintage cars from the garage of Southern California collector Art Astor.
Will the crowds come? Analysts think so.
"People are showing signs of getting back into normal entertainment, and entertainment is what an auto show is all about," said Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision, a La Jolla-based automotive marketing consultant.
"It's like the stages of grief. People are looking for ways of coping. They are looking for ways to get back into the mainstream," he said.
Auto show organizers Jeff MacPherson, executive director of the Orange County Automobile Dealers Assn., and Todd Leutheuser, executive director of the Southland Motor Car Dealers Assn., agree. And they believe attendance at the show will match last year's.
Online ticket sales, a feature added last year, bode well, the promoters say. Buyers get two bonuses by logging on to \o7 http://www.autoshowusa.com\f7 and purchasing tickets by credit card: $1 discounts and no waiting in line. E-ticket holders print their own tickets and get to use the red-carpet entrance.
Once inside, visitors will see a variety of vehicles that illustrate how the auto industry is moving to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated consumers.
Across the industry, there is a new emphasis on functionality, said Ford Motor spokesman John Clinard. That has led to more diverse choices, more niche marketing of vehicles and a more "honest" product lineup than ever before. Instead of simulating features, Clinard said, today's designers either use the real thing--such as multiple exhaust pipes--or don't use it at all.
On the whole, the design look for 2002 is crisper, said analyst Jim Hossack of AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin. The soft, flowing "gel" look has given way to one that has edges, Hossack said.
Sport-utility vehicles remain a hot segment, although show goers will see lots of crossover vehicles that can take drivers to work, to the market and on vacation too. The Chevrolet Borrego concept, for example, is an all-wheel-drive vehicle with rally car touches that uses a retractable rear window and snap-on roof panel to switch from a two-seater with a 6-foot bed to a four-seater.
The California International show doesn't make big news with splashy concept unveilings and major product announcements from the auto makers. But as it starts its 50th year, it is considered an important consumer show.
Show goers can't take a test-drive or buy a car, but the event is a lot like a giant, nonthreatening auto mall where "no one cares what kind of trade-in you have," MacPherson said. Attendees often are car shoppers, and a survey of last year's crowd showed that 72% found the show helpful in deciding which car to buy, Leutheuser said.