FOR years, the North American International Auto Show has been a gala social event that has broken the gloom of the drab southeast Michigan winter. Crowds flocked to Detroit's Cobo Center to drool over new cars they might not ever be able to afford, as well as glimpse prototypes of the cars of the future. Media types drove or jetted in from all over the world, and the car companies threw lavish free and well-lubricated parties for the press and for themselves.
Though the show still goes on and a bevy of new and prototype cars are on display this year, the atmosphere is decidedly not the same.
A little over a month ago, it was not at all clear that two of Detroit's auto makers, General Motors and Chrysler, would be around for this year's show. They are, only because at the last minute, President Bush made $17.4 billion in loans available to them from the Troubled Assets Relief Program funds.
But they are far from trouble-free, and virtually no one expects Chrysler to exist a year from now, at least as an independent company.
Partly as a result, the auto companies sharply cut back on the lavish parties they traditionally throw at the auto show, which has left more than one columnist grumbling at the loss of his usual free food and booze.
The economy's toll is being felt in other ways, as well. Ticket sales to the show's charity preview ball, a traditional must-attend for Detroit society, fell dramatically this year. Attendance at the show, which runs through Sunday, is also expected to be down.
Still, there are reasons to think this year's presentation might be more interesting than a lot of those in happier days. The industry itself is in transition. Some are calling this the first truly "green" show because of the wide variety of electric and hybrid cars on display. Though some traditional manufacturers, including Nissan, have skipped this year's show, most are here. For the first time - and certainly not the last - Chinese cars are on display.
Chrysler has no production models at the show, but is exhibiting a variety of prototype cars that may be built - depending on what happens to the company. Indeed, the future is on display, together with the industry's sometimes irresponsible past of Lincoln Navigators and Hummers.
Whatever happens, this is clearly a turning point in automotive history, and Detroit is the city where it all began.
The old auto industry of tail fins and gas guzzlers is dying, and a new one is struggling to be born. It might be interesting to drive north and see both auto industries side by side.
Depending on what happens in the next few months, this year's North American International Auto Show, may just possibly be the last of its kind.
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