Motor Bella, the first outdoor Detroit Auto Show, was weird but cool

PONTIAC, Mich. — Last year was supposed to be the first year for the Detroit Auto Show, also known as the North American International Auto Show, to move to its new summer date. Then the pandemic happened, and the plan was to do the new summer show in 2021. Then the pandemic continued. So with one more revision, the show became merged with another planned car show called Motor Bella, and it was all moved to September, and up to the M1 Concourse race track in Pontiac. We were there this week, and like the Chicago show earlier this year, it was a bit strange — but it still had quite a bit of appeal, and future ones could even become better than the Detroit Show used to be.

News Editor Joel Stocksdale: It was a dark and stormy night. No, wait, that’s not right. It was a gray and drizzly morning. There we go. And aboard the shuttles from the parking lots, we weren’t exactly sure what we were in for. But once inside the gates, this odd show started making some good impressions. In one corner, Stellantis had trucked in enormous mounds of dirt for Jeep and Ram ride-alongs, and occasionally you’d hear a Ram TRX open up its pipes just before leaping into the air. Then there were decorative strings of lights gracing the walkways toward the main building and some of the other tents, leading you to the infield with the main displays. And stepping into this section we realized: This is a real show. There were cars lining the edges of the track, and huge tents and displays from Ford and GM were in the middle on the skidpad. And unlike Chicago, everything was already built and ready to go.

Certainly the scale of some things was dialed back. Some manufacturers, such as the aforementioned Big Three along with Toyota, still had large, professional display booths not unlike what would be on the floor of Detroit’s TCF Center. But most other automakers simply had their vehicles parked along the course with a single flag or possibly a small tent. We wouldn’t be surprised if some of these companies only had a presence because of the local dealers. But at the same time, some of these brands weren’t represented at all in Chicago. And the brands that still did big displays sometimes went bigger. Some had merchandise for sale. Others had unique experiences, like Ford’s augmented reality booth.

But probably the best part of all this was the action. We already touched on the Stellantis demos, which some of our other editors can tell you more about, but there were also running displays of other cars. Toyota brought out a bunch of race cars and SEMA cars and was running them on a separate part of the track. These included one of Ivan «Ironman» Stewart’s Baja Tundras, a Supra NASCAR car, a Toyota Sequoia drag car, and a couple of modded Supras. It was a blast to see these in motion, and we think guests will have a lot of fun seeing them, too.

The extra space and the opportunity to do more impressive dynamic displays is what really stood out to me, and it could revitalize car shows. Maybe not for the press, but for the public. Shows were already a chance to get up close and personal with cars, and seeing them being driven they way they’re meant to be enhances that. It gives people more of a reason to visit. So Motor Bella was a bit odd, but it’s on to something.

Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: I had more fun in cars at Motor Bella than I’ve had at any previous auto show, and that’s all thanks to it being held at an actual racetrack. After the few (crowded room) press conferences concluded in the morning, I found fun stuff to do with fellow Autoblogger John Beltz Snyder. We hit Ram’s TRX jump experience first. That was loud and particularly thrilling. Also, it was impressive witnessing how well the TRX lands after being launched into orbit at speed — you’d be surprised at how soft the impact is.

Next, I rode in the Ford F-150 Lightning that President Biden drove earlier this year. You can check that First Ride review out here. In short, the Lightning is damned promising, and not too shabby around a race track. After that, I hopped in the backseat of a Ford Mustang Mach-E GT Performance Edition. I can confirm that it’s more than fast enough around a track for the GT badge. It positively rips, and the instant electric torque is simply fantastic at rocketing you out of corners.

I was briefly rained on, but that’s the risk you take with an outdoor auto show. If it were 70 degrees and clear, you couldn’t find a better venue for such an event. But sitting at my desk, as rain is predicted to continue for the next 24-plus hours straight here in Southeast Michigan (with the entire day’s activities canceled due to flooding), I’m starting to think that this formula might be a bit safer bet if it were somewhere like Los Angeles. Manufacturers spend a lot of money to make auto shows happen, and a rainout and wasted investment is always a possibility when you go outside. If this car show were at the TCF Center per usual in Detroit, there would still be an event happening today. I’d rather have an auto show than no auto show at all.

Associate Editor Byron Hurd: What really struck me about the show this year was the scale. The media circus ahead of each major public show has been in a steady decline for the past decade-plus, but the pandemic has really thrown things out of whack. Rather than a full day of high-profile debuts, we got a Bronco Raptor teaser and a couple of trim packages. And then Toyota showed us the Tundra again. 

With so little space devoted to press conferences, there was a ton left over for activities. While automakers frequently add drive or ride-along experiences at some of the country’s larger auto shows, there’s no substitute for a real outdoor venue if you’re going to get behind the wheel, and Motor Bella offers those sorts of experiences in spades. M1 Concourse may not be the most impressive racing surface we’ve ever driven, but it is a proper track, which is more than you can say about the basement of your local conference center. And the dirt courses set up by the facility beat the heck out of the typical carnival-ride-style metal hills and bumps. 

Besides, who doesn’t like looking at expensive, high-tech machines to the soundtrack of V8s ripping down the nearby straightaway? In addition to Motor Bella, this year’s show also coincides with Detroit 4Fest, so if blasting around a short course in somebody else’s TRX seems too controlled an environment for you, you can always head on up to Holly Oaks ORV Park with your own truck and learn how to get dirty in the real world.

Senior Editor, Green, John Beltz Snyder: I didn’t have high hopes for Motor Bella, but I left the show physically tired, but mentally and emotionally stimulated. It was a relatively light workload for the press — there simply wasn’t much breaking news — which left more time to spend with the automobiles on display and in motion around us. I could easily see how an outdoor, hands-on event like this could resonate with the car-buying public and enthusiasts. Furthermore, with no need to dash between press conferences, battle for camera angles on a crowded stage and elbow one’s way toward access to an executive for a sound bite, we could focus on actually getting to familiarize ourselves with vehicles that, due to the pandemic and the disruption it caused to our usual way of doing things, we hadn’t seen in person yet.

There was a carnival feel to the whole thing. Rather than static displays in sterile booths, there were real vehicles showcasing real performance on track and off-road. Instead of just sitting in a car on the show floor, you could go for an absolutely thrilling ride in some of these manufacturers’ newest and most exciting vehicles. Imagine something like this at an expanded scale, with more automakers, more vehicles and more experiences … it could become a site of pilgrimage to car fans the way Oshkosh has for aviation enthusiasts. There were even a couple of food trucks and a stand selling elephant ears and corn dogs. Meanwhile, a soundtrack of roaring engines and shrieking tires from the closed portion of the track helped set the mood.

On a personal note, it was great to get out and see our media and PR colleagues. These are the people with whom we’re used to driving, dining, arguing and talking shop in the course of our normal duties, but in many cases haven’t seen in over a year. We could chase down that guy from that autonomous car company we’d been meaning to talk to, or see how a journalist at another outlet likes their new job. It was great to simply bounce our opinions about the cars off the people we used to see in the office every day. Heck, I even got to see photos of Zac Palmer’s cat.

And then there were the really special treats, like catching air in a Ram TRX or riding along for a hot lap in a Mustang Mach-E GT Performance Edition. I even got to scratch my Ford F-150 Lightning itch that has been festering since the truck’s reveal. Now I’m incredibly excited to drive it. Heck, I’m excited about trucks in general again. It’s been a while.

I left M1 Concourse invigorated, feeling once again immersed in the industry we cover rather than like I was reporting on it from a distance while trying to fend off the distractions of working from home (bored kids demand a lot of attention, man). Freshly reminded of how exciting this job really is, I’m ready for the next show, the next drive and the next car reveal.

I know one thing: No car-loving kid could ever be bored at a show like Motor Bella. And despite the relative lack of breaking stories and the constant drizzle of rain, I couldn’t either.





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