The Detroit Auto Show: From beer gardens to tabernacles to Cobo Center

By 1910, the Detroit Auto Show had become a major event, as evidenced by the opulent furnishings at Wayne Gardens at the foot of Third.

Since the first Detroit auto show in 1899, the exhibit  over the years has been held in every type of venue ranging from dance halls to a beer garden to a church tabernacle.

In the early days of motoring, the Detroit auto dealers had a hard time finding a suitable location for their exhibit.

According to a history of the early Detroit auto shows, written in 1940 by Walter J. Bemb, automotive sales pioneer and early president of the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association (DADA), the first shows were surrounded by secrecy. “We would move our display cars into the show auditorium under wraps, and those wraps would stay on until the opening gun sounded,” Bemb said.

Visitors came to the auto show primarily to see the new cars rather than the added attractions. “If the public attitude has changed it can be ascribed to the changed attitude of the industry,” Bemb’s said.

This bicycle shop at 13 Grand River was owned by William E. Metzger, who eventually turned it into Detroit’s first auto dealership — the first such dealership in America. Metzger was also behind the first Detroit Auto Show in 1899.

      Credit for the beginning of the Detroit auto shows belongs to the energy and enthusiasm of one man — William E. Metzger, who dealt in bicycles before becoming an important figure in the development of the auto industry. In 1895, Metzger traveled to England to attend the world’s first auto exhibit and shortly after became Detroit’s first auto dealer, representing several lines of cars.

In 1899, he and Seneca G. Lewis of the Fletcher Hardware Co. leased the Light Guard Armory and organized the Tri-State Sportsman’s and Automobile Association for the exhibit of sporting goods and automobiles. At their first show, the major attractions featured big-game trophies bagged in Africa and an exhibit of fishing tackle, hunting equipment and sporting goods. As an advertising gimmick, Metzger, then the only auto dealer in Detroit, displayed two steam Mobiles and two Waverly electric cars. To demonstrate his products, Metzger devised sets of rollers equipped with dials to provide visual evidence of the speed and power of his cars.

Once every hour during the four days of the show, the steam and electric cars would alternate spinning the rollers and agitating the dials to the goggle-eyed wonder of a skeptical public. The rollers later were sold to Oldsmobile to test production cars.

The show attracted 200 sportsmen from all parts of the country and so elated the promoters that they threw a celebration at the old Russell House, which absorbed all the profits from the show.

The Tri-State show was repeated at the Light Guard Armory in 1900 and 1901, with a dog show providing added curbside appeal.

William E. Metzger

By 1902, Detroit boasted five auto dealerships, and the Tri-State Association decided to hold a show exclusively for motor vehicles. This hugely successful show laid the pattern for all future Detroit auto exhibits and gave the Detroit Auto Dealers Association an informal beginning.

Major exhibitors at the 1902 show included Metzger, who dominated it with displays of the Waverly, Baker and Columbia electrics, the Mobile and Toledo steam cars and the Winton, Knox, and Silent Northern gas buggies, and John P. Schneider, who displayed the Steven-Duryea, George D. Grant with the White steamer, and William Rands with the Marr gas car.

The year 1902 also marked the formation of the first automobile club, with a roster of 30 members including Henry P. Joy, Russell A. Alger and John and Truman Newberry. During this period, Henry Ford withdrew from the Detroit Automobile Co., taking with him “Spider” Huff and G. Harold Wills to help him form the Ford Motor Co. Henry C. Leland succeeded Ford at the Detroit Automobile Co. and reorganized it as the Cadillac Motor Car Co., with Metzger as the first sales manager.

Fred Fisher, founder of Fisher Body, designed the first Cadillac body while employed at the Wilson Carriage Co. In 1903, Metzger and Lewis repeated their Tri-State Show adding a new exhibitor, Col. Edwin S. George, first agent for the Packard Car Co.

That same year, the Metzger organization added a new line, the Welsh-Detroit. Welsh assembled his first car on the second floor of Metzger’s agency. When it was completed, it was too large to be moved through any of the exits or down the elevator shaft. Mechanics had to disassemble it and carry it out piece by piece and reassemble it to exhibit it at the show.

The Tri-State group continued to hold shows in 1904, 1905 and 1906, but by 1907 Detroit’s auto dealerships had increased to 16 and these businessmen decided it was time to hold their own show apart from Tri-State.

The dealers chose Dec. 9-15 for the 1907 show, two months before the Tri-State event. They soon discovered that Tri-State held an exclusive lease on the Light Guard Armory, and as a result, their first show debuted at Beller’s Beer Garden on Jefferson, near the approach to the Belle Isle Bridge. The show’s success spurred the dealers to form what eventually became the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. They elected officers, took out incorporation papers in 1909 and set out to convince a still skeptical public that the automobile was here to stay.

The exterior of Wayne Gardens, site of the 1910 show, at the foot of Third. The facility included a hotel, casino and baths.

      In 1910, the show was held at the Wayne Gardens and introduced the new “torpedo” bodies. Many of the cars exhibited included a complete line of motoring equipment: jaunty hats, aviator-style goggles, dashing silk billowing scarves and mechanic-style overcoats.

By now, growing interest in the automobile forced the dealers to keep finding new and larger sites for the show. One year, it would be held at a lumber plant, the next at a dance hall, then at Riverview Park at the Belle Isle Bridge, then at the Morgan and Wright Bicycle plant (which later became United Rubber and Tire Co.). In 1917, the Detroit Auto Show was held at the Billy Sunday Tabernacle tent on the old DAC Athletic Field, then called Grindley Field and soon to become the site of Convention Hall near Woodward and Warren, perhaps making up for the show’s debut at a beer garden.

That year, 1922, the car prices ranged from under $500 to a whopping $17,000.

Despite the unusual venue the show became one of the most successful of the early exhibits. The interior of the Tabernacle had been decorated to resemble a Japanese garden. Later, the Grindley family completed the permanent Convention Hall in time for the 1924 exhibit, which housed the annual auto shows until the beginning of World War II.

But after the war, even the Convention Hall, which at one time boasted America’s largest exposition area on one floor, became too small for the rapidly expanding auto industry.

From 1954-1956 the show was at the Michigan State Fairgrounds before moving to the Detroit Artillery Armory, where it stayed until 1960.

That year, the auto show was held at Cobo Center, and it continues at that site today. In 1989, the annual exhibit was retitled the first International Auto Show. Ken Meade, co-chairman of the show, said, “You know what? We’re going to prove one thing. That this is the Motor City, the motor capital of the world. And we’re going to bring it back, in the esteem of the world, to where it should be.”

The Nash exhibit at the 1929 Detroit Auto Show.

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News