The Detroit Auto Show – Notes from the Underground & the Ivory Tower

General Motors
It was the typical January Detroit Auto Show experience outside.

Finding a place to park. Steam rise creeping out of manhole covers. Cold. Dark. Hunched shoulders trying to maintain body heat walking Washington Boulevard.

I was with my father.

He’s been dealing with heart problems the past few years and this night he was chipper. He had a twinkle in his eye, happy to be out and about and wore his new big poppa shirt. We had a great time that night as fathers and sons do around automobiles. As boys do.

He was proud, I was proud. I work on the General Motors marketing team and our product is something my family can rally around. Talking about Search Engine Optimization and Display Media strategies is not necessarily something to discuss with family, but a vehicle…. everyone has an opinion.

My father, now retired, was an architect and has always been a farm boy from Greenville, Ohio. Having grown up with tractors and combines he knows quite a bit about the internal combustion engine. He is my automotive resource and is eager to point out features on car engines like variable valve timing, how Americans are obsessed with chrome, and telling the quality of a vehicle by the tightness of the seams and its lines.

On this cold night as we navigated downtown Detroit to the Bucharest Grille for the legendary Bucharest Shawarma claiming the crown over coney dogs I thought, “Wow, I’ve been a part of this city almost twenty years now.” It’s changed. I’ve changed. Landmarks that night were marks for my memory.

Some thirteen years ago I tended bar at the Ponchartrain across from Cobo Hall where the autos were under bright tungsten lights. There my bald-headed bar mentor boss hopped over the counter and got in a customer’s face to get the F out of his bar. I have melancholic memories of sitting on the dock smoking cigarettes in our ties and black aprons on our breaks. One jheri-curled co-worker with a girl’s name tattooed on his chest with a little red heart would work on his carburetor in the loading dock smoking a dangling cigarette. Working on his car carburetor in a tie and black apron and going back into the restaurant to wait on his tables in between.

The 4am breakfasts we’d have at the Met Cafe in Greektown after nights of clubbing or driving desolate ghost streets to the life soundtrack of Detroit techno. I remember getting into it with Nation of Islam guys proselytizing about our cigarette smoke negativity and Farouk, the owner from Dearborn, would tell them to get the F out of his restaurant because we were loyal customers.

Or the house party in Woodbridge where music was banging, bodies grinding, kegs pouring and then the cops came. Uh Oh? Nope. The cops wanted to know who had the new yellow Camaro out front and could they race it. I love this city.

And having lived in Detroit you know about getting your car stolen, your buddy getting a gun pulled on him, somebody going to jail, a co-worker getting car jacked and shot five times, and a co-worker getting murdered and tortured after picking up a young kid in a club. Lots of ghosts and gritty memories.

I heard on NPR one time how Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy, was once the center of industry and arguably the source of America’s wealth and power. 70 years ago this city built the infrastructure to bomb places like Berlin and Tokyo and now it’s flip-flopped. Look at those cities and compare Detroit. It is profound, karmic really, but on a night like this with my father I felt and thought about the evolution, the change, the sense things aren’t necessarily coming back how we want or expect. As we looked at all those gorgeous vehicles and their engineering you can feel we’re not going back to the apocalyptic vibe this city had in the 80s and 90s. Detroit will be a model of how to transform. Watch.

The energy of our city’s temple at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Diego Rivera Mural, is palpable. Across the street at Scarab Club  I once philosophized to dawn with a friend and a tall Johnny-Cash-Style Artist in Residence. Diego Rivera’s hand-carved signature is overhead in the rafters among other artists. You sense something great happened there. Today you can go to high-tech meet ups like Detroit Startup Drinks and meet patchouli smelling urban farmers moving in from rich New York and Connecticut suburbs with dirt caked into their fingernails. The mural captures their spirit.

Diego Rivera Court

Our City’s Temple

At the show my father and I walked over to the dark grey Corvette Stingray on display as so many did those two weeks. Having seen the reveal I was shocked at my emotional reaction at seeing it in person. It makes your heart drop and go, “Damn, that’s a bad ass ride.” In the past two years I’ve seen myself turning into a “car guy” as I’m surrounded and live and breathe it. However, I’ve never really been a sports car guy. I tend to fall into the CTS-V or loaded Lacrosse category. But after seeing that Stingray I was a 15-year-old kid with Stephanie Seymour posters scotch taped to his bedroom wall with popped out eyes thinking “Damn, that’s a bad ass ride”.

I was looking around at all the industry types at the Auto Show and thought of the co-workers and agency folks I work with, many of whom I would now consider friends and confidants. These automobiles tend to personify us, our world, our economy, our culture, our country. We strive to have the fierce elegance of a Corvette or the refined ruggedness of a Sierra. At work I see it in the camaraderie, in the focus, the long hours, the clothes, the ipads, the cell phones, the meetings, the conference calls, the big data, the elevator rides over Hart Plaza and the sacred Power Point decks. I thought of our industry ancestors from the Mad Men era, the Don Drapers, and  felt a connection with those giants when the mantra was “As GM goes, so goes the nation“. As my dad looked at that Corvette with me he got teary eyed. He really paused and his lips quivered.

“You guys are going to run out of that. That’s one of the finest cars America has ever produced.”, an Ohio farm boy said to the Detroit kid.

I love this city. Watch.


Everything written here are the views of Tim Aten and Tim Aten only. They have no relation, nor are they the views of any of my employers past or present.


  1. Bob "Notso" Sharp says:

    Tim, your father is not just an Ohio farm boy, but a Jaysville, Ohio farm boy. Jaysville is located at the intersection of Hogpath Rd. and Route 49. Jaysville was also the home of the Garbig Brothers Allis-Chalmers Tractor Dealership. Every farmer around Jaysville, well, every “good famer” owned 1 or 2 Aiis-Chalmers tractors. Some morons had a Case or an Oliver or (God forgive) a Farmall or John Deere. The latter made terrible noises. As your Dad knows, the Farmers’ Greed is “take care of your tractor and car, and they will take care of you”. That meant knowing how to care for your “machinery”. Did you know we used to refer to our cars as “machines”? So Tim, if you want to see your Dad really get emotional, take him to a Tractor Museum, and be prepared to hear how he spent 8 hours a day on an Allis-Chalmer. What he won’t tell you is that Brown-Swiss are “goat size” or raising beef cattle is easy work compared to dairy cattle.

    • Ah Yes! I have great memories of sitting on top of the orange Allis-Chalmers in Grandpa’s barn. If I think real hard I even remember sitting on his lap in the field off of Hogpath. Great point about beef vs dairy. I’ll bring it up with him.

  2. Karen Aten King says:

    Tim: You dad forwarded your article to me about the Detroit Auto Show.That was an awesome piece that you wrote. I would have sworn that you were an English major. I’m proud of you. I have to say that the Allis Chalmer tractors were a “bad ass tractor, too” or Dad would not have had them. Ron and I went with Dad to the Labig Bros. Allis Chalmers shop in Jaysville often. He got all his tractor parts there, but did a lot of the work himself on his tractors. He always kept them in good running order. A farmer’s livelihood depended on his tractors and Dad’s were always in tip-top shape even though he kept them for many years.

    I have to agree with Bob Sharp about the size of the Brown Swiss dairy cows. They were huge, but had the prettiest big brown “doe” eyes. I fondly remember “Mary” which we kept after selling the herd to a famer in Iran while we were in California on vacation. She gave some really rich milk which we grew up on. Kids now days think milk comes in a carton or jug and they have no idea that you could skim cream off the top for your coffee. I’m glad I do not have to help milk cows anymore, but growing up on that farm on Hogpath Road could not be exchanged for a million dollars. The beef cattle were a lot of work, but just think of all the fun we had at the Great Darke County fair. You city kids missed out on so much.

    You are right, both Adrian and Dan were a part of the great history we have and I can feel Dad’s presence many times. Guess where your dad got that wave of emotion and quivering chin. I remember seeing Dad get emotional the same way and a good man can do that often and still be a great man. Don’t ever be afraiid to show you emotions. It’s good for the soul and let’s others know what is important to you. Ron and I were left with a great legacy and hopefully we’ll be able to pass on many great memories, too.

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