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Autos for the ages: 10 memorable cars from Chicago Auto Show history

When the Auto Show moved from the Coliseum
to the larger International Amphitheater in the 1930s, the Chicago Automobile Trade Association added a twice-daily musical revue that spotlighted the latest automobiles to the general public. | Photo courtesy of the Chicago Auto Show.

It’s possible that no one loves the Chicago Auto Show more than Mitch Frumkin. He’s been a mainstay at the annual event since the early 1950s: first as a fan, then as a member of the media, and from 1997 on, as the official historian for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, which has sponsored the Chicago Auto Show since 1935.

As the photo archivist of the auto show and co-author of two books on its history, Frumkin has encyclopedic knowledge of the greatest hits — and misses — throughout the show’s 110 editions. Here, he spotlights 10 memorable vehicles that have appeared on the Chicago Auto Show stage.

Text by Mitch Frumkin. Photos courtesy of the Chicago Auto Show.

1934: The Chrysler Airflow, an innovator in modern styling

Cutaways, like the bisected Chrysler Airflow pictured here at the 1934 Chicago Auto Show, have long been a popular way to display normally hidden areas, including mechanical features, educating and entertaining crowds at the same time. This four-door sedan, produced by both Chrysler and its marquee DeSoto Division, featured an ultra-modern styling that many consumers found too dramatic and too revolutionary. The “aero” look, of course, would return years later.

1953: The Corvette signals the rise of the sports car

Crowds swarmed this Chevrolet Corvette dream car displayed at the 1953 Chicago Auto Show featuring an early fiberglass body. Due to overwhelming positive public reaction to the handsome sports car, Chevrolet announced that the Corvette, with slightly different trim, would be in production later that year, manufacturing a first run of just 300 cars. Soon after, the Chevy Corvette and the 1955-57 Ford Thunderbird proved to be America’s answer to the post-WWII popularity of imported two-seat sports cars.

1956: Volkswagen becomes a major presence among imports

Imports at the Chicago Auto Show were on the rise by 1956, including the French-built Citroen and Simca, plus the popular Volkswagen from Germany. Pictured below at the 48th annual Chicago Auto Show, Jan.7-15, 1956, the VW exhibit was the largest of the imported brands, fielding a broad range of models, from the “Never Changing” Beetle sedan and convertible, to the Karmann-Ghia coupe, Microbuses and pickup trucks.

1958: Ford brings one hit and one miss to the 50th annual Chicago Auto Show

Edsel, Ford’s newest medium-priced car, was exhibited at the 50th annual Chicago Auto Show for the first time and made a glamorous impression on stage during the “Motorevue of 1958.” Pictured (top photo) along with one of the community queens is the top-of-the-line Citation convertible. The Edsel automobile, named for Henry Ford’s son, received a lackluster commercial response, and the brand was discontinued after the 1961 model year. Today, they are highly collectible among vintage car aficionados. Luckily for Ford, their 1958 auto show offerings also included the wildly popular second-generation Ford Thunderbird (bottom photo), a new, luxury four-seat hardtop replacement to the original two-seater T-Birds. Motor Trend magazine gave its Car of the Year award to the 1958 Thunderbird, and the upscale 1958-1960 “square birds” helped usher in a new era for the personal luxury car market.

1959: Toyota’s first U.S. imports make an appearance

Toyota Motor Co. made its first Chicago Auto Show appearance in 1959, two years after Toyota began importing vehicles in the U.S. market on the West Coast in 1957. This model, dressed in a traditional kimono, is posing alongside a new Toyopet Custom Crown four-door sedan. Japanese-built cars would not catch hold in the U.S. market for another decade or so, but they were an early fixture at the Chicago Auto Show.

1966: Freddie Ford trots out Ford’s Mustang

In its second full year of production, the Ford Mustang shared space with its metallic pal “Freddie Ford” during the 1966 Chicago Auto Show. First introduced in April 1964, the Mustang started the “pony car” stampede that led to a revolution in the auto industry, characterized by compact, affordable cars with a performance-oriented image. Friendly Freddie Ford entertained the public during the 1960s and ’70s, and it could hear, see and answer questions from the crowd.

1968: Plymouth unveils its Road Runner, the first low-budget muscle car

Beginning in 1964, consumer demand was climbing for intermediate-size, high-performance vehicles, and this new automotive fad was maturing at the auto show. Plymouth’s introduction in 1968 of the Road Runner model is credited as the first low-budget muscle car. Initially released as a two-door sedan, a mid-year introduction of the two-door hardtop was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show. Named after the Warner Brothers long-legged cartoon bird, the Plymouth Road Runner came equipped with a horn that mimicked the character’s signature “beep-beep” sound. This photo captured the hardtop on stage as part of the 1968 “Motorevue” musical stage show, a showcase that was held twice daily during the nine-day auto extravaganza that year.

1989: Mazda debuts its reimagined roadster

Mazda often uses the Chicago Auto Show to introduce new models to the public for the first time. The two-seater MX-5 Miata roadster was introduced in Chi- cago in 1989, giving show-goers a look at how the Japanese would interpret a traditional British roadster. The MX-5 was a crowd favorite when it debuted at the auto show, which foreshadowed commercial success for the zippy little roadster.

2004: General Motors’ AUTOnomy is ahead of its time

General Motors exhibited its revolutionary AUTOnomy concept car at the 2004 Chicago Auto Show, and promoted it as the world’s first vehicle designed expressly around a fuel cell propulsion system. AUTOnomy propelled hydrogen fuel cell and drive-by-wire technologies into the future, employing a skateboard-like chassis that capitalized on an extremely compact fuel cell stack to create a platform that had the potential to change the way cars could be designed and built. Due to the propulsion system housed in the chassis, the modular AUTOnomy could use the same drive system with a variety of upper body configurations, including a flashy coupe, stylish four-door, minivan, sport utility or pickup truck.

2011: Chrysler’s Jeep Wrangler takes fans for a ride

For the entire 10-day run of the 2005 Chicago Auto Show, and as a mainstay of the show ever since, attendees have the opportunity to ride with professional drivers on simulated on- and off-road terrain without leaving the show floor. Chrysler tracks were first to offer this experience, giving visitors five-minute rides in the brand’s cars, mid-size pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. For added thrills, Chrysler constructed a hill for its Jeeps to climb up and over. In 2011, “Camp Jeep” was a 25,000-square-foot exhibit with creative obstacle courses that included an 18-foot mobile mountain and a 12-by-15-foot section of terrain simulating fallen logs, with a 45-degree wedge to demonstrate the vehicle’s body articulation. Ironically, this design feature mimics the driving track from the first Chicago Auto Show 110 years earlier.

Auto historian Mitch Frumkin travels across the Chicago area speaking about the Auto Show’s 111-year history. You can watch a 90-second trailer of his presentation here.