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Showing off automobiles in Chicago: a 126-year tradition comes full circle

First Chicago Auto Show in 1901

The 1901 Motorette by the George N. Pierce Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. was among the vehicles on display at the first Chicago Auto Show, held in 1901 at the Coliseum. The De Dion Bouton 1-cylinder, water-cooled engine produced 3-hp and was positioned just forward of the rear axle. The Motorette weighed 600 pounds and the driver used a tiller, not a steering wheel. | Chicago Auto Show photo

In a jab at the “White City,” the faux Roman splendor of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that disgusted modernists at Adler & Sullivan, the architects painted their Transportation Building orange, with a yellow arched entrance dubbed “The Golden Door.”

Through that door were 17 acres of 19th century America in motion: huge locomotives and street cars, handcars and sail cars, wagons and harnesses. Studebaker of Chicago showed off their latest buggies. Models of ocean steamers and famous bridges were on display, as well as historic modes of transportation from sleighs to sedan chairs.

And tucked in a corner, almost entirely ignored, a delicate Daimler quadricycle: the first four-wheeled, gasoline-powered automobile on public display in the United States. Along with it, a second car, an electric.

The opening note in a century-and-a-quarter symphony that would, in the 20th century become as distinctly Chicago as deep dish pizza, the Blues or skyscrapers: the Chicago Auto Show.

A constantly-changing car circus that almost defies description, a burst of summery sparkle and hot horsepower in the middle of dreary, frozen winter, the Chicago Auto Show draws millions downtown to ogle thousands of cars — from economy boxes like the first 2-cylinder Honda to a Packard with a V-16 engine. From steam-driven cars to a concept car to be powered by an nuclear reactor.

The Ford exhibit at the 1950 Chicago Auto Show, featuring several body styles, and a cutaway model near the center of the image. | Chicago Auto Show archives.

Nor have cars been the only draw. Into the mix, a dizzying cast of leggy models, athletes, movie stars, TV actors and race car drivers. Knute Rockne and Ronald Reagan and Oprah. Revolving turntables, flashing lights, blaring music, surging crowds, and the occasional out-of-left-field non-automotive technological development, like television, which RCA Victor showed off at the 1939 show.

Chicago’s “First Annual National Automobile Exhibit” was held March 23-30 in 1901 at the Coliseum, a former Civil War prison at Michigan Avenue and 15th Street. Tickets were 50 cents. The cars on display were primitive; none had a steering wheel. They were steered with a tiller; steering wheels wouldn’t become popular for a few more years. Many were electric, or steam-powered. A wooden, 1/10 mile track ringed the exhibition hall. Visitors taken for a spin were usually riding in a car for the first time, though the track was really intended to show potential dealers that the vehicles actually worked.

By the second show, the track was gone, a victim of the show’s success; an increasing numbers of vehicles meant there wasn’t room for it.

As the years passed, the shows, like the cars on display, got bigger.  By 1907, open-air cars gave way to passenger compartments — the thinking was, this made the models more popular among women, and many early accessories were attempts to lure female customers, such as the “glove compartment” which was originally exactly that: a space for ladies to tuck their gloves.

Early cars came with luggage strapped to the back. These gradually disappeared, replaced by hidden luggage compartments that kept the original name: trunks.

While the car show affected the world, the world also affected the car show. In 1916, Europe was at war, and all cars in the show were American-made (France had been a leader in early car development).

The next year certain car models echoed war fever, like the “Liberty.” (Twenty years later, as global war loomed again, car names again reacted, representing America’s ambivalence before Pearl Harbor. In 1935, Studebaker introduced a model called “Dictator.”)

Studebaker, a now-defunct automobile manufacturer based in South Bend, Ind., sent two of its Dictators models, piloted by Chicago drivers, on a tour of South America in 1935. | Sun-Times files

Innovation kept coming. By 1921, cars were featuring dials that told drivers how much gas they had (the Model T’s gas gauge was a calibrated wooden stick, inserted in the tank. Not that Model Ts were at the show; Henry Ford boycotted it for its first 34 years over a patent dispute, and held his own show).

Besides cars, accessories — lamps, goggles, tires — were featured at the show. In 1930, the Galvin Manufacturing Corp. of Chicago introduced a radio receiver that would fit any make of car, mashing together the words “Motor” and “Victrola” and dubbing the device a “Motorola.” The product was so popular the company took its name from it. Two years later, those flying into Midway Airport for the show could avail themselves to a service found at no other airport in the country: automobiles for rent, offered by the Hertz Company.

The 1930s saw the advent of power brakes, streamlining and shatterproof windshields. The decade also saw more female models ballyhooing the cars. In 1936, trying to project an aura of plenty in Depression-ravaged Chicago, organizers outfitted the female car demonstrators in nearly $1 million in furs. For the first few decades, the women didn’t speak, they only posed, while unseen male narrators — more trustworthy, the logic went — extolled the attributes of the cars.

In 1935, the show moved to the International Amphitheatre at 43rd and Halsted, with four times the floor space.

More space meant more room for elaborate shows—musical reviews, often featuring full orchestras, magicians, singers, dancers and, of course, new cars. In 1939, the first GM “dream car” kicked off the tradition of eye-popping show models with futuristic touches: Harley Earl’s “Y-Job,” a streamline fantasy with retractable headlights.

1957 Chicago Auto Show

The 1957 Chicago Auto Show was held at the International Amphitheatre. | Sun-Times photo

In 1940, turn signals debuted — previously drivers would use arm signals. Luxury car maker Packard offered a feature it cast as “magic to astonish the men from Mars” — aka, air conditioning.

World War II suspended the auto show — from 1941 to 1945 — because America’s industrial might shifted from cars to tanks and planes. Another suspension happened between 1946 and 1949 because the auto industry was so busy filling pent-up public demand for new cars that there was no need or time to bother with a show.

The show resumed in 1950, including twice-daily revues performed before an audience of 10,000, featuring “neighborhood and community queens” selected at pageants all over Chicago and the suburbs. Kenosha’s Nash Motors offered a new option: seat belts; ironically, they were not safety devices, but intended to keep passengers from sliding out of reclining seats. In 1962, Wisconsin became the first state in the union to require that new cars come with seat belts, standard. (Illinois came close. In 1955 it passed a law requiring cars to have anchors where seat belts could be attached, if the owner wished).

In 1961, the show moved to the lakefront McCormick Place, where in 1964 Ford debuted the much-anticipated Mustang and, a year later, Porsche unveiled its iconic 911. In 1967, a month before the show, McCormick Place burned to the ground, and organizers scrambled to move back to its old location at the Amphitheatre, (where, for fans of irony, Pontiac unveiled its Firebird).

When the show returned to the new McCormick Place in 1971, crowds were so great — some just wanted to see the new hall — that Lake Shore Drive was jammed, and the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry set single-day attendance records from visitors who couldn’t make it to the auto show and went to those institutions instead.

In the 1970s, as fitting the Watergate era, car companies hired professional eavesdroppers, to listen to what people in the crowd said about their cars, and the competition.

At the 1981 show, an electric car, the Exar 1, was banned and then permitted when protesters threatened to demonstrate. That was the year, in the post-gas-crisis world, when Ford’s concept car was a two-seat, 3-cylinder car aptly called the “Gnat.”

In 1997, the show moved into the new, even larger McCormick Place South, and hit 1 million visitors for the first time. The next year, Volkswagen brought back its Beetle, with its cute little bud vase in the dashboard — the new Beetle had been shown in 1994 as a concept car and was so ecstatically received the company decided to produce them.

The Oldsmobile O4 concept car in 2001 had an “Information Ring” instead of an instrument panel, a version of which soon would be found in production cars. In 2005, test tracks came back — introduced by Jeep, to show off the capacities of four-wheel drive vehicles — coming full circle to that first show, as well as the return of electric cars.

This year celebrates two models introduced at the Chicago show 30 years ago: the Mazda Miata and the Acura NSX. The show is now the largest and best-attended in the country.

“People always ask — especially people from out-of-town — ‘Why February?'” said David Sloan, general manager of the Chicago Auto Show. “It’s the best time of year. We’ve got a million square feet and it’s always 75 and sunny. There’s not much else going on in the city, the weather outside is not great.”

In fact, a few years ago the show took place during a sunny spell, when temperatures hit the 60s.

“It actually hurt our attendance,” said Sloan.

Who goes to the Chicago Auto Show?

“You have a mix of people,” Sloan said. “You have car enthusiasts. You have families, looking for a day out. Car shoppers — this is the best place to see everything. A lot of school groups, field trips. This really is a learning experience. The public is just so excited about it. Through the years, the generations. We love to see a mom who loves the show because her father took her, and now she’s taking her son. The Chicago Auto Show really shows Chicago’s love affair with the car.”

2015 Chicago Auto Show

Guests look over cars at the 2015 Chicago Auto Show during the media preview. | Scott Olson/Getty Images