An outdoorsy Chicago Auto Show sets up to energize McCormick Place

Part traditional car showcase, part street fair, the 2021 edition leads off a convention calendar for a recovering sector of the economy.

SHARE An outdoorsy Chicago Auto Show sets up to energize McCormick Place
An outdoor track for the Ford Bronco being built outside Mccormick Place at the corner of S Indiana Ave. and 23rd Pl.

The Ford Bronco has a test track set up outside McCormick Place for the Chicago Auto Show, which kicks off Thursday.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

It’s not February. Can it really be the Chicago Auto Show that’s taking over McCormick Place starting Thursday?

Yes, it is. Visiting will be like ogling new sheet metal from a well-known vehicle brand. Expect comforting familiarity with a lot that’s new.

It’s still the place to wander the hall and comparison shop. But the twists this year include a lot of action that’s outside. Some models are available for test drives on city streets, and there are four test tracks, two of them on Indiana Avenue, where the auto show will morph into a street fair with food trucks and live music.

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Electric vehicles and hybrids will be everywhere. “A lot of vehicles were unveiled during the pandemic, and no one has seen them yet,” said Dave Sloan, the show’s general manager.

Among the electrics to be promoted are offerings from Kia, Volkswagen, Chevrolet and Ford. One of the outdoor tracks is Ford’s domain to show off its electric versions of the Mustang and the F-150 pickup, called Lightning. To grasp the design differences of an electric vehicle, visitors can check out the Lightning’s “frunk,” or upfront trunk, something many haven’t seen since the old VW Beetle. In the Lightning, it’s possible because there’s no internal combustion motor to take up space.

Chicago Auto Show 2021

Chicago Auto Show


9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday
9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday


McCormick Place, West Building, 2301 S. King Drive


$13 adults
$10 seniors 62+
$10 children 12 and under

Online tickets only,

For fans of the old school, there’s the emerging rivalry between the upstart Ford Bronco and the veteran Jeep Wrangler. They have tracks at the show to demonstrate their off-road capabilities. Sloan said teams from both products have been eyeing each other warily during the show’s setup.

The 2021 show runs Thursday through Monday, downsized and pushed back in the calendar because of the pandemic. It’s typically a 10-day event in the winter, timed to get people in the mood for spring car shopping. When this year’s summer iteration was announced in June, daily attendance limits were planned, although Sloan said those have been lifted because of the region’s progress against COVID-19.

Masks are required on the honor system for the unvaccinated and generally recommended, especially for crowded exhibits.

In another change, tickets are available online only. Sloan said dealerships don’t have as many freebies or discounted tickets like they used to. Tickets are $13 for adults, $10 for seniors and children 12 and under. Sloan declined to estimate the attendance, saying he needs to see how the public reacts to online-only sales.

Ticketed guests can sample food trucks and entertainment evenings from Thursday through Sunday. Merchants expected at various times include Connie’s Pizza, Harold’s Chicken, Prime Tacos and A Sweets Girl.

As for music, there’s a throwback touch. One of the performers goes by Zfrank, a name North Side car buyers will instantly recall.

He’s Zack Frank, grandson of the late Zollie Frank, who owned “Z” Frank at 6060 N. Western Ave., once the “world’s largest Chevy dealership.” Zack Frank is a software engineer, a guitarist who has performed with cover bands and a composer. He said his Sunday evening set will be his solo debut. He’s also performing Thursday evening with Ellen Miller on blues harmonica.

Frank said he takes pride in helping an event where his grandfather and father once were prominent.

“Growing up, they called me Little Z. I felt kind of famous. My name was up in lights in that big ‘Z’ Frank sign,” he said. But he realized in high school he had no interest in selling cars and said his father, Chuck Frank, supported his path.


Zack Frank


His family sold the “Z” Frank property years ago, and the iconic sign, about 50 feet tall, was torn down for scrap. Frank said its demise was sad but it was too big for collectors or sign museums.

Other musicians at the show will include the Freddie Dixon Blues Band from the South Side and Manny Torres, a former American Idol finalist.

Sloan was asked if the summer edition might return if people like the format. “It’s not really the best time to have an auto show,” he said.

A February event essentially takes over McCormick Place for almost a month, counting setup and takedown of exhibits, and uses a million square feet. This one gets by with 500,000 square feet in McCormick’s West Building.

Its importance this year goes beyond size to symbolism. Because of eased restrictions on public gatherings, the 2021 auto show heralds economic recovery.

A McCormick Place spokeswoman said the convention center, with fingers crossed about the pandemic, has 119 events scheduled through the end of the year, representing almost 2 million visitors. Closed since March 2020, McCormick Place is just now returning to life.

The hotels and restaurants await. Start your engines, everyone.

The Jeep test track under construction inside McCormick Place for the 2021 Chicago Auto Show.

The Jeep test track under construction inside McCormick Place.


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