Blog: Simon WarburtonRight-hand drive America in icy Detroit

Simon Warburton | 16 January 2013

Day two of the Auto Show and I left the hotel at 6am to find the Ford Expedition - 5.4L engine to boot - covered in ice of perma-frost proportions.

It took me a while to even open the door, while the windows refused to budge down, having been caked solid, so the only solution was to sit for 15min and go through the day's appointments in my head.

As I sat in the cold darkness I heard the mournful blast of a train horn in the distance - for me the single most evocative sound of America - as the ice began to slowly drop from the vehicle.

The US starts early - traffic on Interstate 75 was pretty heavy even at that time but I got to valet parking - the RenCen was full and the Cobo is monthly only - in reasonable time having driven through what I think is another shorthand image of America - steam pouring out of vents in the road.

First out of the auto show traps was ZF Friedrichshafen and Denso, whose respective CEO, Stefan Sommer and industry relations SVP, Terry Helgesen, I also went back to interview in one-to-ones after their press conferences.

Helgesen had just come out of a meeting with Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder and shortly afterwards in a press scrum of epic proportions, I managed to grab a "walk and talk," with Snyder, the only way, said his PR, I was going to get anywhere near him as batteries of camera crews jostled to secure his attention.

The Governor was touring the show in tandem with Ford executive chairman, Bill Ford, who attracted even more cameras and at one point the auto boss clambered into an immaculate 1903 Model A, whose steering wheel was very much fixed on the right.

"Mr Ford, I'm from the UK," I said. "Why is the steering wheel on the right?" a thought that had had been puzzling me since I saw the car yesterday.

"We patterned our original transportation system after the UK," Ford told me. "There were very few cars on the road - it was a continuation of horse and buggy."

America's come a long way since those modest days as the plethora of shiny models around the Model A testified and as Ford CEO, Alan Mulally, emphasised later at the Automotive News World Congress down the road in the RenCen.

Mulally outlined the "gut-wrenching" restructuring Ford had to implement but the fact it has now repaid all of the US$23.5bn it borrowed and reinstated the dividend shows how far the automaker has come.

But the Ford chief - 37 years at Boeing - also self-deprecatingly made reference to the infamous tale of the big three's use of private aircraft to testify in Washington at the height of the crisis three years ago.

"The most important thing when you testify is fly your corporate jet," he said deadpan. "Make sure you get the conversation off to a good start."

Infiniti president, Johan de Nysschen took to the stage to be followed by a coffee break - 'sponsored by Canada' - everything in the US is sponsored by someone - while tonight's dinner featured an entertaining canter through Russian business life by GAZ Group CEO, Bo Andersson and his many encounters with Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Incidentally, Bo, as everyone seems to refer to him, said GAZ Group built "five large hunting trucks" every month for oligarchs at a cool $100,000 each and claimed "Putin likes me, he says I am a smart guy."

I retrieved the car from the valet service and immediately got lost in downtown Detroit - as I did on Saturday when having got out in a 'surface lot' somebody asked if I was the parking attendant and proceeded to announce he would be spending a maximum of "30 seconds" in the area - the Detroit city fathers clearly have work to do on reassuring their citizens they're safe downtown.

Now back in Troy, I've retired to Bailey's across the road where I'm writing this propped up American-style at the bar, for "$2 Tuesday," a splendid arrangement and where the place is heaving with J Zed belting out 'Empire State,' closely followed by ZZ Top's 'Sharp Dressed Man' - I'll give that zee zee - it's too good a tune.


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