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Originally published Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Auto show goes for glitz

For an industry and a city all but relegated to the bankruptcy bin 10 months ago, Detroit and its biggest auto companies are kicking off...

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — For an industry and a city all but relegated to the bankruptcy bin 10 months ago, Detroit and its biggest auto companies are kicking off 2007 with an eye-popping splash of showmanship and techno-cool attitude.

From tonight's GM Style bash on Detroit's riverfront and General Motors' artsy new auto-show exhibit space inside Cobo Center to Ford's buzzed-about but still officially hush-hush hookup with Microsoft on Sunday, the overriding message — and it's very calculated — is, "Hey, we ain't dead yet. And we're way hipper than most of the world thinks we are."

Call it false bravado if you will. Or an unseemly splurge of millions of dollars — the companies won't say how many millions — at a time when thousands of Michigan workers are losing jobs.

But GM and Ford, and by extension the city of Detroit, are fighting for their very survival.

To win that fight, they must answer the bell and come out swinging. That's what GM, in particular, is doing more vigorously than at any North American International Auto Show in memory.

GM already has had to turn away scores of wanna-come requests to attend the first invitation-only GM Style party for 1,300 people beneath an enormous heated tent on Detroit's riverfront.

GM concept cars from all over the world will share the spotlight with celebrities ranging from ABC-TV's Jimmy Kimmel to actors Christian Slater, Rosie Perez, Vivica A. Fox and "Dreamgirls" star Jennifer Hudson.

The GM Style event is attracting media coverage from lots of places that don't typically do auto shows: People, Vanity Fair and InStyle magazines; and the "E!" "Access Hollywood," "Entertainment Tonight" and "Inside Edition" TV shows, plus the "Today Show" and "Good Morning America."

Ask GM executives what they're trying to convey with their high-glitz approach to the 2007 Detroit show; they use the word "resilience" a lot. GM lost $10.6 billion in 2005 and survived a rocky first half of 2006, when Fortune magazine forecast a GM bankruptcy and a Wall Street Journal writer predicted that GM Chairman Rick Wagoner would be ousted as CEO.

GM is pushing a message that not only are the company and Wagoner still around, but they're doing more edgy car and truck designs and intend to keep battling Toyota for the top spot in the world automotive kingdom.

Mark Fields, Ford's executive vice president who has spent time in recent months with Microsoft founder Bill Gates working on a Ford-Microsoft venture to be unveiled Sunday, sounds a similar refrain.

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"We're excited about the show despite the terrible numbers we've put up, at a time when we could just crawl into a shell and not talk much," Fields said. Ford lost about $7 billion in the first nine months of 2006, as slumping sales of trucks and SUVs wiped out modest gains in passenger car sales.

"It's not just good for us, but for Detroit to show that we can compete with the best in the world," Fields said.

Ed Welburn, GM vice president of global design, said good automotive design is inextricably linked to the worlds of art and fashion. That's why GM insiders refer to the spaces for Chevrolet, Cadillac, Saturn and other brands within the elaborate new GM auto show exhibit as "galleries" rather than stands or displays.

"We are all inspired and influenced by the world of fashion and this event is a great opportunity to bring the worlds of fashion and car design together," Welburn said of the GM Style extravaganza, modeled on an event called GM Ten that the company has staged for the past five years in Los Angeles around the Academy Awards.

Originally the brainchild of Mike Jackson, then GM's western region manager, GM Ten was created in 2002 to buff up the company's stodgy image in California, where GM and other Detroit brands get clobbered by foreign rivals. "We wanted to influence the influencers, celebrities who are style and thought leaders," Jackson said Friday.

The idea of the Detroit version of the event, said GM communications vice president Steve Harris, "is to show a different GM than perhaps the one you think you know."

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