The Three Greatest Car Shows in the World

Car shows are a chance for the industry to show off its latest wares and to pique public interest in a given brand or model. They are intended for both automobile journalists – who will spread the word through social media, websites and magazines – and the car-buying public. 

But not all car shows are created equal. Over the years, some have grown dramatically in attendance and stature, while other, once world-renowned shows have dwindled to local events. 

Today, the world’s three leading car shows are in Frankfurt, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan. These are the most prestigious and influential shows, the places where carmakers unveil their latest designs and most noteworthy new models. Let’s take a closer look. 

Frankfurt International Motor Show
Known by the acronym IAA (for Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, or International Motor Show), the Frankfurt car show doesn’t have to make a point of being international: it just is. The IAA is held at the Messe Frankfurt GmbH (Frankfurt Trade Fair) exhibition grounds every two years in September (in odd-numbered years, alternating with the Paris Motor Show). There are 12 exhibition halls on the site, some of which are shared by several carmakers while others are occupied by just one. For example, Mercedes-Benz and BMW each have their own hall and spend millions of dollars on this one event. 

To give you an idea of just how big the Frankfurt show is, there were nearly 1,100 exhibitors at the latest edition in 2015 and nearly a million visitors. Germany truly is a car-mad nation! Walking from one end of the Messe to the other and passing through every building is a two-kilometre jaunt, some of it outdoors. If you want to see all the cars, your stroll can easily turn into a five- or six-kilometre hike. On the other hand, the event doesn’t quite have the buzz of the Geneva show, probably because the carmakers are separated from each other. 

International Geneva Motor Show
Switzerland is a prosperous land and carmakers are well aware of it. The Geneva show attracts tuners like Sbarro, Rinspeed, Venturi, EDAG and Wiesmann, and small but daring design houses such as Bertone, Pininfarina, Italdesign, Fioravanti and the like. After you’ve toured the show, a Pagani Huayra will seem relatively drab. 

The International Geneva Motor Show is held at Geneva’s Palexpo convention centre, a huge complex of seven interconnected exhibition halls that can all be reached without going outside. An impressive architectural feature of the facility is the absence of columns, making the exhibition space infinitely arrangeable. Count on spending at least two days there if you want to see everything. 

Also, if you are thinking of visiting the Geneva Motor Show, be prepared to take out a second mortgage, especially if you’re planning to book a hotel in Geneva! The price of air fare, accommodations and food in Geneva can be daunting to say the least. 

Detroit Auto Show
The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is held in Detroit every year in January at Cobo Hall, two steps from Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings. Also nearby is the Renaissance Center, a group of seven skyscrapers owned by General Motors, and the Canada-US border. Many visitors stay in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit.

You won’t find any trendy little carmakers at the NAIAS, or a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari stand, but as this is General Motors’ home turf (with the Ford and Chrysler head offices not far away, in Dearborn and Auburn Hills respectively), it is to Americans what Frankfurt is to Germans.

The NAIAS has been through some tough times in recent years. Towards the end of the last decade, when GM and Chrysler were fighting for survival, their media events were beyond austere – they were downright depressing. The show has lost some of its lustre: the basement at Cobo Hall, once reserved for small tuners and related businesses during the events, is only a memory now. But in the past three or four years, the US car industry has been on the comeback trail, and today it’s looking not so shabby.