The Miami International Auto Show celebrate its 44th annual this year. The premiere event in 1971 at the Miami Beach Convention Center - its home ever since then - was an auspicious opening. It was among a handful of major auto shows in America. Literally. Five cities offered auto enthusiasts a full-fledged professional display of the latest models: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. Now there are 60 annual auto shows and the South Florida production is still among the largest.
According to Cliff Ray, show coordinator for the past 30 years, the first South Florida show offered 200-300 mostly domestic models, some motor homes and a few booths displaying auto accessories. Some international automobiles helped spice up the floor in the early years with European models from Alfa-Romeo, Citroen, Fiat, Jensen Healey, MG, Renault and Triumph. Soon thereafter, show-goers would examine the latest Japanese models from Datsun, Honda and Toyota.
In 1971, Richard Nixon was in the White House, George C. Scott was in the year's Academy-Award winner Patton, the Grammy went to Simon and Garfunkel for Bridge Over Troubled Water and All In The Family debuted on CBS. A first class stamp cost six cents and the median household income was $9,000.
That first auto show also included a special section that draws visitors today. Memory Lane is a nostalgic collection of older cars organized by the South Florida chapter of the Antique Automobile Club of America.
By 1974, must-see curiosities at the increasingly popular show included two electric cars. One was the CitiCar produced in the mid '70s in central Florida by Sebring-Vanguard. Its battery pack and 2.5 h.p. motor gave it a top speed of 39 mph. It came in three models, one of which was a van used by the Postal Service. The other was the Elcar, an electric microcar with a polyester body made from 1974-1976 by Zagato, and Italian company long known for lightweight exotic sports car bodies. The Miami lnternational Auto Show still has a reputation for attracting exotic, unconventional, cutting-edge expressions of automotive design and engineering.
The first show was produced by a 65-member Miami Auto Dealers Association. Today, 190 dealership members belong to the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, a name it adopted in 1975 when dealers from Broward and Palm Beach County joined the group. The dealership association -larger than some state dealer groups - produces annual shows in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that have generated millions of dollars in proceeds to local charities.
"In the last 44 years, many changes have impacted the auto industry," said Rick Baker, president of the association. "Reliability is up. Cars are safer, handle better, get better mileage, look good longer and offer many creature comforts inside. New technology and engineering have drastically reduced service issues for owners. Some models tell the driver when it's time for service." In 1971, said Baker, most people bought their cars using down payments and loans. Today, leasing is a major portion of sales activity. Also, many consumers find that today's dealership web sites make the purchasing process more efficient.
Shortly after that first Miami International Auto Show, manufacturers responded to the oil shortage of the early '70s with smaller cars. Then they fell out of favor. Times have changed again as the industry develops options for vehicles that include advanced combustion of traditional and emerging fuels, gas-electric hybrids, electrics, fuel cells and other innovations.
Whatever develops from future technologies, visitors to the Miami International Auto Show will be among the first to see them at one of America's oldest and best auto extravaganzas.