This year's Chicago Auto Show seems like a shell of its former self, but it still holds the title of the largest consumer auto show in the United States. It didn't get that reputation simply by being efficiently produced or convenient for locals desperate for something to do in February — it earned it over decades of breaking automotive news and powerhouse reveals, eventually earning an informal designation as America's truck show.
2024 may be a down year for Chicago, but let's not forget all of the great things that have come out of it, historically. Here's a look at some of our staff favorites. Bet you didn't know about a few of these cars that were first revealed in the Windy City.
2008 Dodge Challenger SRT-8
I didn't just pick this one as a former Challenger owner, but instead to illustrate just how many cool Chicago debuts we take for granted. Chrysler often chose its home turf to debut new cars, so the few times its unveilings happened elsewhere tend to stick in our minds. The first Challenger SRT-8 was kind of garbage, if we're being honest. I mean, who buys a race-bred, V8-powered muscle car without a limited-slip differential? But the SRT-8 formula evolved over time into something truly special, and what we saw in Chicago was essentially the early version of the Scat Pack, which was ultimately very successful for Dodge. And who would have thought we'd be here, 15 years later, still talking about that debut? And still loving these big Mopars, flaws and all. — Associate Editor Byron Hurd
SHO time in Chicago
I’ll always have a certain fondness for the return of the Taurus SHO at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show. Chicago has always leaned truck and van heavy for press reveals, but every now and then, as this list illustrates, something spicy would appear. The return of the SHO as a high-powered successor to the original that ran from 1989-1999 gave enthusiasts hope for Ford’s performance business, especially for sedans. With a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 packing 365 hp, all-wheel drive and five-spoke wheels, the SHO was a nice upgrade from the lower-rung Taurus models. It was a bit more sedate than the original SHO’s Yamaha-sourced V6 that teamed with a five-speed manual transmission, but still a worthy response to the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and later the Chevy SS. The SHO — Super High Output — begat things like the Fusion ST and gave Ford solid four-door performance for the rest of the decade. — Editor-in-Chief Greg Migliore
1983 Buick Questor
Buick trotted out its car of the future in 1983. It was so futuristic that it was actually billed as the 1995 Buick Questor, with a laser key, touchscreen navigation, steering wheel controls, digital rear-view camera and more. It even had a rudimentary pop-up head-up display that served as an instrument panel. Perhaps as impressive as its computer-controlled electronics was its styling, which influenced cars like the Buick Regal and Reatta. Would you drive the Questor? I certainly would. — Senior Editor, Electric, John Beltz Snyder
1993 Ford F-150 SVT Lightning
The Chicago Auto Show has been known for two things over its long and storied history: performance vehicles and pickup trucks. The two have combined several times over the years, notably at the 1992 show when Ford officially launched its SVT sub-brand. Both the SVT Mustang Cobra and the F-150 SVT Lightning were first debuted in Chicago before going on sale early in the 1993 calendar year.
But that's not the only hi-po truck the halls of the McCormick Center has seen. A few years later in '96, Dodge unveiled the VTS Concept (wonder what Ford thought about the use of those specific letters...), which was the first time a Viper-powered Ram truck was shown to the public. Yes, we know the Ram offered a V10, but that was a truck-specific cast-iron lump; it wasn't until 2004 that Ram would bless the SRT-10 with the fire-belching Viper engine for production consumption. Turns out trucks and performance make for a pleasant pairing in Chicago or anywhere else. — Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski
1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata
How could I not pick this? If you've been around Autoblog long, first, thanks, second, you probably know I'm our unofficial Miata person. And it's wild that such a monumentally important car for the Japanese brand, and what's now one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars, launched in America. Granted, the project was kickstarted by Mazda's American division, and the American design concept won out, but still. And it was shown in dark and frigid Chicago, not sunny Los Angeles. The important thing, though, is that it did launch, and it's still around today. Mazda even periodically had Miata announcements in Chicago ever since, with the most recent being the searingly orange 30th Anniversary Edition MX-5. – News Editor Joel Stocksdale
1989 Acura NS-X Concept
Automakers like to one-up each other, and while these days the battleground is typically social media, the 1989 Chicago Auto Show saw my favorite bit of gamesmanship in auto show history, no internet necessary.
It’s a famous enough story that you’ve probably heard it before, but the Acura NS-X Concept’s debut was one I’m sure the folks in attendance for both Acura and Ford will never forget. You see, just prior to Acura’s press conference at the Drake Hotel, Honda President Tadashi Kume decided it was a good time to fire up the prototype and really let the engine rip. While Kume was revving the hell out of the NS-X Concept’s V6 engine, Ford was next door giving its own Chicago press conference. Of course, the supercar’s engine could be heard clearly by everyone attending the Ford conference. Did everyone quickly lose interest in Ford and need to know what the hell Acura brought to the show? Maybe! But at any rate, good one, Honda.
All of this happened before anyone even knew that Honda/Acura was developing a supercar that’d change the world of supercars as we knew it back then. Of course, the rest is history, and the production Acura NSX went on sale for the 1991 model year. Acura even held a special 30-year press conference at the 2019 Chicago Auto Show where it looked back on the events from the hilarious 1989 debut (sorry, Ford) and what transpired after that. From the perspective of someone who adores the original NSX and old Hondas in general, this is peak auto show history. – Road Test Editor Zac Palmer
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