Driving Into the Sunset

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

Ten bucks to get in, five for a hot dog, but the dreaming's still free.

The Washington Auto Show, running all weekend at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, attempts to defy everything you've heard lately about cars and money and the future of life as we knew it. This is nothing a little green carpeting and some electric cars can't solve. Did you expect to find Death himself signing autographs and posing for pictures, instead of Redskins players and Iron Man?

Walking into the auto show yesterday was like receiving stunning news: They're still making cars and they still want you to buy one. There are still giant video screens. There are still new Hummers, if you can believe that. There are still women in knee-high boots and all-business skirts cut just above the knee, standing on rotating stages and knowingly speaking of lithium-ion batteries. Fewer of them are blond now, it seems, and you can still hear a little Michigan in their accents. A Dodge is sometimes still a Dadge, for as long as there's still such a thing as a new Dodge.

The people who sell cars practically invented the art of eternal sunshine. It's in their DNA. They were like this long before people hung positive affirmations on office walls, before you could get advanced degrees in motivation. If they can't sell cars, maybe they could find a way to sell whatever it is they're on.

"If you can't start the day happy and get up here and be really positive, then you need another line of work," says Rochelle Hawk, who is showing off the new Ford Taurus. She's wearing a trim pantsuit and a headset. She's been doing these things for seven years. She's fighting off a cold and feels awful and you would never, ever know it.

Hawk works her way through her peppy routine. Here is the hardy Taurus, back from the dead, and now with so much Mommy added: It will prevent your teenager from breaking the speed limit or turning up the radio. It will call 911 the minute the air bags deploy. It will beep at you when it sees something in your blind spot. It will give you a lumbar massage. The seats can be hot, "unless you're already hot, right? Then you don't want a hot seat," Hawk says, "so we made it so the seats get cold."

About 20 men are watching her talk about the Taurus. (The men! Go just to see the dad jeans.) "I'm here if you have any questions," Hawk says. Everyone wanders over to watch a magician do card tricks and try to win $100 from him. The economy metaphors are unbearable.

* * *

A little after 10 yesterday morning, school buses disgorge teenagers from D.C. and Maryland who are ushered into a meeting hall for career day. Careers in what, exactly? Unsure. What's on display here, mainly, is boundless optimism.

Dealership owner John Ourisman sits at a table in the back of the room checking his e-mail, happy to see teenagers, because no matter what happens, teenagers always love cars. "The American love affair with the automobile is alive and well," Ourisman says -- and if you don't believe him, be sure to look at the thousands of faces on the show floor. Now he thinks people are fantasizing about getting good mileage, saving the planet: "It gives me a great feeling." Everything else has changed and nothing is certain anymore, except for how human beings interact with the newest cars, with lust and consumer skepticism and then more lust.

Ourisman's grandfather helped host the city's first auto show 88 years ago. Now Ourisman, 55, oversees a company that includes 24 franchises (among them Dodge, Honda, Ford, Chrysler, Mazda, Toyota, Chevrolet) at 17 area locations, with 2,000 or so employees -- a few of whom he had to lay off recently. He speaks gently, like a church deacon, and wears an impeccable suit. He's also chairman of the show, organized by the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association.

Ticket sales are flat this year, he says, "but flat is good news for us." Other cities' auto shows have seen attendance decline. Flat sales mean thousands of people have enough faith in cars to come eat a hot dog and meet a wrestler and be taunted by a guy in a sassy, nine-foot-tall robot suit. ("Honey, I've got batteries bigger than you," Rock-It the Robot tells an admirer in the showroom crowd.)

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