Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago may get their shares of big model reveals, but no other American auto shows can quite match the spectacle and prestige of the New York International Auto Show. After all, it is the longest-running auto show in the U.S., with a history reaching into three centuries. In 1899, the city’s annual bicycle show was became the Fourth Annual Cycle and Automobile Exhibition, making it the first American trade show to mention the newfangled automobile in its name.
In 1900, when there were fever than 8,000 autos in the country, over 10,000 people swarmed Madison Square Garden to get a look at the best European and American companies had to offer at the officially renamed New York Auto Show. By the 1950s, it had become a must for little-known automakers with names like Ferrari, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz who were eager to gain a foothold in the U.S., and in 1956, the event was renamed the New York International Auto Show. Now 60 years later, the name is still going strong.
What’s more, the history of the automobile as we know it is more connected to the New York show than any other. Ransom E. Olds debuted the Curved-Dash Oldsmobile – the first successful mass-market American car – there. Cadillac made its public debut there. So did Ford, Chrysler, and Scion. The Chevrolet Bowtie made its first public appearance there in 1914, and Toyota and Nissan both made their American auto show debuts there in 1959.
In the last few years, Cadillac and Lincoln have both chosen to launch their ambitious comebacks from the halls of the Javits Center, and the Nissan Maxima, Jaguar XE, Honda Civic, and McLaren 570S all made their first appearances. With 2016 already shaping up to be another banner year, here are 7 game-changing cars that debuted at the New York International Show.
1. 1948 Jaguar XK120
It had been previewed as a concept at the 1948 London Motor Show, but the XK120 had just gotten the green light for production before it was unveiled at the New York show later that year. With a gorgeous hand-formed aerodynamic body and powerful straight-six engine, the 120 mile per hour Jaguar wasn’t just the company’s first postwar, it was the fastest production car in the world. The sports car hungry American crowd fell in love with Jaguar’s unprecedented proto-supercar, and within a decade, sports car sales were booming across the country.
2. 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL
In the early ’50s, Mercedes was still struggling to recover from World War II and anxious to break into the booming American market. Max Hoffman, the company’s importer, felt that if it built a halo car based on its W194 Grand Prix racer, it could kick-start interest for the brand. Long story short, he was right: The 300SL wasn’t just one of the greatest cars to come out of the 1950s, it made the Mercedes brand shorthand for luxury, power, and taste in America. The 300SL first knocked ’em dead in New York in 1954, 60-plus years on, we still haven’t gotten our breath back.
3. 1962 Studebaker Avanti
The Avanti is one of the great “what-if?” cars of the 1960s. In 1961, the storied Studebaker brand was in trouble, so its new company president ordered a Chevy Corvette competitor to get people interested in the brand again. Introduced at the ’62 New York show (and serving as the pace car at that year’s Indianapolis 500), the Avanti was universally hailed as a design landmark, and orders came pouring in. Unfortunately, production problems meant prospective buyers quickly lost interest, and the car was gone after 1964. After ’66, Studebaker was too.
But half a century on, the Avanti is still held as an example of near-perfect automotive design and commands big prices at auction. After all, there aren’t many production cars that can be used as the centerpiece of an art exhibition.
4. 1984 Dodge Caravan
Like Studebaker 20 years before, Chrysler was on shaky ground in the early 1980s. Buoyed by the success of its compact front-wheel drive K-Car platform, it brought its novel “minivan,” the Dodge Caravan to New York in 1984 before going on sale later that year. But where Studebaker failed Chrysler succeeded; the Caravan was an unprecedented smash. It was far from the sexiest thing on four wheels, but within a few years the minivan was the hottest car segment in America, driving station wagon sales into the ground, and becoming the family car that would come to define childhood for a generation of American kids.
5. 1997 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class
Like the Caravan, the ML-Class was never the sexiest thing on the road – far from it, in fact – but it was one of the first luxury crossovers specifically designed to appeal more to American suburban commuters rather than off-roaders; after all, it was built at Mercedes’s first American plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The American ML-Class debuted at the 1997 New York show, and won North American Truck of the Year in 1998. Well-to-do suburbs haven’t looked the same since.
6. 2003 Toyota Prius
The Prius had been around since 1997 in Japan, but it was the second-generation one that really took off in America — the one we still think of when we think of the Prius. Introduced as a 2004 model, the slippery, wedge-shaped hatch made its debut in ’03 at the New York show. Since then, it’s become one of the most popular – and polarizing – cars on the road.
7. 2013 Dodge Viper
After three agonizing years without it, Dodge reintroduced its V10 powered supercar at the 2012 show. Going back to a more rounded shape after the angular second-generation car, the current car can top 200 miles per hour thanks to its 8.4 liter V10 engine. It may not be as lithe or advanced as most other supercars, but we shudder to think of a world without it.