June 22, 2015

Kirk Kerkorian: Remembered 
1995: Breaking News at the New York Auto Show

"It was the most exciting non-speech any of us ever heard."
-- Jerry Flint, Forbes Magazine
The recent passing of Kirk Kerkorian reminded us of the 1995 New York International Auto Show/IMPA Press Breakfast where then Chrysler Chairman Robert "Bob" Eaton was due to keynote. 

We thought it would be interesting to look back at the events of the day, when on the morning of April 12, Eaton cancelled his speech at the last minute in order to fly back to Detroit to fight Kirk Kerkorian and Lee Iacocca's hostile takeover bid for Chrysler.

"I remember the turmoil created that morning as if it were yesterday," said Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, which owns and operates the New York Auto Show.

"We had over 600 members of the press seated and no keynote speaker. Our main concern was the press conferences that were to follow, but also to make sure that the press had access to information taking place in Detroit. There was definitely a feeling that this was an historic moment for the industry. I remember working with Chrysler's PR chief, Bud Liebler, to get information about the attempted takeover directly relayed to the media center at the Show. Very quickly a conference call was arranged with Chrysler and we managed to rig up a microphone to a land line phone so that the information could be heard by everyone. Looking back, it was an exciting time. Rarely do we get to be the center of live events like this. All our actions were spontaneous and unplanned, we had to re-arrange press conferences and change schedules throughout the day, but everyone pulled together to get the job done."

In recalling 1995's event at the 1996 Press Breakfast, Bob Eaton said, "I was looking forward to giving you an in-depth view of our new minivans last year. I was going to bring along a shiny new Dodge Caravan ES like the one you see here. I had some handouts. I had designers with me, engineers and marketing people, and we were ready to answer your questions about how we engineered, produced and planned to sell those vehicles. But then our largest shareholder called to say that he'd like to buy the company."

Chrysler vice-president for communications Arthur C. (Bud) Liebler said, "We literally just received this press release in Detroit a couple of minutes before nine this morning. Mr. Eaton was aware of it last night, and he went back to Detroit this morning obviously to be involved with what's going on back there. I really apologize to the New York dealers and to the New York Auto Show. Trust me, we didn't plan this timing. We were here to talk about the '96 minivan, which, up until 10 minutes ago, was the most exciting thing in my life."

Here are some other vivid memories of the morning of Wednesday, April 12, 1995 taken from 100 Years of New Concepts, Debuts, and World Firsts: A History of the New York International Automobile Show by Gregg D. Merksamer:

Slaton White, President, IMPA: The carefully constructed schedule began to unravel right at the beginning - an 8 am meeting with (vice-president for communications) Bud Liebler and (product public relations manager) Tom Kowaleski of Chrysler. They said that our featured speaker, Chrysler CEO Bob Eaton, would be delayed.  "No big deal," I thought. "So he's a few minutes late." But by the time I walked to the podium nearly an hour later to begin the meeting, everyone in the room knew Eaton was a no-show. 

Joe Perone, The Star Ledger, Newark, NJ: Sitting at the table that had been reserved for Chrysler's Chairman, I asked Slaton White, "Where's the speaker?" Slaton replied, "He's not coming. I hope he'll show later. Meanwhile, Bud Liebler will fill in for Eaton." And I thought it was a joke. But when Slaton actually announced that Eaton was not there, there was a collective gasp from the audience. It was a great day to be a reporter. A journalist lives for a day like that: the adrenalin pumping, the press room crazy with real news breaking. The whole day was one impromptu moment after another.

The scene in the press room: one minute Jim Henry (of Automotive News) was on the phone, the next minute he was interviewing Joe Phillippi, the closest auto analyst. Phillippi was giving an instant analysis of the Chrysler sit¬uation, much like a football commenta¬tor, talking nonstop. The questions about financing brought forth answers, indicating a cloudiness in that area. Then, I joined them, and a mob of other reporters swarmed. There were micro¬phones on booms and TV lights being thrust toward Phillippi to catch every word of his reaction to this breaking news. On the periphery, there were hands gripping notebooks and pushing pencils jotting down everything and ears straining to hear his commentary. A live press briefing. The press-room coordinator ran off to get a regular microphone so everybody could hear.

Slaton White: When I introduced Bud, he wasn't on the floor. I looked out at a sea of upturned, expectant faces and saw no one from Chrysler who could bail me out. At that point I wondered what else could possibly go wrong. I left the podium to find Bud or Tom or anyone else, for that matter, who was willing to get up there and speak. Tom Kowaleski greeted me as I came off the podium. He told me he needed five minutes. "We're getting a fax right now," he said. When Bud came back, he had two pages in his hands. I noticed that his hands were shaking; obviously, the fax held forbidding news.

Joe Oldham, Editor-in-Chief, Popular Mechanics: It was like looking in on history being made, almost. It was really exciting to me, not being a newspaper person. As a magazine person you don't really cover breaking-news stories - at least I never have. But this was like you were there as breaking news was happening. It was really exciting.

Mike Allen, Associate Automotive Editor, Popular Mechanics: The '96 Dodge minivan was something else. The Chrysler announcement, however, threw a serious monkey wrench into the throws of the show - Chrysler, Kerkorian et al. After Liebler's short statement, the reporters sprinted for the phones.