The Brightest Star at the Detroit Auto Show? Lightning McQueen, Of Course

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Those attending the 2017 Detroit auto show may be disappointed to find there are no exhibits by Bentley, Ferrari, Maserati, Mini, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, or Tesla. But among the exhibitors filling the spaces those brands once occupied, they will find a familiar friend poised on the main floor: Lightning McQueen, the lead character of the Disney/Pixar Cars franchise, is taking a turn on the auto-show turntable, wearing a fresh paint job to promote the June release of the third installment, Cars 3.

The show car, which has toured concours and car shows for years in paint schemes resembling those featured in the first two movies, is the only one at Pixar’s stand on the auto show’s main floor. It’s hardly the first time the Detroit show has displayed an imaginary creation that you’ll never encounter in traffic, but in the show’s opening press conference, Pixar Animation Studios chief creative officer John Lasseter did call his creation “the first autonomous car; he drives himself.” (Although Herbie the Love Bug might object to that characterization.)

Lasseter noted that research for the original Cars movie started at the Detroit show in 2001 and that the promotional work for the completed film really kicked off at the same auto show in 2006, the year it was released. Eleven years later, in Cars 3, the Lightning McQueen character has evolved from hotshot rookie to seasoned racing veteran struggling to fend off a pack of young challengers led by a new character, Jackson Storm. As the trailer (below) makes clear, Lightning is involved in a major crash and spends more time in the fictional Route 66 town of Radiator Springs (which is the setting re-created at Cars Land in the Disney California Adventure theme park in Anaheim) than he did in the globetrotting Cars 2. Route 99 in California is another setting that gets prominent play in the new film.

Cars production designer Jay Shuster and creative director Jay Ward explained how they designed the new characters of Jackson Storm and Cruz Ramirez, the latter a driving coach who helps McQueen get his mojo back. The process emulates that used by real-world car designers, with ink-on-paper sketches and clay modeling before the application of Pixar’s advanced digital-illustration technologies. Ward and Shuster were joined in the early stages of this process by retired Ford design chief J Mays (so many Jays!).

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Owen Wilson returns to voice Lightning McQueen, while Armie Hammer speaks for Jackson Storm and Cristela Alonzo plays Cruz Ramirez. Other returnees include Bonnie Hunt as Sally Carrera, Larry the Cable Guy as Mater, and Cheech Marin as Ramone. Tip your caps to the memory of Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson on your way into the theater June 16.

2017 Detroit Auto Show


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