Detroit - Full of Surprises

Dan discovers Motor City pride and how the Detroit is regaining its strength and reputation in more than just the auto industry
Detroit - Full of Surprises

Overlooking beautiful Orchard Lake, I sat on a stage with the US President of Aston Martin discussing luxury British cars.

The weather was exquisite, the setting postcard-perfect and the atmosphere at our reception was as upbeat and positive as any event I've been to across America.

I'm going to be honest, Detroit, this wasn't how I expected to spend time in your city.

I didn't think places like Orchard Lake existed; I didn't think people here drove Aston Martins; and, having visited in January for the Auto Show, I'm not sure I knew your weather would be this good either.

Before my first visit to Motor City, I'd heard the stories of a city's fall from grace, of an urban population shrinking, of the demise of the auto industry. I'd watched the ESPN documentary about the Pistons NBA championship run that drew parallels between the rugged style of Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer – basically starting fights – and the city itself. But after five visits there, I see a different city: one that has its pride back and is regaining its strength and reputation, and that is exactly the sort of place Aston Martin should be trying to sell its cars.

The recent film about Detroit (adorned with British stars including Star Wars' John Boyega and Will Poulter) and some of their issues with race relations reminds us all about the city's troubled past. But the cast, who we met at a BAFTA screening in Los Angeles, spoke of time spent in the city filming – and holding the premiere there – as well as the warmth of the people and how much the city has changed and moved on. The fact the current police chief is thinking of making the film compulsory viewing for new recruits speaks volumes.

On my last couple of trips to the city I've spent time downtown at the Detroit Athletic Club - a British-style club with leather armchairs, wood-panelled walls, and a (#BritishExport) Scotch selection that could grace any establishment in Britain. From its modern rooftop bar, there's an extraordinary view of Tigers' baseball field – one of the four professional teams playing in its core downtown, something only Detroit has in North America.

Motor City might not be what it was because of the globalisation of the auto industry, but Detroit remains a vital part of that industry.

(#UKInvestor) Ford is still a huge employer in the city and also a driver of innovation. And the Auto Show, however cold, still plays a pivotal role in the cycle of new car launches and demonstrations of the autonomous vehicle innovation that drives the industry forward.

British companies like Cosworth, Ricardo, and GKN have made homes in Detroit and (#UKInvestor) Shinola continues to display the world-class creativity and innovation on offer in Detroit.

A trip to the Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn is not only one of the most fascinating museums I've ever visited throughout the world, but also a reminder of the city's (and the country's) history of endeavour. The bus Rosa Parks made her stand on, the chair Lincoln was assassinated in, as well as an original copy of the Constitution, give you a sense of what is exhibited there. There are also originals of British industrial revolution-era heavy equipment – brought over many years ago – on display as a reminder of a shared US-UK industrial history. Surprisingly, and pleasingly for me, the Chief Curator is a Brit.

Maybe I'm naive to have been so surprised by Detroit. It's a city with great sport, great culture, great restaurants like Seldon Standard, Wright & Co, and Mabel Gray, and the sort of place you might see a DB11, Vanquish, Rapide or any other Aston Martin.


An exclusive web series for American Way magazine. Follow Dan and Department for International Trade on Twitter!