When Mike Ettleson was a little boy, his parents marveled at his ability to name every make and model on the road. As a child, he remembers playing mostly with toy cars and a big ring of keys that his dad had given him. “My mother said that I would go from car to car on the street trying to open them,” he says.

He was just 5 years old when his father, renowned Chevrolet dealer Maury Ettleson, took him to the Chicago Auto Show for the first time. By age 10, he was going with a friend by train. And at 11, he started in the car business himself, helping out with odd jobs around the dealership. “I can remember sitting in cars, being in cars when I was little, and of course, going to the Auto Show, where you could sit in car after car,” Ettleson remembers. In fact, this year’s Chicago Auto Show will be his 46th. Pretty impressive, especially when you consider that Ettleson is a mere 54 years old.

As the owner of two successful dealerships, Ettleson Cadillac-Buick-GMC and Ettleson Hyundai, Ettleson is serving this year as the chairman of the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the 2013 Chicago Auto Show. It’s a position he was born to fill. For the Ettlesons, cars are the family business. His grandmother worked in bookkeeping for a dealer and eventually got his father, Maury, involved. Maury went on to co-own the largest Chevrolet dealership in the country and made a name for himself in part with local TV commercials with the line, “Where you always save more money.” (The ads were so popular that he and his partner, Nick Celozzi, pitched spots for Pizza Hut and Bud Light.) “Those were the days when you owned the airways if you advertised on the channels 2, 5, 7, 9, and 32,” says Ettleson. “Today, we spend our dollars on search engine optimization and marketing.”

Admittedly, it’s been a rough few years for the auto industry. The average age of cars on the road is at an all-time high of 10.8 years in a still-down economy. But the Chicago Auto Show gives manufacturers a reason to strut their stuff and the opportunity to change consumers’ minds. What began in 1901 as a way to demonstrate “horseless carriage” vehicles on a track to an audience apprehensive about these new speed machines has evolved into a showcase for close to 1,000 vehicles, including at least 20 new car unveilings each year, taking up more than one million square feet of McCormick Place. Today, in its 105th edition, the Chicago Auto Show is the largest of its kind in North America and the longest-running auto show in the world.

For car manufacturers and dealers, Chicago is the premier selling show in the country. “The Detroit auto show was for manufacturers, but Chicago has always been very consumer driven. You can sit in the car and touch things,” Ettleson says. During this year’s 10-day run, visitors can expect test drives, concept cars, models that were concept cars turned into reality, and lots of interactive features for technologies that integrate tablets and smart phones into the driving experience. Of course, with all these new distractions, you can also expect new safety features that warn you when you drift in the lane or get too close to another car. Plus, in models from Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep, you can ride along with a pro to take on steep inclines, inch down sharply angled hills, and push the chassis over boulders and logs.

Like so many times before, Ettleson will be there to take it all in. And despite his years of experience, you can bet the chairman himself will feel a bit like that starry-eyed kid who’s excited to just hold all the keys. The Chicago Auto Show runs February 9–18 at McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr.

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