“Cars 3” is revved about coming to the 2017 North American International Auto Show. But the trip isn’t just about selling this year’s model. It’s about the hit movie franchise wanting to thank the Motor City.

Pixar, the animation studio behind the billion-dollar franchise, will hold a news conference today at Cobo Center that’s thought to be the first movie event of its kind at the venerable Detroit auto show.

There will be some exclusive reveals about “Cars 3,” which hits theaters June 16, and the debut of a life-size version of one of its four-wheeled characters.

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Plus, Hollywood’s king of animation, Pixar cofounder John Lasseter, is expected to attend.

And the fun isn’t just for the media preview. A “Cars 3” display will be on the show floor for the nearly million attendees expected during the public days that begin Jan. 14.

“Our goal is first to say thank you to the city of Detroit for welcoming us over 10 years ago,” says “Cars” creative director Jay Ward, a lifelong gearhead who recalls coming here back in 2001 for initial research on the first movie.

“We want to show some images of some of the stuff we captured back in ’01 and say, ‘Hey, we’re back and thank you!’ And then we want to share some exclusive stuff about ‘Cars 3’ with Detroit, because we feel like it’s paying it forward.”

The  original 2006 “Cars” was about the adventures of a young, confident race car named Lightning McQueen, who winds up in the desert town of  Radiator Springs, a stop on the old Route 66, and encounters characters like Mater the tow truck; Doc Hudson, a cranky 1951 Hudson Hornet, and Sally Carrera, a beautiful Porsche.

Lasseter, Ward and other “Cars” team members visited Detroit several times for research and met with company executives and big names like  former Ford design chief J Mays, classic car collectors and automotive journalists. The end credits for the movie singled out many automotive world figures and the NAIAS for special thanks.

Initially, it was difficult for the car companies to wrap their minds around the concept of a movie that wanted to turn their vehicles into cartoon characters. Says Ward, “It’s hard to realize this now, but back then they were kind of scratching their heads going, ‘What is this?’…They really didn’t quite get it. I remember Chrysler said, ‘OK, we just don’t want our car to be the bad guy,’ and Ford said, ‘As long as our car doesn’t fall in love with a Chevy.'”

The final cast of characters was inspired by an eclectic mix of manufacturers and models that included a 1970 Plymouth Superbird,  a 1960 VW Microbus, a 1959 Fiat, a 1949 Mercury police cruiser and more. The voice cast included Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, George Carlin, Tony Shalhoub and racing icon Richard Petty.

“Cars” and “Cars 2” went on to earn more than a billion dollars internationally at the box office. Kids liked it, and so did adults who appreciated the attention to detail that went into the creation of the animated vehicles.

“We knew this would be in part a love letter  to Detroit and cars,” says Ward. “We recorded every correct engine sound along the way. We did single-stage paint for old cars and two-coat glossy paint for modern cars and bias plies and radials. We did all that work because we wanted it to be authentic through and through in a visual way that tells you this car is real without even opening its mouth.”

The idea for a “Cars 3” auto show event was hatched about a year ago by Ward, whose work at Pixar as a legacy guardian for “Cars” involves him in everything from the actual films to related consumer products and exhibits.

“We’d go to these press reveals and it was the coolest thing to see the manufacturer drive out this cool prototype car and everybody cheers and the car is on a turntable,” he says.

Pixar originally was going to be represented at the Detroit event by Ward and Jay Shuster, who’s a “Cars 3” production designer and metro Detroit native. Then Lasseter found out about it and wanted to come along.

The Oscar-winning animation legend behind “Toy Story” directed and wrote “Cars” and “Cars 2.” As chief creative officer for Disney Animation and Pixar, he now essentially oversees all the films made by those powerhouse studios.

“It’s not easy to get his time these days, as you can imagine,” says Ward.

Like so many people involved in making “Cars” movies, Lasseter, Ward and Shuster have been auto enthusiasts their whole lives.

Lasseter’s father managed the parts department of a Chevy dealership in Whittier, Calif. He told the Free Press back in 2006 that he grew up drawing cars, collecting Hot Wheels and working in the summer as a stock boy.

Ward, who hails from Kansas City, was fascinated by cars, too, partly because his dad was an auto wholesaler. “Detroit is in all of our DNA because of cars, whether we grew up in Detroit” or not.

And Shuster? As the person in charge of the design of the “Cars 3” character, he has the closest family ties to the Motor City. He was born in Pontiac and grew up in Birmingham, where his father, Stuart, now retired, worked in the General Motors design department for 43 years.

Shuster looked forward to family days at the GM Tech Center in Warren and was inspired by seeing his father busy sketching and drawing at home. “Everything was car-centric, growing up for me,” says the alum of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “Anything I sketch, there’s always something informed by a surface or a mechanical part I’ve absorbed throughout my life.”

But the bond that the “Cars” filmmakers share with Detroit automakers extends beyond their mutual love for the vehicles.

“The thing that resonated with us (from the start) was the car design process is almost exactly the same as the animated film process,” says Ward. “It’s four to five years. It starts with an idea. Creativity gets in there and hatches the genesis of it, and then these other departments come (into the project). It’s a long, arduous process with an assembly line to make an animated film. The car manufacturers were saying the exact same thing about their challenges.”

“Cars 3” will be much different from the European spy romp of “Cars 2.” It will return to the emotional core of the original “Cars” and its lessons in friendship — and even turn on the gas in terms of feelings.

This time, a middle-aged Lightning McQueen will face getting older and meet some new millennial characters. As described by Entertainment Weekly, “a disastrous brush with mortality spurs the once-great athlete to re-examine his tenure on the track.”

Ward says the mandate for “Cars 3” was to deliver the sort of life-changing journey that audiences seek from Pixar movies. “This film is about character and about that journey and emotion and transformation. All of that is in this film and more. I think this is probably the most emotionally strong of the three ‘Cars’ films by far. It’s going to resonate with people in a way they weren’t expecting.”

“It’s going back to our roots, story-wise,” says Shuster. “I think it’s the best of the three, so we’re pretty excited about it.”

Ultimately, the same emotion that fuels “Cars 3” reflects the same formula for crafting a winning car — or cartoon.

“You have to start with something you love first,” says Ward. “If you don’t love the design yourself, if you’re not passionate about it,  you can’t expect everyone else to feel that way.”

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or jhinds@freepress.com.