Despite recession, auto dealers find public in a buying mood BUMPER CROP


It's business as usual for automobile dealers and manufacturers at Baltimore's seventh annual International Auto

Show despite last year's dismal auto sales figures and the weak economy.

Though it may seem that purchasing a car would be the last thing on the mind of a family worrying about the possibility of war and the recession, officials say these circumstances make it more important than ever to create a splash at industry shows.

"When times get a little tougher, certainly the last thing you want to do is pull back on your advertising or promotion or your auto show presence," said Chuck Snearly, public affairs manager for the Lincoln Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Co.

"Surveys have been done of auto-show goers, and the majority )) of them indicate that they're going to buy a new car within a year or so. You get a lot of potential buyers in there," he said.

So far, attendance is up this year at the show, which opened last Saturday and will run through Monday. Dealers have been happily surprised by the turnout, according to Michael Horkey, show group coordinator.

"We were expecting sort of a down year, but attendance to date has been phenomenal," he said, adding that if the surge continues attendance could meet or surpass last year's figure of approximately 250,000.

"Just because they don't want to spend the money doesn't mean they don't want to look at sheet metal," said Tom Houston, manager of media relations for Chrysler. "We're still wild about cars in this country."

"It's one-stop shopping," said Gary Hurley, president of the Maryland Car and Truck Dealers Association, and president and owner of City Oldsmobile on Edmonson Avenue in Baltimore.

"It creates interest in the community," he said. "People are to come in and see our wonderful new cars in one location and . . . it gives them an idea of what products the industry has to offer."

The surprisingly large turnout at the show may be a direct response to the aging of cars purchased in 1985 and 1986 -- two of the industry's best recent sales years. Car owners have equity in the cars they are driving and, in spite of the recession, may be interested in purchasing a new, more technologically advanced car, according to Allan Wilbur, spokesman for the National Auto Dealers Association.

Mike Regan, district sales manager for Baltimore Nissan, agrees.

"There are less tire-kickers than last year," he said, and more people who seem seriously interested in buying a car.

Earl Harry and his wife, Mary, were at the Convention Center last night looking at the vans. "This is the way I bought my '85 Honda," Earl Harry said, adding that the couple expects to purchase their new van before the end of the year.

The automobile industry has undergone many significant changes during the past five years, one of the most notable being the increasing use of air bags and shoulder belts as safety features.

One show-goer, who asked only to be identified as Charlee, said that she and her husband were planning to buy a car to replace their 1980 sedan. But she also expressed interest in the 1991 Plymouth Voyager because it has shoulder belts in the back seats, unlike the couple's 1989 Plymouth Voyager. That safety feature, she said, may be enough to convince her to trade in her '89 van.

However, technological advancements may not be enough to encourage some people attending the show to buy new cars.

Jerry and Joan Austin were at the show last night with their 20 month-old daughter for the "cheap entertainment."

When asked if he planned to purchase a new car in the near future, Austin replied: "We're in the midst of a recession." He plans to stick with his 1987 Alfa Romeo Milano, which he says he bought "when they were half as much as they are now."

Auto show highlights


WHEN: through Monday at the Convention Center.

HOURS: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 21.

ADMISSION: $6 for adults, and $3 for kids 12 and under.

WHAT TO SEE: New safety features for 1991, including air-bags, shoulder belts and anti-locking brake systems. More fuel-efficient vehicles. Resurgence of convertibles. Concept cars, including Chevrolet's racy Corvette Indy.

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