Americans may have turned a bit fickle in their love affair with cars in recent years, but the affair appears to be far from over, according to the promoters of the International Auto Show that has been drawing record crowds this week.
"I would say that we had a couple hundred thousand people in Saturday, Sunday and Monday," said Raymond C. Nichols, president of International Auto Shows Inc. The annual sales promotion, which returned to Baltimore in 1985 after a 25-year absence, runs through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center.
"That is at least 30 percent ahead of last year," he said with an enthusiasm that has been missing in the industry recently.
"We went back over our records and we didn't find anything comparable to that" since the one-stop auto shopping extravaganza returned to Baltimore in 1985 after a 25 year absence.
Mr. Nichols said weeknight attendance also is up 30 percent, but he noted that many people stayed home last January to watch the Persian Gulf war on television.
Mr. Nichols and car dealers have been pleasantly surprised by the turnout, considering that the industry is coming off its worst sales year since 1983 and that the kind of economic news needed to shift consumer confidence into high gear remains scarce.
Sales of new vehicles in Maryland totaled 273,090 last year, down nearly 25 percent from the 1990 total, according to figures released by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.
"The average age of the car on the road today is 7 1/2 years," Mr. Nichols said. "That's reaching the clunker stage. "I think there is a lot of pent-up demand out there. I can't say for certain, but I sense that the cycle is beginning to turn. I think 1992 could be the turnaround year."
If Arthur and Fay Guido are typical, Mr. Nichols could be right.
The Bel Air couple were at the show earlier this week looking at Chevy extended-cab Silverado pickup truck as a possible replacement for their 1982 Plymouth Reliant, which Mrs. Guido referred to as a "rust bucket" with 203,000 miles on it.
As Mr. Guido adjusted the front bucket seat, he expressed some concern about the region's economy but said he probably would make a purchase within six months.
Although the two-tone truck carried a $20,854 price tag on the windshield, Mr. Guido didn't seem to be suffering from the kind of sticker shock that typically afflicts consumers who have been out of the market for a decade.
"Prices have gone up 30 percent or more," he said, "but that's about what I expected."
Speaking of prices, Donald Morrison, 54, of New Freedom, Pa., joked that the Lamborghini Diablo -- with a monstrous 490-horsepower, V-12 engine -- "was a steal" at $250,000 plus tax. "They had one here last year that was $315,000," he said.
Mr. Morrison, like many others at the show, was not shopping seriously. He said he had already purchased two new vehicles (a Lincoln Continental and an Eagle Talon) in the past six months and had "just come down to look at what was new on the market."
More than 300 vehicles, foreign and domestic, are on display at the Convention Center, but there was one noticeable absence -- the much talked-about new Dodge Viper sports car.
"My heavens, I must have had 500 people come up to me ask, 'Where's the Viper?' " said Terry Allen, a sales representative with Tate Dodge in Glen Burnie. "A lot of people were disappointed." Mr. Allen did not know whether his dealership would get any of the 10-cylinder, 400-horsepower cars. Chrysler plans to build only about 300 in the 1992 model year.
The show runs from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. tonight, noon to 10 p.m. tomorrow and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.