Not even a smoky protest stops auto show visitors

January 24, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Talk about your "hot" cars -- this baby was smokin', zero to burnt in a few minutes.

In a bit of old-fashioned street theater on Sharp Street, animal rights advocates yesterday set ablaze a late-model Pontiac Sunbird convertible just as the 9th International Auto Show was starting inside the Baltimore Convention Center.

Their intent: to protest alleged animal testing by General Motors, something a GM spokesman denied on the spot, as the corporation has done in the past. GM has a large display at the auto show.

But the smoky protest near Festival Hall, by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was a little-noticed sideshow to yesterday's main event.

While a few dozen demonstrators chanted, thousands of people packed into a convention center that, for the next eight days, has been converted into a virtual shrine to the internal combustion engine.

Adults paid $6 each to kick a few tires, peek under the hood and give auto dealers hope that 1993 will be a better sales year.

"We only have five people working this, and it's not enough," declared John Chapman, a salesman with Normandy Ford in Ellicott City. "It suggests to us there will be a lot more business."

He said there is a strong surge of interest in U.S.-made cars and confidence in the economy in general. "People are more excited, more willing to spend money; they're not afraid," he said.

Chuck MacGregor, district manager for Pontiac in the Baltimore area, agreed. "It's refreshing," he said. "For the longest time, traffic was off, showrooms were empty." Now, he said, "everybody's attitude is getting better. We're looking for a good spring."

Some dealers attributed the rise in consumer confidence to a resurgent economy. Others cited the inauguration of President Clinton -- and one even managed to work that theme into his sales pitch.

"Like Bill Clinton said, America's ready for a change, and Dodge is changing," said Ron Allender, a sales representative from Tate Dodge in Glen Burnie, plugging his company's new "Intrepid" sedan.

Many convention-goers were doing more than window-shopping.

"My daughter needs a car, so I'm giving her my old car. I'm looking for a mid-sized, not very big," said Marta Minadeo of Columbia, who came to the show with her husband, Arthur. "I think people are letting go of their money a little more than last year."

While some agreed consumer that confidence is improved, others were philosophical. "The cars we have are getting a little old, worn," said Brian Mucha, a Baltimore resident who came to the show with his wife and daughter. "I don't know if it says anything about the economy. You need a new car, you get a new car."

Cars on display targeted just about every taste, budget or need.

Like the Bentley Continental "R," a hand-crafted luxury coupe listing at $269,600 (gas mileage: 11 in the city, 16 on the highway.) Or the Lamborghini "Diablo," a screaming-yellow sports car with a V-12 engine that can hurtle it along at 202 mph -- priced to move at $250,510.

At the other end of the spectrum was the Hyundai sub-compact, the very soul of frugality and practicality, listing for $5,900 and promising 36 mpg on the highway.

Organizers hope all this translates into big attendance in the next eight days, saying they expect to break last year's mark of 380,000. "We basically create a market," said Michael Horkey, who works with the show's promoter. "There's a lot of pent-up demand for buying new cars right now. People have been holding on to their pocketbooks."

Meanwhile, there were no arrests or charges as of yesterday stemming from PETA's car-burning, which a PETA member said involved a vehicle donated for the protest.

Lisa Lange, international campaigns manager for PETA, said the group also conducted similar protests yesterday at auto shows in Vancouver, Canada; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.

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