Dealers' hopes riding on show Big promotion: The Baltimore International Auto Show provides a grand showcase for car sellers in the area.

February 02, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

At Jerry's Chevrolet-Geo in Parkville, there are still traces of the blizzard of '96 that robbed that dealership and others in the state of a big chunk of their sales last month:-- a pile of snow that rises above the front bumpers of the four-wheel-drive Chevy Blazers facing Joppa Road.

"If we had to have a blizzard, it was better to have it then than now," said Michael Beck, the dealership's new car sales manager. The Maryland auto sales industry will launch its most ambitious promotion of the year tomorrow with the opening of the 12th annual Baltimore International Auto Show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

"It's the biggest event of the year for auto dealers," said Joseph P. Carroll, executive director of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. "It provides them the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have to sell."

It is something the industry looks forward to each year, said Mr. Beck. "It kicks off the selling season," he said. "It's the shot in the arm that gets the industry going again after competing with the Christmas holidays. We should recapture any business we lost as a result of the blizzard."

The show makes it easy for potential buyers to check out Detroit's latest offerings, as well as those from manufacturers overseas, without driving all over town.

It's more than a car shopping spree, according to Mr. Beck. "It's an exciting event. Most people are dreamers. They like to fantasize. They like to look at the $100,000 cars and let their imagination ride.

"But in the end, they settle on something more practical, something they know they can afford."

Maryland's retail auto industry could use a lift; dealers recently closed their books on the worst December selling period in four years. Motorists bought only 18,503 new vehicles in the month, 26 percent fewer than they drove home in the same period of 1994.

For all of 1995, sales dropped 6.5 percent to 326,616 vehicles, according to the state Motor Vehicle Administration. This compared with a decline of only 2.1 percent for dealers nationwide.

Industry analysts, along with some industry executives, are predicting another flat year in 1996. Most are predicting light vehicle sales to match last year's 14.8 million units or to rise slightly to 15 million.

Maryland dealers may do a little better than their counterparts in other states, said Jacob J. Cohen, a partner and head of the automotive division at Walpert, Smullian & Blumenthal, a Towson-based accounting and management consulting company.

Mr. Cohen thinks dealers here could pick up some of the business they missed out on last year because of dwindling consumer confidence. He predicts that new vehicle sales could rise 4 percent to 6 percent in the state this year.

Maryland dealers are counting on this year's Auto Show to shift their business volume into a higher gear.

"It is always a big stimulant to the market," said Ernie Swanson, who heads Ernie Swanson Oldsmobile on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie. "This year, it comes on the eve of the President's Day sale, which is always one of our biggest sales periods."

Jeff Davidson, general sales manager at Bob Davidson Ford on Joppa Road in Parkville, said the Auto Show heightens consumers' interests in new cars at the same time they are making plans for their income tax refunds.

The nine-day show will feature 342 cars and light-duty trucks from 36 domestic and foreign manufacturers.

It is being promoted as the East Coast unveiling of the 1997 Cadillac Catera, General Motors Corp.'s new entry-level car designed to combine the driving fun of a European sports sedan with the luxury of a Cadillac.

Other premieres will include the 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix sedan and the 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue.

The Plymouth Prowler also will be featured. It's a $30,000-plus roadster that will arrive in showrooms in the spring of 1997.

But the star of the show, based on past experience, will be the Hummer, a civilian version of the military's all-terrain Humvee. This $50,000 cross between a jeep and a tank captured the fancy of the crowd when it was displayed at the 1994 Auto Show.

The vehicle drew the biggest crowds. People would wait in line for 20 minutes for the opportunity to climb into the driver's seat.

This year's show will run until Feb. 11. Light rail stops at the Fairgrounds and parking is free.

The show's hours are noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays, and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children under 12.

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