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700 vehicles plus celebrities, science and a charity "tailgate" preview.
More than just cars at 9-day auto show
By Tom Soter
FOR THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
I'm 40 years old and just learned how to drive. My next step? Probably a car. And for that, I and others in my position - could find one at the Phil adelphia International Auto Show. OK, I might not actually buy one there - I am. after all, from New York - but it's a great place to look. Even those not car·hunting might want to head to the con
Set up in more than 430.000 square feet in all the major exhibit halls of the Convention Center from Saturday through next Sun· day, the gathering will be more than a collection of salespeople hawking 1997 and 1998 models. There'll be celebrities. science competitions. a black·tie affair, and a chance to get your hands on the latest car models.
Car conventions and Philadelphia have had a long history, dating to 1904. Although there were only four dealers in those days. They decided that the best way to promote their products was to stage a flashy showcase of their latest autos. So, four years before Ford's first assembly plant opened. The Philadelphia car convention was born.
This year's event. presented by the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia. will showcase most of the major manufacturers' new production cars. race cars, show cars. and proto: types. They'll present more than 700 vehicles. including the Mazda Miata M Coupe. Eagle Jazz. Plymouth Prowler. Dodge Viper GTS Coupe, and the Dodge ESS mini·van.
New or redesigned production models being unveiled for the first time on the East Coast include the Chevrolet Corvette. the MercedesBenz SLK 230, and the Porsche Boxster. "These three cars are the talk of the automotive' world," says Bert Parrish. executive director of the local Automobile Dealers Association. Although this show is the latest in a line that has gone on for nearly a century. experts say things have changed a lot. especially in the last 20 years. "These conventions used to be more show business." says Andy Schupack. a spokesman for the show. "Twenty years ago, it was not unusual for the car manufacturers to hire entertainers like Gladys Knight and the Pips or Jay and the Americans to take part. and then unveil cars with colored lights and waterfalls.
"But people don't want that anymore. Even the 'turntable girls' those sexy women posing in front of cars on rotating plat· forms] have been replaced by trained product specialists. A lot more people want to come in and find out about the cars. There's less show biz, because people are showing up with copies of Consumer Reports and car magazines. They're on a mission. You didn't see that 20 years ago. Maybe that's because the car is such a huge investment now. A lot of people take their research very seriously."
Not that the entertainment side has disappeared entirely. Some attendees may have no intention of buying. but show up because of the circus-like elements that still exist. Celebrities are on hand. some more relevant to the event than others. Last year. for example. stock-car driver Jeff Gordon. winner of the 1995 NASCAR Winston Cup championship. was present one day from 4 to 6 p.m. PeopIe arrived at 10 a.m. to line up and see him answer questions. He also signed an estimated 2.100 autographs in just over two hours.
This year. the stars will include Donna D'Errico of Baywatch (this Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4p.m.) and Terry Labonte, 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup champion (Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m.). Also, attendees will see competitive events featuring the mechanical wizards of tomorrow. The big one is the fourth annual Greater Philadelphia Automotive Technology Competition finals for high school senior automotive students. Scholarships. prizes and trophies will be given to students scoring highest in hands-on skill contests. staged Tuesday morning.
In the. contest. pairs of teens diagnose and then repair a range of faulty cars. using whatever tools they have on hand as they try to beatthe clock. "They're like a pit crew in a racing competition."Schupack says. Berks Career and Technology Center-West. in Leesport. Berks CountY, Pa . has bested the competition for the last two years. going on to win at the National Automotive Technology Competition in New York in 1995.
There will also be a "Black Tie Tailgate" from 7 to 10 for $75. Guests can preview the show before it opens to the public, and enjoy hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. Proceeds benefit Children's Hospital' of Philadelphia. (Jnformation: 215-590-4008).
Of course. most people come for the cars.
"I've seen families of fiye or six arrive," Schupack says. "They do things they can't do at a dealership. If they heard that it's easy to take the seat out of a mini-van, then you'll see them yanking it out. Or if the seats are supposed to be real bouncy, then you'll see the kids bouncing around."
Many can also ask questions relating to the purchase of the automobiles choices. "Very few people decide what to buy at the show. but they can narrow down their options to two or three kinds of car. That's one reason the dealers and manufacturers are here in such numbers."
Attendance seems to grow every year. The move to the Convention Center from the Civic Center in 1995 might have made a difference. Things are newer and bigger – and the crowds have been sizable. Even though there were major snowstorms both weekends last year, 103,000 people showed up over the nine days.
The internet has also played a role. Discount coupons ($2 off one weekday adult admission) are available on the web. Show planners started experimenting with the cyber tickets six months ago; 500 people came to a show in Anaheim, Calif., with coupons they had downloaded.
Still, the need to actually see and feel the car is not likely to change. "Getting information through the internet will complement what we do, but it will never replace the show itself," Shucpack says. "It's an event you have to see."
January 10, 1997