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ROLLING THUNDER
A REVAMPED FORD CLASSIC FROM THE '60S LEADS THE PARADE OF NEW VEHICLES -- AND A TRIBUTE TO WESTERN NEW YORK'S RETIRED AUTO WORKERS -- AT THE 2001 AUTO SHOW

Ford Motor Co. has reached into its past to come up with one of this year's hot new cars: the Thunderbird convertible.

A pre-production version of the new T-Bird will be on display at this year's Buffalo Auto Show, which runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Buffalo Convention Center. The car was a star attraction of the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Ford pitches the T-Bird as a car that will "evoke passions and stir emotions." The automaker is also hoping it will pull people into showrooms and stimulate sales, even if they just come to gaze at the T-Bird and end up buying other Ford vehicles. At the Detroit show, a company executive conceded that it would be a "second car" for most customers, one they might buy instead of a luxury purchase such as a sailboat.

Ford expects to sell out of its first year of T-Birds before production even starts, since it will make only 20,000 this year. The cheapest version will carry a sticker price of about $35,000.

Local dealers hope the T-Bird and other vehicles displayed at the 2001 Buffalo show will pump up customers' interest in heading to the showroom. New-car sales at Western New York franchised dealers last year totaled 70,048 -- a strong year, but down 3.4 percent from 1999's record total. Analysts project U.S. auto sales will fall by anywhere from 5 percent to 8 percent in 2001.

The show will feature three new Chevrolet vehicles: the Z06 Corvette and the Trailblazer SUV and the Avalanche, a combination truck-SUV. Among the other new vehicles expected are Isuzu's VehiCross SUV, the Lexus SC 430 convertible and the Buick Rendezvous, a "crossover" vehicle. Audi will show off its Allroad and TT Roadster convertible, Mercury will have a concept Mountaineer SUV and Hyundai will display a Santa Fe SUV and an XG300 sedan.

The Buffalo show, which drew about 139,000 people last year, will again offer a host of promotions and events to try to draw visitors.

At the opening ceremony Wednesday, the show plans to pay tribute to the area's retired autoworkers who worked for companies such as General Motors and Ford.

The show will also reach out to high school students who are part of Auto Technology programs in area schools, with a special Thursday morning event for them that will be closed to the public. "We're going to try to give them a vision that having a career in a technical field, whether it's the auto industry or something else, is a very admirable career," said Paul Stasiak, president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association.

Senior citizens will be able to buy "early bird" discount group tickets for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Visitors can try out a NASCAR race simulator at the show for a $3 donation. Simulators of Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevy and Dale Jarrett's No. 88 Ford will be at the show.

Visitors will also have a chance to win a different car each day of the show. In order, they are: a PT Cruiser, Chevrolet Corvette convertible, Lincoln LS, Ford Mustang convertible and Toyota Spyder.

There's no guarantee, however, that anyone will win. Visitors will enter by submitting their driver's license number, and then 10 entrants from that day will be drawn. To win, the last four digits of an entrant's driver's license number must match the last four digits of the vehicle identification number of the car up for giveaway that day.

Someone will win the Ford Escape being given away on Saturday, since that contest follows different rules.

Among the prizes being given away are a trip for two to Orlando, Fla.; a trip for four to Las Vegas to see an XFL game between the Orlando Rage and the Las Vegas Outlaws; a trip for two to NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen; and $100 in Citgo gas, every hour from 5-9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

A rundown on show events:

Wednesday is grand opening day, with a tribute to retired autoworkers.

Thursday is "Sports Day." Mascots Buster Bison and Sabretooth will be on hand, and former Sabres Richie Dunn, Grant Ledyard, Larry Playfair and Derek Smith will be there from 5 to 7 p.m.

Friday is "Be a Millionaire Day." There will be a drawing for a trip for two to New York City to see a taping of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and ski passes for the Extreme Games finals at Kissing Bridge.

Saturday is "Be a Star Day." There will be a giveaway of Harry Potter book sets.

Sunday is "Family Day." Visitors can meet the Rugrats characters.

BUFFALO INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW 2001

When: Wed. through Sat., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sun. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Buffalo Convention Center

Cost: $8 for adults at the door. Children 12 and under accompanied by parents admitted free. Advance tickets available at Wegmans, $6 for individuals and $20 "value pass" for four tickets.

More details: Web site accessible through www.BuffaloCars.com

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