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February might not be an ideal time to drive a convertible in Western New York.

But this is the Buffalo Auto Show, when car enthusiasts come in from the cold and, in the case of the new Ford Thunderbird, picture warmer days ahead.

"It's a beauty," said Matthew Adams, a show visitor who was admiring the shiny red vehicle. "It's one heck of a car."

Adams was just browsing, but auto dealers are hoping the T-Bird and the dozens of other autos on display at the Buffalo Convention Center will spark enthusiasm and persuade show visitors to stop by the dealerships. The show began Wednesday and runs through Sunday.

The T-Bird, which Ford Motor Co. is rolling out later this year, is considered one of the show's leading attractions. Ford is making only 20,000 to 25,000 of them this year, with the cheapest version carrying a sticker price of about $35,000.

Towne Ford in Orchard Park has been allotted nine T-Birds this year; four of them are still available, said salesman Michael Gray.

Automakers are hopeful that vehicles like the T-Bird will give people something different to come to the showroom to see and get excited about.

Analysts and the automakers themselves have projected that U.S. auto sales will reach between 16 million and 16.5 million units, which would be the third-highest year ever but down substantially from 2000's record 17.4 million. Locally, new-car and truck sales were down about 3.4 percent from 1999, but still came in at a strong 70,048.

Gray said the annual show gives people an opportunity to look over what they like away from a sales floor.

"At the dealership, we always look forward to the auto show because we know the slower season has ended," Gray said.

Despite talk of a slowing economy, visitors to the show who said they're interested in buying said they're more concerned about finding a good vehicle for the money.

"I'm in the market, but I'll see what's out there," said visitor Joe Reno, who currently drives a 1994 Mitsubishi Diamante. "If something turns me on and the price is right, I'll consider it."

Ron Gustas and Terry Heppner of Evans were considering SUVs. "The Hyundai seems like a pretty good car for the money," Gustas said.

With a crowd already lined up in the lobby, the show kicked off with an opening ceremony that included 83-year-old James Testa, who was General Motors' oldest active hourly worker when he retired last fall. Testa worked at GM for 52 years.

This year's show is paying tribute to the people who built the auto industry in Western New York, including the roughly 7,800 autoworkers still living in the area, said Paul Stasiak, president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association.

Testa was joined at opening by 10-year-old Martin Battaglia, an avid car fan who learned to identify autos before he was 2 years old and visits the show each day with his family.

The show plans a number of giveaways, including a chance to win a car each day. Visitors will also find a variety of new-production and concept cars to look over.

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