- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

DALLAS — Tab Harding needs a new pickup truck, but don’t bother him with sales pitches. The mason contractor prefers shopping at the State Fair of Texas’ auto show, where the next generation of trucks can be seen months before they reach the showrooms.

Mr. Harding gave the 2007 Silverado, going on sale next month, a thorough review at the fair, examining the redesigned front end, playing with the new touch-screen navigation system and gently running his hand over the leather seats.

“I want to make sure I’m not buying the same old truck,” said Mr. Harding, who buys a truck about every two years after putting on 35,000 to 40,000 “hard” miles annually.

With pickup truck sales in a 13 percent decline this year, manufacturers feel a heightened sense of urgency over the fair’s potential effect on sales. Industry executives say one out of every four vehicles sold in Texas is a pickup, compared with one out of eight elsewhere in the United States.

Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Toyota each have new models sitting in the 135,000-square-foot outdoor display. With trucks representing high profit margins, the fair becomes a highly charged environment not to be taken lightly, analysts said.

“This is the high-stakes game, a shootout at the OK Corral,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It’s got all the drama you could imagine, but with trucks as major players.”

The Texas battleground is so fierce that companies dispatch teams of high-ranking executives and engineers to visit the fair and tout their new or redesigned models. As one manufacturer debuts its latest version, engineers from other companies armed with tape measures and note pads pounce to do a quick study of their newest competitor.

At times, manufacturers treat Texas as its own captive market separate from the rest of the country. AGM says it is planning a television commercial touting its 2007 Silverado just for the Texas audience.

Each year, new model introductions seem to get more elaborate. Ford’s new model F-450 — with top executive Mark Fields in the driver’s seat — was lowered by crane 75 feet to the ground. Mr. Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, later was joined by company spokesman and country and western singer Toby Keith, who pulled up in another F-450.

“This is ground zero for truck leadership,” Mr. Fields said. “If you don’t show up in Texas, particularly at a venue like the state fair, you might as well not show up at all. This is where you duke it out. It’s where you make your bones as far as burnishing truck production.”

Manufacturers love the fair because the 24-day event, now in its first full week, draws about 3.2 million visitors annually. Many find their way to the auto show, even if only for a respite from temperatures still pushing the mid-90s.

The show is as much a part of the day as the fair’s centerpiece Ferris wheel, the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game and concession stands offering corn dogs, turkey legs and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The show dates to 1904, when steam-, gas- and electric-power vehicles were displayed on the state fair track as a prelude to horse races.

By 1989, the trucks became popular enough to command their own space outside the exhibitor’s hall. GM’s Chevrolet was the sole exhibitor that year and still accounts for about 35 percent of the show.

This year’s timing couldn’t be better, said Jim Sanfilippo, analyst with Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., who thinks pickup trucks are ready to break out of their slump.

“It doesn’t mean anyone is out of the woods because there are structural issues for some companies to tend to still,” Mr. Sanfilippo said. “But if you’re looking for a market to make an impact, this is it. In the next 12 months, you’ll see more of the best products ever in the marketplace.”

Time will tell just how helpful the fair really is.

“It’s kind of like NASCAR: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” Mr. Cole said. “What counts is the aftereffect and what kind of impression they have and what buying decisions they make. That’s really key.”

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