PHILADELPHIA - Ford Motor Co. wants dealers more "emotionally involved" in new products.

So, Ford Division dramatically altered the format of its annual dealer show introducing the 2000 lineup.

Called "Ford Connect," the show featured multi-media presentations, hands-on and interactive displays and test drives. The new format was intended to "connect" with the dealers so the dealers could do the same with customers.

"It was totally different," explains Jerry Cohen, president of Jerry's Ford in Annadale, VA and five other dealerships. "In the past they sat us all down in an auditorium and one executive after the other got up and told us about the past year's results, their expectations for the coming year and showed us the new cars.

"This year it was more electronic and it might have been more informative," Mr. Cohen continues. "It was more informative."

It was much more informative, says Bobby Baillargeon, general manager of Baillargeon Ford in Richardson, TX.

"And we carried a lot of enthusiasm back home on the plane," he says.

H.F. "Bert" Boeckmann, president of Galpin Ford in North Hills, CA, says the event was more interactive than in the past. He says he was most impressed with the hands-on sessions dealers had with the new Ford Focus.

"Best of all was the time we spent with the new product," says Mr. Boeckmann, one of the nation's top two Ford dealers. "When you walked away, you knew everything about the Focus. Any dealer had to walk away feeling very good."

About 3,500 Ford dealers attended the Philadelphia show in four waves during a span of nearly three weeks.

A total of 8,000 people experienced Ford Connect, including key dealership managers, automotive and Wall Street analysts and, for the first time, the media.

Presentations covered topics such as Ford's new "No Boundaries" sport-utility vehicle strategy, the company's new F-150 Super Crew and Harley-Davidson-inspired pickups, the accessories business, the redone 2000 Taurus and the new Ford Focus and its target market of Echo Boomers.

Other sessions included information on Ford's alternate-fuel vehicles, its recycling initiatives and the company's advanced safety systems.

Ford Div. President Jim O'Connor says the restyled program attracted record attendance, noting that 98% of the company's top dealers were represented.

"This was not business as usual," says Mr. O'Connor. "We tried to get the dealers emotionally involved."

One of the ways Ford attempted to connect with its dealers was by having familiar field representatives give many of the presentations instead of Dearborn-based managers and engineers.

"I think the dealers left in pretty good spirits," says Mr. O'Connor. "(1999) was a record sales and profits year."

Ford dealers will be called Ford Outfitters in a new ad campaign.

The ads group all five of the manufacturer's sport-utility vehicles under one "No Boundaries" marketing umbrella. The first commercials are set to air this month.

"Am I getting into the clothing business?" asks Virginia Ford dealer Jerry Cohen with tongue in cheek.

No. But dealers attending the Ford Division's introduction show in Philadelphia were told they are expected to be more like clothing retailers when it comes to selling SUVs to customers.

Ford wants dealers to use their experience and expertise to make sure buyers get the right vehicle for their particular needs.

"As Ford begins to build the most far-reaching lineup of SUVs on the planet, customers will rely on dealers to sell them the right equipment for their unique life adventures," says J.C. Collins, brand manager for Ford's multi-purpose vehicle group.

In addition to the Excursion, Expedition and Explorer, "Ford Outfitters" soon will have the 2000 Explorer Sport two-door and the 2001 Explorer Sport Trac, a hybrid four-door SUV/pickup set to debut in March or April.

"We have to connect with the customers on an emotional and intellectual level," says Janet E. Klug, Ford's marketing communications manager. "We want to get into their hearts and minds."

Dealerships will be sent a base camp kit, indoor/outdoor signage, and a kayak, bike or ski package for display purposes. Ford hopes this links the retail point with the adventure theme of the national television commercials.

Mr. Cohen is somewhat skeptical about the benefit of this program to his suburban Washington, D.C. customers, but says he's willing to go with it and see how it works.

"It's all about image," says Ms. Klug.

Even if customers never take their SUVs off road, many of them like the idea that they could if they wanted to, she says.

Two additions to the Ford truck product portfolio in 2000 have the potential to attract even more customers to the nation's top light -truck seller.

The F-150 Super Crew and the Harley-Davidson F-150 are unique and show Ford's willing inventiveness, say company executives.

"We're trying to innovate and anticipate," says Al Giambetti, Ford's truck brand manager. "We don't want to become a commodity. We want to become a vehicle that suits everybody's needs."

The Super Crew will be available in mid-January. It features four full-size doors. It also sports seating for six adults, a 5-foot bed that extends to 6-feet, power-adjustable foot pedals and Visteon's rear-seat entertainment option.

The limited-edition (10,000 units) Harley-Davidson F-150 is due in the spring of 2000. It's the result of a five-year alliance between Ford and the Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer.

The Harley F-150 is a black monochromatic 4X2 SuperCab with a flareside box topped by a hard-shell cover. It'll be the first Ford production vehicle with 20-inch wheels and tires and will feature orange pinstripes, Harley badges, black leather seats and a "spun metal" instrument cluster.

Now Indiana wants in.

In that state, 265 General Motors dealers have joined 69 Chicago market dealers who are suing the automaker for advertising money.

At issue is the automaker's decision to take greater control of about $500 million spent on regional advertising by local dealer associations.

The money comes from 1% of new-vehicle MSRPs. In the past GM acted as a collection agency, rebating the money back to where it came from.

Now, GM says it wants to decide where the money goes without automatically sending it back to dealers associations tit for tat. .

GM's goal is to bring local advertising campaigns in line with new corporate strategies aimed at establishing uniform brand images and sales incentives.

GM's action triggered the first suit last winter in Chicago's Cook County Circuit Court. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner's Chicago law firm, Hopkins & Sutter, filed the suit under the Illinois Motor Vehicle Franchise Act, which provides for local dealer "participation" in advertising campaigns at dealers' expense.

GM denies any violations of state law and filed a countersuit. It accused the Illinois dealers of conspiring to thwart the automaker's legitimate business plans by paying Mr. Skinner's legal fees with advertising assessments contractually owed to GM.

The Indiana suit also seeks an injunction to halt the GM program and asks triple monetary damages. However, it did not provoke a countersuit, according to GM attorney Michael J. Robinson, because it is not being financed with rebated advertising funds.

The Midwest was the breeding ground in the 1960s for "dealer marketing groups (DMGs), formed to promote GM products locally," says Ronald C. Smith, lead attorney for the dealers in the Indiana suit.

At first, dealers paid these assessments to their associations, but GM agreed to do the collecting and "remitting" at the dealers' request.

Nationwide, GM in the late 1980s created local marketing programs following the same pattern as dealer marketing initiative programs. The 1% payment was added to GM vehicle invoices as a line item.

If you thought Generation X was different, wait until you meet the Echo Boomer group coming in its wake.

Ford executives say they might have missed the boat on Gen X and doesn't want to miss out on the Echo Boomers, which at 80 million strong is the largest generation in American history.

"We're trying to get out the feeling that our cars are cool again," says Jim O'Connor, president of the Ford Div.

Ford wants dealers to make these potentially pierced and tatooed young buyers to feel at home in their businesses since they are the target audience for the new Focus small car.

Dealers were given a crash course on this group, which is in its late teens and early 20s, at the Connect dealer intro show in Philadelphia.

"If you want to do business with this generation, you have to speak their language," says Focus Brand Manager Julie Roehm. "All they want to do at dealerships is meet people more like them."