Labor negotiators for Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers agreed to a 24-hour extension of their current contract in a bid to reach a settlement and avoid a potentially costly walkout by the company's 101,000 UAW-covered employees.

Some sources said last night that the extension indicates that the two sides are close to an agreement and just need a bit more time to iron out details.

Local union officials at many of Ford's 65 U.S. facilities in 16 states, including Virginia, had waited for "the word" to strike as their leaders engaged in intense bargaining with company executives at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

But by 12:15 a.m. no word had come. "We've got nothing yet, buddy," said a harried spokesman for UAW Local 919 in Norfolk, which represents 2,180 Ford employees. The Norfolk assembly plant is one of two in the Ford empire rolling out the company's hot-selling, profit-making F-Series. That makes it a critical facility, especially in a domestic auto environment where pickups and other light trucks constitute 48.8 percent of new-vehicle sales.

Equally critical is Ford's metal-stamping plant in Chicago Heights, Ill., which produces body panels for most of the company's car and truck lines. UAW local 588 represents 1,780 workers at the facility, who had been prepared to walk out at 11:59 p.m., according to one of the local's committeemen, Manuel Sanchez.

But as the clock moved well past midnight, Sanchez said: "We haven't gotten the word yet. We're still waiting on them," referring to the union's leaders at the bargaining table in Dearborn.

The de facto contract extension is the second in the union's bargaining with Ford to replace an agreement that actually expired at midnight Sept. 14. Ford UAW employees have been working under a contract extension since then.

Money is not an issue in the Ford talks. Sources said Ford has accepted in principle the wage and benefits package won by the UAW in recent contract talks with General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG.

At those two companies, the union received 3 percent annual wage increases over the life of new, four-year contracts, improved cost-of-living benefits to help offset increases in the inflation rate, improved pension benefits and a one-time, upfront signing bonus of $1,350.

"There are not that many issues left to discuss," one of the bargaining sources said late yesterday afternoon. "They're hopeful that they can have something tonight, and go home for the weekend."

Negotiators declined to comment on "the one issue causing problems" in the talks. But that issue has been an open secret for months--Ford's perceived need to divest its in-house components manufacturer, Visteon Automotive Systems, which employs an estimated 23,500 UAW-covered employees.

UAW President Stephen Yokich and his lieutenants have argued that the sale or spinoff of Visteon could lead to a loss of UAW jobs. In a recorded telephone message to his troops Tuesday, Yokich vowed to force Ford to accept the "pattern agreement" reached at DaimlerChrysler and GM.

Those practically identical agreements include a moratorium on the shedding of corporate assets in which the UAW has bargaining units.

DaimlerChrysler, the least vertically integrated of the three biggest car companies in the United States, easily accepted that language. The company, formed through the 1998 buyout of America's Chrysler Corp. by Germany's Daimler-Benz AG, began going to outside, lower-cost and, in many cases, nonunion suppliers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Chrysler teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

GM completed a spinoff of its in-house supplier, Delphi Automotive Systems, last May.