Not your kid's 'tuner' car

Want a new grille? How about a flat-screen TV in your trunk? Older drivers spend big money to accessorize cars - even if their resale value is, well, zero.

Squinting through aviator sunglasses, Jim Sama inches through traffic. The 50-something businessman, who runs a mobile dent-removal firm in Arlington, Mass., is driving his company truck. But he's not on the job today - and this is no ordinary truck.

A gleaming green, the 2000 Dodge Dakota crew cab sits on 22-inch rims, puts out exhaust through a huge Flowmaster system, and breathes deeply through K&N air intakes. It has a Louis Vuitton headliner and 5,000-watt audio system. "So many things," Mr. Sama says. "I'm probably done."

And $35,000 poorer - just for the add-ons.

Sama has come to New England Dragway in New Hampshire to flaunt his pickup at a "tuner" show. Some vehicles arrive so radically tweaked that their original assemblers would barely know them. The participants are changing, too. In a world still dominated by youths with Japanese sport-compact cars and a love for bolt-on modifications, Sama and other "boomer tuners" are leading a mainstream charge into vehicle enhancement.

A handful of automakers - even dealers acting independently - are trying to cash in on the growing $31 billion specialty automotive industry. As an investment, car-modification is a bust, financial experts warn. But making money isn't the point for enthusiasts.

"This truck's with me for life," says Chris Redmond, another Dodge owner at the Epping, N.H., show. Mr. Redmond, like many modifiers, began with appearance enhancers. In the six years since he bought his truck - now painted with a Tazmanian Devil motif - he has added more than $15,000 in body and suspension work.

Mr. Redmond belongs to a national club through which he says he has met members age 18 to 64.

"There's a broadening interest in car personalization and customization," says Peter MacGillivray, a vice president at SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association, in Diamond Bar, Calif. "People look at vehicles as reflections of themselves. And after they buy it they want to take it one step further."

The truck and auto accessory market yields about $17 billion in retail sales, says Mr. MacGillivray, half of the industry's total volume. (The rest consists of niche products including restoration parts and racing and off-road gear.) Sales at the manufacturer level have grown nearly 90 percent in the past decade, according to SEMA.

Styling products - including body kits, ground effects (for aerodynamics), and grille inserts - represent the fastest-growing segment, he says. Car owners who become more involved in modifying typically move next to mobile electronics and then to performance parts, such as cold-air intakes and "cat-back" (behind the catalytic converter) exhaust systems. Even cars straight from dealers' lots are having factory components replaced.

A handful of automakers have already responded, forging alliances with some of the nearly 6,000 US specialty-parts firms. These carmakers are marketing their compatibility with outside-branded components or, under contractual agreements, "re-badging" specialty parts with their own brand names.

Some dealers, acting independently, and hungry for new revenue streams, have even begun offering buyers pre-installed parts traditionally found only through "after market" retailers.

The trend plays into a broad consumer yearning for customization, and could in part be a push-back against a sameness in automotive design only recently seeing signs of reversal. It also suggests a move to older consumers.

For example: Three years ago Honda - a youth-tuner favorite - represented about 90 percent of sales for Advanced Engine Management (AEM), according to Greg Neuwirth, president of the Hawthorne, Calif., company. Now it's closer to 50 percent.

Nondisclosure agreements prevent him from discussing several of his manufacturer contracts. But AEM products have begun to appear in a broader range of vehicles, including several targeted at more mature drivers. "The biggest growth area in our business is truck performance," says Mr. Neuwirth, "full-size trucks. It's exploding."

Not that the youth market has been forsaken. Scion, a Toyota offshoot, is a youth-targeted brand often cited as a car designed with modification in mind. Scion dealers sell AEM filters, badged as such, Neuwirth says.

Other carmakers have made moves toward serving tuners by giving them a head start - Subaru's WRX STi, for example, rolls off the assembly line with a hood scoop and a rear "wing." BMW has its M line. Nissan has Nismo.

But American giants may be leading the race toward after-market friendliness for an older demographic. In recent years US automakers have taken a nostalgic turn to reach more boomers with money, rereleasing such cars as the Dodge Charger and Ford Mustang.

Mustangs now come with about 50 after-market options, including a variety of body kits made by 3dCarbon, a Newport Beach, Calif., firm recently launched by the founders of tuning giant Wings West. The company also creates kits for Ford F150 and Lincoln trucks, says Ernie Bunnell, a founder.

"Baby boomers really have this kind of staying-young syndrome," says George Moschis, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "They feel free to be themselves, and the things that appealed to them in their youth appeal to them now in their middle years."

Some observers warn of economic and practical downsides for buyers who want to enter the custom-car fast lane.

"You might love it, but you might have a hard time finding somebody else to love it" when you try to sell, says James Bell, publisher of IntelliChoice Magazine, which tracks car-ownership costs.

Mr. Bell also decries the high costs of accessorizing, which can put a buyer in too much debt over too long a term. He also sounds a note of caution about modifications that don't go far enough - primarily an issue with do-it-yourself work, but not to be ruled out at the "speed shop" or private-dealer level.

"A lot of people don't realize that when you start putting 18-, 19-, or 21-inch wheels on these vehicles, their [standard] brake systems are just not up to that," says Bell. "Thirty thousand miles down the road, the extra wear and tear could mean 100,000 miles of brake wear." There are other concerns, too.

Tinkering with performance chips can cause a vehicle to fall short of emissions requirements. Other "mods" may render a vehicle no longer "street legal." Many can void a factory warranty.

Still, tuners are generally meticulous about adding complementary components, others say, cross-checking strategies online and applying a broad base of knowledge. They often need to.

"In the old days when you'd upgrade to an eight-track tape system you didn't have to worry about deploying the air bag; that's definitely a concern today," says MacGillivray. "When you're working on your car in any serious way there are a lot of integrated systems there."

The graying of the modifier movement might not wear away deep rivalries between fans of American muscle and Japanese tuners - sometimes disparaged by the former group as "Mitsuyotas," or worse. But even among drivers not in their cars "for life," many more might soon go custom when a stock part gives out or rusts away, say experts. Or even sooner.

"It will be people who will say, 'Before I take delivery, I want a Borla stainless-steel cat-back exhaust, or I need a Flowmaster, because I bring my boat to the river and I need that low-end torque,' " says MacGillivray. "It's the soccer mom who woke up wanting cool wheels on the sport ute.... It's the second coming of the custom rodder."

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