Back on the Street

Dec 2, 2009

The Street Truck market is one of those that defies being nailed down. While slammed beauties are not as prevalent as they once were in the 1990s, there are still plenty of drivers who choose a pickup over a car as their main custom creation.

Street Trucks can be modern, classic or in between. They can serve as daily drivers or Saturday Night specials. The most you can say is that they are usually two-wheel drive and either stock height or lowered.

There’s a definite Street Truck market out there that’s viable, healthy and worth pursuing. We talked to a number of manufacturers about this market to check its pulse. So, before you go thinking the bed is dead, read on to see what’s keeping Street Trucks rolling along.

What’s New with Street Trucks?

The first thing we asked our experts was, “What’s new, not only with your products but what you see as trends for Street Trucks?”

Bret Voelkel of Air Ride Technologies told us, “One of our newproducts is our internal ride height sensor. This is a product that was originally commissioned by our military customer, and now they have agreed to allow the technology to trickle down to our civilian market.”

Voelkel notes the product solves installation and clearance issues with trying to install an external ride-height sensor, and improves the overall quality of the Street Truck experience-something drivers are demandingfrom modern-day aftermarket upgrades.

“The big trend, at least for us, has been the customer who wants a serious performance suspension,” he says. “These guys are no longer content with just dragging the ground. They want ride quality, cornering performance, easy installation and reliable operation.”

Chris Thomson from AIRAID notes the economy is affecting the market by way of shining the spotlight on older-model trucks.

“What’s new is old,” he says. “Our business for applications (that are) 5-8 years old is growing as people are hanging onto their vehicles longer.”

Brian Murphy from BBK Performance also sees the economy having an effect by way of performance products that also improve efficiency.

“People are tending to buy more products for the gas-powered truck models that help performance without sacrificing economy, such as exhaust upgrades, cold-air intakes, under-drive pulleys and throttle bodies,” he notes.

Greg Raymond of JBA Performance Exhaust offers a detailed customer profile.

“A more sophisticated enthusiast drives the Street Trucks of 2009,” he says. “Our current market environment suggests that more time and consideration is being taken when a commitment is made to any style or performance upgrade.”

He, too, believes efficiency is an important consideration for many Street Truck enthusiasts looking to purchase products, with last year’s record-high gas prices still fresh in their minds.

“When gasoline hit $4-plus a gallon last summer, the expectation was that performance products would see a dramatic decrease in popularity. What we saw as a trend was quite different than that expectation,” he says. “We found that our customers were, and still are, taking more time to investigate the effectiveness of our products before making a buying decision. We also discovered that a new breed of performance enthusiast was buying our products for different reasons, or better yet, justifying the commitment to performance with a new set of qualifiers. It’s no secret that increasing the efficiency of your Street Truck’s engine can lead to better fuel economy, when coupled with the required driving technique. (Drivers get) mpg when they need it, and power and torque when they want it.”

Kris Carlson of Auto Meter Products notes that Street Truck owners use his company’s gauge products to keep an eye on newer, more expensive power plants, and even enable other protection devices such as a fuel pump cutoff under the hood.

“We’re talking with a lot of customers that are performing engine swaps and tuning existing engines in their street trucks for higher performance. These can provide some significant improvements in vehicle performance, and also a significant investment from the customer,” he says. “Often factory instruments are no longer compatible or insufficient to communicate valuable information on the vehicle’s current mechanical capabilities. While safety protocols and warning lights do exist, these often activate after a significant problem has occurred and cannot provide early alert to problems before they occur the way that an instrument can.”

Drivers and What They Want

We wanted to know what kind of products are being bought and by whom.

Raymond of JBA Performance Exhaust notes, “Our demographic has shifted quite a bit over the past year. We have seen a shift in sales to the truck and SUV market. A new breed of consumer driving the higher-dollar vehicles such as the Cadillac Escalade and Yukon Denali are adding headers and exhaust systems.”

Again, he notes, the reason is increased efficiency.

“Not everyone ran to the electric car lot when gas went through the roof,” he says. “The more reasonable customer investigated ways to gain efficiency and still enjoy the benefits of performance in their current vehicle.”

Murphy from BBK Performance says, “It seems that the performance buyer is still looking for items that are going to help with towing performance and fuel economy, (and there’s) less of a market for appearance items in this market.”

Thomson from AIRAID says, “Once again we are selling a lot of products for older vehicles. For some, it is a vehicle that they have decided to keep, and others are first-time truck owners.”

Carlson of Auto Meter Products says his company’s boost and wideband air/fuel gauges are popular additions to trucks adding supercharger and turbocharger upgrades. And, he adds, looks are important to this market as well.

“Instrument styling is very important these days as owners want to be able pick out every portion of their vehicle to be as unique as they are.”

Voelkel of Air Ride Technologies notes, “The earlier GM trucks have really blown up; 1963-’72 C10s, 1973-’87 C10s, and the 1988-’98 C1500 trucks are bigger than ever.”

He explains that these models are ripe for the type of complete overhaul many Street Truck enthusiasts hope to accomplish.

“Since (the trucks) are old enough to be retired from daily driver (and monthly payment) status, these guys are not afraid to put some serious work and money into them,” he says. “Also, this is typically not their first project, so they are at least somewhat aware of the scope of such a project and aren’t blindsided by the cost and effort required.”

Oldies but Goodies

What challenges are currently facing the Street Truck market?

Raymond from JBA Performance Exhaust says, “The Street Truck market may continue to struggle as gas prices begin to creep back into the $3-$4 range. This fact, when coupled with the current state of the Big 3, will probably continue the trends that we saw last year, where Street Truck owners held onto their current models instead of upgrading to the new ones on the lots.”

And, while that could mean bad news for new truck sales, it doesn’t necessarily mean doom-and-gloom for the aftermarket.

“While this can be viewed as a challenge to our market, it also leads to an increase in aftermarket upgrades as our customers look for ways to personalize and modernize their current ride,” he says.

Carlson notes that one of Auto Meter’s products for newer vehicles that offers real-time feedback on fuel economy performance and overall driving habits is currently very popular.

“Even though gas prices have trended back down in today’s economy, truck owners are still concerned about their fuel economy, and are seeking ways to improve performance and mileage together,” he says.

Thomson from AIRAID notes, “Challenges of the Street Truck market center on truck sales. Right now sources including the mainstream media are telling the story that trucks are bad. (But) once the driving (public) realizes that a truck fits a need that can’t be filled by a car, vehicle sales will recover on the newer model years.”

Voelkel of Air Ride Technology says, “I think the challenges are mostly faced by the manufacturers and vendors who have depended on low margins and high volume to survive. The numbers have gotten smaller, but the customers who have stuck with this type of truck are more focused and dedicated. They have matured into customers who do more research and who realize the difference between price and value. The quality manufacturers and dealers will do fine. ”

Murphy from BBK says he sees “a definite slowdown in sales and emphasis in fuel economy improvements with the new truck buyers. However, like other segments, people with existing trucks are deciding to keep them and improve upon them rather than go out and trade in for a new model.”

Know the Products

Our last question was for those out there in the trenches. We wanted to know how shops that sell and/or install aftermarket products can make a profit these days with Street Trucks.

Murphy says the key is to teach.

“Educate customers on the improvements available with many of today’s goods that at the same time will not hurt fuel economy and in many cases can improve mileage,” he says. “Customers are also looking for quality items such as stainless exhaust products, but at more competitive prices.”

Voelkel, too, says knowledge is the key.

“As with any performance component, you are really selling knowledge disguised as an air spring, stereo, exhaust system, steering wheel, etc.,” he says. “The shop that does the best job of developing and maintaining knowledge of the various components will typically reap the rewards.”

He also suggests that shops will want to make sure they are carrying quality products they can trust and can easily install.

“As a manufacturer, we have found that the better the quality, the better the performance increase, the more bolt-on (friendly) we can make it, the better the product will do for us and the dealer,” he says. “A better component allows the dealer the confidence to quote a firm installation price and be assured he can remain profitable doing so. It also means that he can forget about seeing that customer again until the next time they return to make another purchase-hopefully with a friend or two in tow!”

Thomson offers this solution: “Cold-air intakes are a natural profit center for a shop that does installation. They are an easy, uncomplicated install.”

Keeping popular products on-hand will also help with sales, Carlson adds.

“Having products in stock is extremely important to being able to close the sale with the customer. Instruments are an excellent add-on sale to other performance enhancements and help the customer not only protect their investment, but also receive direct visual feedback of the performance benefits of products that they have installed.”

A personal response came from JBA’s Raymond, who is optimistic about the Street Truck market.

“In the many years I have been working in the performance aftermarket, I have never had much difficulty selling a high-quality performance product. With the right products, enthusiasts will always agree and find justification in the reasoning behind the purchase.”

So whatever path Street Trucks take for your business, be sure to follow it.