Body Kit Hits

Aug 3, 2011

In recent years, the market for stylish body kits, like any creative marketplace, has been in a more or less constant state of flux: The products themselves are offered in modestly more advanced materials, the customer demographics cover a notably broader range and the styles themselves now range from classic to futuristic.

The most notable difference in the market for body kits today, however, are the styles themselves and the vehicles they’re most often applied to. Namely, two very divergent vehicle types: American muscle and energy-efficient (or green) vehicles.

Matt Srugis, marketing director for Rochester Hills, Mich.-based Grip Tuning, notes that while the term body kits a few years back inherently conjured up images of a hopped-up sport compact, much of the momentum in today’s market occurs among domestic applications. The latest generation of fuel-efficient domestic models and the re-emerging American muscle segment are both hot movers, he says.

He notes that the market for kits for sport compacts has tapered off a bit, but are still a strong market segment despite a trend toward add-on lip kits rather than full replacement fascias.

“The green movement is picking up steam, and vehicles associated with [fuel economy] like Ford’s Fiesta and Focus and Chevrolet’s Cruze present good potential for consumers looking to differentiate their vehicle’s aesthetics,” he adds. “The muscle car segment has really grown with the introduction of the [Dodge] Challenger, the new Camaro, the 300c and Dodge Charger, along with the always-aftermarket-friendly Mustang.”

Looking ahead by looking back

Srugis certainly isn’t the only one citing the rebirth of the muscle car as a driving force in the body kit market. In fact, Burnsville, Minn.-based Retro USA currently focuses exclusively on this re-emerging market.

The company is thriving by combining the classic styling of early muscle cars with today’s more driver- and installer-friendly body kit components. It recently launched a line of chrome and chrome-look body kit components that hint back at those earlier days, with parts including bumpers, shark gills, ice-cube trays and rocker moldings, says Retro USA’s marketing director, Donna Green.

“The aftermarket industry was given a jump start with the emergence of the pony cars,” she says. “The Camaro just begs for the shark gills of 1969, the Challenger looks finished with the chrome it cruised the streets with in 1970, and the Mustang turns heads with the gleam of chrome from the front to rear bumper.”

The company offers a complete retro chrome kit providing a factory-installed look, or individual parts including quarter moldings or quarter scoops and rocker moldings, all offered either chromed or painted.

In the muscle car segment, as in many others today, partial kits or even mix-and-match combinations of parts from the body kits provided by multiple suppliers, is another emerging trend, says Sean Tito, Internet sales manager for RKSport, Murrieta, Calif.

“Lately, the American muscle cars seem to be a strong candidate [for body kit applications],” he says, noting that partial kits are common among enthusiasts of this segment of vehicles. He suspects these customers are, in some cases, “replacing a part or mix-and-match with other companies’ components.”

Material developments

While the vehicles to which body kits are installed have changed significantly, only some fairly modest – but still notable and interesting – new developments have occurred in the realm of body kit materials and manufacturing.

Kevin Box, marketing manager for Dawn Enterprises, Valley View, Ohio, notes that the products supplied by his organization have changed somewhat in recent years:

“Body kits years ago were mainly made from fiberglass and some from urethane,” he says. “More recently, they are made from vacuum-formed ABS or injected urethane. Dawn Enterprises now has a lower-cost alternative -¦ made of flexible PVC.”

Ernie Bunnell, vice president of sales and marketing for Newport Beach, Calif.-based 3dCarbon, notes that polyurethane has been the material of choice for 3dCarbon body kits since its inception six years ago. How the company forms its kits, however, is of interest.

“Our process is unique in the fact that we utilize a high-pressure process that is comparable to an OE-quality injection molding [process],” he says, noting his company’s kits utilize a two-component liquid chemistry as opposed to others where plastic is sheet heated and formed using a mold. This process produces kits that he says are smooth, with no pin holes, for ease of painting.

3dCarbon’s polyurethane has the additional benefit of having received Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for bumper impact testing in both Canada and the United States.
Grip Tuning’s Srugis also notes that both the functionality and appearance of less common materials, like carbon fiber, still appeal to many drivers:

“Carbon fiber body components have become fairly common and have a high perceived value to the end user,” he says. “However, urethane remains the material of choice when fitment, durability and longevity are concerned.”

In the case of Retro USA’s retro-styled kit pieces, many of which are chromed or coated with simulated chrome, the combination of underlying product and coating are equally important. The company’s research led it to the conclusion that ABS plastic was ideal for smaller parts dipped in chrome, while TPO plastics worked better for the company’s thermoformed parts, which are a “combination of chrome film laminated to the TPO prior to the forming process,” Green says.

“The choice for TPO was recognized by the Society of Plastic Engineers as they awarded Retro USA with both an Innovation Award in the Performance and Customization category and a thermoforming award for our Chrome-Tech bumpers,” she says.
Regardless of the materials used, RK Sport’s Tito notes that recent developments in manufacturing technology have allowed the industry to vastly improve durability.

“[We’re] engineering them to install easier and adjusting the material used to allow them to flex more, giving the body part a longer life,” he says. “Being that cars are so low these days, it’s good to know that if you scrape the parts they won’t just crack and be ruined.”

Subtler styling for an aging demographic

Drivers who came of age during the sport compact boom of the early 2000s are experiencing a shift in the style of body kits they desire as they age.

3dCarbon’s Bunnell says buyers of body kits for muscle cars are “generally in the 35- to 50- year-old range.” These drivers often own multiple vehicles, are more financially stable and are heavily focused on quality and image. The often ask to have parts pre-painted, as well. They are very studious in their research, and inquiries are always about style, quality and fitment. And then it’s, ‘Oh, by the way, how much is it.'”

According to Dawn Enterprises’ Box, the outsized accessories of the “Too Fast, Too Furious” sport compacts are quickly becoming a thing of the past:

“Body kits have become more subtle and follow factory bodylines,” he says. “The in-your-face, ‘Fast and Furious’ style with big scoops and louvers are becoming less popular. It takes more money to modify your vehicle nowadays, so generally buyers are slightly older and thus [prefer] the more conservative designs.”

That’s not to say that this aging demographic isn’t completely unconcerned about cost, however. Dawn Enterprises is aiming to directly address the perception that body kits are expensive by providing lower-cost options. For example, its RFX Ground Effect Kit is a six-piece kit for the new Chevy Cruze that retails – painted and with a five-year-warranty – for less than $350, says Box.

“When you say ‘body kit’ or ‘ground effects,’ people think: expensive, long install, and fit and finish problems,” he adds. “We’re looking to change that view of how people think about ground effects kits.”

Bunnell also notes that kits for compact cars often lean toward the tried-and-true staple parts – front air dam, side skirts, rear lower and a rear wing or spoiler – kits for muscle cars are often a bit more aggressive.

“Our muscle car applications, [for] Mustang, Camaro, etc., usually have a more aggressive design that would include a front bumper replacement,” he says. “We also have a wide variety of accessories like hood scoops, spoilers and functional fender vents that are increasingly becoming more popular.”

Retro USA’s Green agrees, noting that its kits are something of an anomaly: As opposed to creating a modern look, Retro USA kits “re-create the styling elements that were present on the ’60s and ’70s pony cars,” she says.

“Most body kits for these cars build on new styling elements with ground effects, restyled fascias with chin spoilers and air diffusers,” she adds.
Grip Tuning’s Srugis notes that quantifying customer demographics isn’t always so simple. Often, age and socioeconomic levels vary greatly by vehicle type.

“Sport compacts will typically be the 18- to 30-year-old demographic, whereas the higher-priced vehicles [like] Camaros, Challengers, Chargers and 300s are usually a more mature audience, but one that still looks to differentiate their particular vehicle from others on the road.

“Most of our customers put quality first, but much of that depends on the demographic, as more affluent customers expect a very high level of quality,” he adds. I see consumers spending $1,000 to $1,500, not including paint, but it really depends on how much disposable income they have to invest.”

Still selling at the dealership?

Like in so many other automotive accessory markets, restylers selling body kits have traditionally generated a large percentage of sales by expediting for local dealerships. However, with the recent turbulence with vehicle manufacturers, the question begs to be asked: Are dealerships still where the smart money is?

Dawn Enterprises’ Box says that while new-car dealers remain an attractive customer for local restylers, cost concerns are more a factor now than just a few years ago.

“New-car dealers and retail customers are always the best avenue, but the amount of money a new-car dealer can load onto a car has come down a bit, too,” he says. “From our experience dealers don’t like to go past the $1,500 range on aftermarket add-ons. Our RFX kits are a great alternative for these dealers because it allows them to modify a new car with a body kit and still be able to make a great profit.”

Grip Tuning’s Srugis agrees, noting similar concerns with downward cost pressures at dealerships, and noting one widely overlooked alternative: Enthusiast and specialty car clubs.

“Price is definitely an issue for [dealers] as they need to maintain a fair margin on the accessories,” he says. “A combination of dealer and individual customers is a solid bet. However, the ‘enthusiast’ demographic can be a very lucrative one. By becoming immersed in online enthusiast culture and even local model-specific car clubs, an installer can focus on specific models.”

As easy as it is to make generalizations, however, RK Sport’s Tito notes that how lucrative a dealership customer is depends largely on the individual personalities of leaders at a given dealership:

“[Dealers] are great customers to pursue, depending on the ownership and the team they have to prepare special vehicles,” he says. “Some dealers want nothing to do with that work and some are all about it. I would say [dealer sales are] picking up overall, though, and the word’s getting out that people will spend the extra money and buy it right off the lot.”

Beyond mere financial concerns, 3dCarbon’s Bunnell also notes that the recent earthquake and corresponding tsunami in Japan are adding additional layers of challenge for restylers, especially those selling to dealers with product lines dependent on Japanese parts. Experts are predicting that supply chain delays caused by the disasters will remain through the summer.

“The feedback I’ve been hearing is that the new-car dealer inventory will probably be affected across the board from the [March] events in Japan through August,” says Bunnell, noting that restylers may want to adjust their inventory accordingly. “After that we should see things get back to normal.

Regardless of these challenges, at least one constant in the body kit market remains: A great deal of customers – both retail and wholesale – hold body kits in high regard. As that market grows, with new products and a more diverse customer base, body kits are sure to maintain that high regard for years to come.