Car-pe diem

Dec 3, 2009

In the past, there were installers generically referred to as expediters, who would often perform various services at new-car dealerships. These services ranged from pinstriping and window tinting to performing car audio installations and appearance enhancements such as wings and spoilers.

Taking nothing away from this group, more and more dealers have turned to outside experts to do more complex installations, including performance suspension, lift kits, superchargers, body kits and audio/video systems. What we wanted to know from both a supplier and car dealer’s perspective was this: How do restyler shop owners who are not involved with new car dealers approach and ask them initially for their business, and what can be done to ensure these dealers, your customers, are satisfied and will continue to send new vehicles your way?

While posing these questions to car dealers, we found some that were sold on personalization to the point that they perform modifications in house. They employ line technicians who are also enthusiasts and who can handle anything from a mild appearance upgrade all the way up to custom fabrication and near race car handling, performance and braking. Others, relying on outside restylers as trendsetters and experts, keep a restyled vehicle in their showroom.

The big advantage for buyers is that they can finance upgrades as easily as they can opt for an extended warranty or a set of floor mats. Rolled into the financing, the increase in enthusiasm for a ‘specialty vehicle’ is marked, if for no other reason than to use them as a point of differentiation between one dealership and the next.

‘Eye candy’ sells

While Scion as a manufacturer has a high degree of personalization built in, there is no reason not to take the automobile’s lead and go beyond that, and Phil Bachman Toyota-Scion, of Johnson City, Tenn., is up to the task. Its general manager, Bill Benton, and sales manager, Dan Leighton, see what the factory did as a logical starting point, using both factory-authorized accessories and a wide array of aftermarket parts for both marques to reach their customers.

Says Leighton: “We have a range of vehicles in the Toyota and Scion lineups that appeal to enthusiasts along with the average buyer who could care less. We have the ability to do just about anything to a vehicle that they could want, and our volume and relationships with the banks allow us to finance it.

“Many times, we find younger buyers who think they can’t afford to get a new car and fix it up right away. But when they sit down and discuss what they want to do, we can help them. It’s more than just making a sale, it’s building a relationship with our customers.”

At Cerritos Ford in Cerritos, Calif., a 10-ft.-x-30-ft. display area is dedicated to restyled vehicles, “eye candy” as they are referred to internally. Dave Moulton, a specialist in accessory sales at the dealership, was hired three years ago for his knowledge of the aftermarket, show car experience and participation as an enthusiast. A fixture at Mustang owners club events and other gatherings, Moulton is the dealership’s point person.

“Always having a number of modified Mustangs, Lincoln MKXs and MKZs, trucks and the new Ford Flex on display, it’s something customers can appreciate and we know it generates sales,” he says. “My job is to keep informed, stay on top of trends and to assist our techs when an installation involves any custom fabrication.”

University Nissan in Boone, N. C., has on display restyled Titan pickups, Armada and Xterra SUVs, and Altima and Versa cars -” not only because of the dealership’s close proximity to Appalachian State University and the vehicle’s appeal to a younger demographic.

According to general manager Steve Bussell, “It reflects our attitude, and our willingness to do something different. Not all dealers will take a brand new vehicle and put another $1,500 – $4,000 into it; but we get people that stop and look at what we’re doing and that’s important. It builds our showroom traffic, and also gives us something to bargain with beyond a factory rebate or our own incentives.”

Quality is No. 1

Barber Ford, in Ventura, Calif., is in a very competitive market, and that no doubt accounts for its aggressive attitude. The dealer has its own division set up to modify Mustangs, and while they are track tested, they are also quite streetable.

Allan Crocket, who heads that aspect of Barber’s dealership, says, “Other than the wings, these cars are street legal and cost about the same as a Shelby GT. They also ride better and have tons more adjustability as to the ride and handling characteristics. In fact, the cars can run on three different fuel octane levels, so they are well suited for the current economic climate.

“That being said, our owners average 50 years of age and are very financially successful as a general rule. Profit is about two times a normal Mustang at sticker, and we don’t have to negotiate with them, so the yield is far higher. So far, these cars are recession-proof due to the owners, and their overall value.”

Speaking of suspension tuning, George Ciordas, marketing director for KW Automotive North America, Sanger, Calif., says, “I think one of the most important factors is the quality of the product. Dealerships are concerned with liability and their reputation. We’re glad at KW that most of the hard work has been done in Germany for quality and safety controls and certificates (TUV), which provides a top level product for the dealerships. It also doesn’t hurt that we manufacture suspension products for OEM clients, as well, such as AMG, Mopar, Roush and Mazdaspeed.”

Tempe, Ariz.’s Vivid Racing is something of an anomaly, in that it restyles and tunes high-performance Japanese and European cars, wholesale parts and accessories for said cars, and acts as the R&D arm for a number of its overseas suppliers. Dan Mermelstein, a partner and co-founder of Vivid, sees it all as seamless integration of everything Vivid does. “The lines we represent are more marketing partners than vendors, and we find our dealership clients and retail customers all appreciate that we are engaged in all these different facets of the business. We think it results in better products, and greater satisfaction for the end user -” your customer and ours.”

Dealer enthusiasm

As mentioned earlier, there are a group of dealers who, as enthusiasts themselves, enjoy having modified vehicles in-house. This, in areas such as Southern California, was prevalent even back to the 1980s when vans and, later, sport trucks were the rage. In the case of stores such as Cerritos Ford, the dealer still subcontracts some jobs such as body kit installations. According to Moulton, “We do a lot of vehicles with 3d Carbon, utilizing their Mustang and Lincoln body kits, and we’ll send them out to be installed. Certain body shops can do it faster than we can.”

Newport Beach, Calif.,’s 3d Carbon, a leader in body kits and restyling, is a Ford ally and as such has access to the latest vehicles, often before they are released to the public.

Ernie Bunnell, one of 3d Carbon’s principals, has a similar outlook to dealers themselves: “Our kits fit, and that’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter how good they look when you see them on a show car – it’s when a restyler or a dealer is working with them that determines whether you’re going to get repeat business or not. I think our record is pretty good in fit, finish and styling.”

University Nissan’s Bussell says, “We have an owner in Chris Welborne that’s an enthusiast himself, and he knows what works. You take a mid-size SUV like the Xterra that’s targeted toward soccer moms and weekend trips to the home improvement center, put a Cal Mini lift kit on it, and it takes on a different persona. We also use our certified, factory-trained techs to perform most, if not all, of the modifications, so we have a high degree of confidence in what we do.” Bussell adds that the dealership looks for aftermarket companies that specialize in Nissans, where the parts are specific to those vehicles – and which makes the installs less time-consuming and more in keeping with the dealership’s own internal flat rates for mechanical and body work.

Phil Bachman Toyota-Scion’s Dan Leighton notes the company’s owner was an enthusiast with a particularly large collection of rare, exotic cars, and that he is known in collector car circles.

“It’s great to have an owner who understands the passion people have for their vehicles,” Leighton says, and that they are an expression of their lifestyle, an extension of their personality.

“Our job is to find what fits, whether it’s a Scion xB or tC, a Toyota Yaris or an FJ Cruiser. We look at what’s happening in our market with all our competitors, and on a nationwide level to see if there’s something we can get into maybe a step ahead of someone else. Our customers appreciate that we know what they’re talking about.”

In a challenging and ever-changing business environment, the emphasis is on change. The dealerships in your area that in the past were resistant to restylers may have a different outlook now. Given a professional presentation of your capabilities, images of work you’ve done, and a few recommendations from satisfied customers, you might find that you are welcomed as a resource, or better yet, as a marketing partner. It may take awhile to build a level of trust and confidence in your abilities and expertise, but as these dealers and suppliers have found, it’s well worth the effort.