Kits Are A Hit

Dec 2, 2009

Kit cars have a serious case of mistaken identity.

Many people think all the parts to a kit car are proprietary and have to come solely from the kit’s manufacturer. Another common belief is that everything a builder will need is already in the kit.

Neither is true. But, maybe more important to performance retailers is the understanding that there are two kinds of kit car builders, and both are looking to buy everyday performance parts from local speed shops.

More than a Model

The origin of kit cars was to reproduce or imitate an existing car. And that comes down to simple economics.

Many kit cars are a more economical rendition of historic cars that may cost millions-hardly within reach for the common working man or woman. One of the best examples is the 427 Cobra. Only a handful of the original cars still exist, with prices often coming close to $1 million-not really the type of car you want to take cruising on a weekend.

So, a kit car is a great way to have an affordable replica without sweating out every possible door ding, or worse.

The convenience of a kit car is there is no hardcore engineering to be done. The same can be said for welding, in most cases. The other side of the coin is that a builder can get as detailed and involved as he or she wants.

Kit car enthusiasts can buy an engine or build one. Do the bodywork in-house or send it out. The big picture of a kit car can be a life-sized model car that needs some assembly, with the finished product looking like that famous car but with far less cost and risk.

Kit cars are built in usually one of two ways, and both provide performance retailers with an active market.

The first is to replicate the historic car as close to original as possible. That means existing and reproduction parts are used. As far as our research shows, there are no kit car manufacturers that build all the historic parts for their copy or clone cars.

Manufacturers usually build the kit, consisting of the chassis and body. Many of the kit’s remaining reproduction components are of a general speed shop variety.

The second way kit cars are built is to the customer’s desired specs. That really opens up the field for retailers. In fact, it even involves the kits’ manufacturers, as they will often have to add features that go outside the kit car’s basics to give the customer what he wants.

It’s not unusual for a manufacturer to add power steering or brakes and even air conditioning to something like a Cobra or import kit car. It’s no different from a street rod or custom truck. What the customer wants is what he or she is going to put on their ride.

So the kit car customer is very much the regular customer when shopping for ancillary parts such as wheels, tires, engine induction systems and other non-specialized, historic parts. The kit car customer will also be the one looking for those repro parts for their style or connection to the kit they’re building.

And much like the manufacturers that build turnkey cars for their customers, those parts that are not essential to the look of the build come from the open market.

Ask the Man Who Owns One

We talked to Jim Youngs, a man who has a very unique place in the kit car industry. He started out as an enthusiast and is now editor of Kit Car Builder (KCB) magazine that he started in 2002 as a publication of the National Kit Car Club (NKCC).

Youngs, still a builder, breaks it down when he says, “The kit car market parallels that of the street rod business. In fact, the demographics (if any existed in the kit car world) would be very similar, and the differences mainly in the style of the cars being purchased and built.”

He, too, sees plenty of opportunity for aftermarket retailers.

“It’s a fallacy that kit cars offer everything you need in a single box and that they all turn out identical,” he says. “The truth is, we have to make as many trips to the parts store as the next guy, and we build our cars with considerable distinction and personality. Kit car builders buy crate engines and virtually every performance component available. We purchase the same kind of stuff the street rod builder does-transmissions, tires, custom wheels, fuel pumps, radiators, electric fans, heaters, air conditioning, shifters, valve covers, electrical switches, gauges and so much more. We also hire upholsterers, mechanics and painters to do some of the more highly skilled aspects of a build-up. If we don’t have any build skills, we purchase finished cars from custom builders.”

Like someone building a hot rod, a kit car builder may need outside services to go along with all those new parts. They may need referrals for specialized services such as polishing, plating, coatings and others. Those aspects of the build will also create opportunities for sales.

If your shop offers assembly services, you might be able to include that, too. We know of one shop that builds the 427 FE Ford engines that often make their way into the new generation of Shelby Cobras. Gessford Machine, out of Hastings, Neb., offers custom valve covers with the CSX number engraved for all to see. They also offer one-off snake air cleaners for those with discriminating tastes.

Kit cars are no different than any other build. Owners want to be distinctive. Like any other project vehicle, it depends on the skill level and desire of the builder to be hands-on as much as they are capable or want to. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they are all cookie-cutter cars.

Get Involved

To become involved with the kit car market, just punch “kit car” into your favorite Web search engine. Once past the sheer volume of the market in both the United States and abroad that will surprise you, try to localize your search for a kit car show near you.

Visit a show, and when you see cars that are still in the unfinished stages, your business mind will take over. Bigger events such as those on a national scale illustrate the vast scope of the market.

Another way to get involved is to find a kit car giveaway. Usually regional kit car clubs will build a car to give away at their annual car show. The ticket proceeds often go to a charitable cause, so any donations are usually tax deductible.

A local shop can get involved at the level at which it is comfortable, and club members and show-goers know that the giveaway car would not be possible without the participants and show their loyalty.

If a deeper involvement is desired, shops can get hooked up with the manufacturer, even to the point of being a distributor. That level might require more in the way of assembly and even stocking some of the kits and related parts.

The upside of this is greatly accentuated by becoming involved with the clubs and members. Attending a club meeting and showing off a few of the latest goodies for kit cars is always a good way to attract business.

The Kit Car Market Today

Because the kit car market reflects the speed and hot rod industry so closely, they are pretty much in the same state of flux with today’s shaky economy.

Youngs notes, “Like most non-essential products today (toys), the kit car market is expectedly rather flat, though there are some strong pockets of dynamic growth based, I feel, on pent-up demand from guys finally wanting to realize their dream of owning a hand-built car. Dedicated enthusiasts who have the financial wherewithal are buying and building Shelby Cobra, Porsche 356 Speedster and 550 Spyder and GT40 replicas. These buyers are also demanding high quality in their purchases. Leading companies in our industry that offer a well-rounded product mix seem to be doing well, even in this poor economy.”

So, the bad news is kit cars are so mainstream for speed shops that they, too, are right now in a slump. The good news is that the market is more wide-open than many shop owners may have thought.

There will always be those few customers that just pick up the phone and call in their order for a kit car and say, “Call me when I can drive it home.”

But, for every one of those, there is a line of customers that prefer to build their own on so many levels. And they need parts. So check out kit cars. They might just allow you to “build” your business.