The Muscle Market

Feb 10, 2012

Taken a good look at the muscle car market recently? Not so much the business end of it, but how the cars are changing?

There seems to be less separation between old muscle cars and the new ones. Some events and shows are even parking them all together. It seems like Detroit will finally get its wish of having the very best of history and modern times to offer to customers.

After all, they didn’t design these new-generation muscle cars to be throwbacks to the late 1960s and early ’70s by accident, did they?

So now that they are out there in abundance and still rolling off the lines, what is the state of the market for muscle cars-both old and new? What are the hot products? And what can shops do to best-position themselves to take full advantage of these American classics?

Part & Parcel

Great parts are what muscle cars are all about. So, what’s selling these days?

“Far and away, our hottest product for muscle cars right now is the new Heidts Pro-G bolt-in independent rear for early Camaros, Novas and Mustangs,” says Mike Hawley of Heidts.

Of course, how they sound is a big consideration as well.

“For older vehicle applications, one of our most popular products is our 2.5-inch GM A-body (Chevelle, Cutlass, etc.) exhaust system, available in aluminized steel and 409 stainless steel,” notes Cam Benty of Flowmaster/B&M. “In the modern muscle cars, both the late-model Camaro and Mustang are very hot, followed closely by the Challenger and Charger.”

Scott Stutler of Mr. Gasket says it’s a gas.

“We are seeing an increased demand for fuel delivery products. Our electric fuel pumps, in particular, are performing very well. Multifunctional ignition upgrades are also hot. Coil-on-plug, high-performance replacement coils for late-model GM and Ford V-8s are doing very well also.”

Michael Santa Cruz of Energy Suspension has the short and sweet end of what’s hot.

“Performance polyurethane GM transmission and motor mounts,” he says.

And Dave Kass of QA1 notes, “I would say our famous GM Pro Coil Systems are our hottest muscle car product. Basically, they allow ride height adjustability in a simple bolt-in kit. Cutting and welding are a thing of the past, as we have done all of the engineering and guesswork for you. In addition, they provide on-the-car ride quality changes without needing to remove anything.”

And what are these products finding their way onto?

“As the manufacturers intended, the modern 5.0 Mustang GT, 6.2-liter Camaro and Hemi Challenger are all very popular, and we have a variety of exhaust product choices for all three,” says Benty. “The older muscle cars share the same rivalry, with early Camaros and Chevelles remaining very popular, along with the Mustangs and various Mopar vehicles.”

Kass agrees.

“The current hot new muscle cars are the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang. They are awesome new vehicles with some impressive performance right off the showroom floor,” he says. “Some of the other more popular muscle cars are early American iron, for example, 1964-’72 GM A-bodies and ’78-’88 GM G-bodies. We have made a large commitment to improving the poor handling characteristics of these vehicles, and making them handle more like the modern-day muscle cars.”

And even some models that were less-popular in the past are seeing success.

“Traditional small-block Chevy-based applications continue to be strong performers,” says Mr. Gasket’s Scott Stutler. “We are seeing consumers gravitate toward what were previously considered dark-era cars like mid 1970s Camaros, Lagunas, etc. The late-model Mustang and Camaro are certainly in the limelight and demand for products for these platforms is increasing. Our suspension offerings have been very popular, in particular drag shocks for the newest generation Mustang.”

GM vehicles are always a strong segment.

“Our product line lends itself strongly toward the early- and late-model GM vehicles, from Chevelles to fifth-gen Camaros, somewhat based on the strong LS growth,” says Santa Cruz. “And we anticipate the Mopar LX platform and Mustang Coyote to be strong contenders in the very near future.”

Hawley adds, “the first-gen Camaro has been and still is the car we sell the most parts for, but early Mustangs are really starting to come alive.”

Young & Old

We can all picture the types of guys we’d consider the typical muscle car fan. But are the stereotypes a true representation of the buyers in this market?

“From a consumer standpoint, it’s very segmented,” Stutler says of the market. “We are seeing younger people on a budget buying bang-for-the-buck products for the mid-’70s Detroit platforms. The late-model Mustang and Camaro performance products are typically Gen-X (buyers) in their mid-30s and older who are street performance/weekend warrior consumers. Of course, the baby boomers are at the top end of the scale, making high-end purchases in regard to the resto-mod/show circuit.”

It seems the fans of these cars come in all ages.

“Energy Suspension performance polyurethane started over 25 years ago and today’s muscle car enthusiasts are younger gen and older gen,” says Santa Cruz. “Both are much more informed on the performance offerings (available), whether it’s for their classic resto or modern muscle car. We cover most vital suspension components, from engine mounts to leaf spring bushings.”

And they are driving a variety of vehicles.

“The best part of this industry is that it captures so many different demographics. The older guys are reliving their youth by purchasing 1960s-’70s muscle cars and performing all sorts of updates,” Kass says. “On the other hand, the young guns are hot-rodding more affordable vehicles including the Fox body ’79-’93 Mustangs and SN95 1994-2004 Mustangs. More people are getting into the market with the reintroduction of the muscle car with the new Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers, etc., providing non-mechanical people with hot cars right off the showroom floor.”

The common denominator is hitting the road and having fun.

“We are seeing more and more 40- to 60-something guys and gals who are tired of their numbers matching so and so just sitting in the garage,” notes Hawley. “They come to us for high-performance suspension upgrades so they can drive and enjoy their car instead of letting it sit. We have a customer right now who has our complete Pro-G front subframe system and an IRS for his ’69 Camaro convertible Indy pace car. All he said to me is, ‘I want to drive it now.'”

What many of these car owners are looking for is versatility.

“For the modern muscle cars, customers are buying both axle-back and cat-back exhausts, depending on budgets and overall modification levels of the cars,” Benty says. “Those doing extensive modifications are more likely to go for the full system. For the older vehicles, installing mufflers alone is very popular, as is installing our bolt-on systems, which we have available for most popular muscle cars. In terms of materials, our stainless steel systems are by far the most popular.”

Making It Happen

So, while easily identified, the matter of reaching all of these customers can still pose certain challenges for muscle car speed shops.

“Government legislation and restrictions (are the biggest challenges),” says Santa Cruz of Energy Suspension. “It’s become more difficult to produce quality performance products here in the United States and keep pricing affordable when too many laws are created trying to keep older vehicles off the road and restrict aftermarket modifications. Also, vehicle manufacturer warranties (can be a challenge). Cars today are coming with extended warranties that prohibit some modifications.”

Another factor is constantly increasing expectations.

“The biggest challenge in the market for us right now is coming out with new, innovative performance products to keep up with demand,” says Hawley of Heidts. “It seems as though everybody wants to go faster, handle better and just out-perform a new car. The message has been sent loud and clear to us-‘I want modern performance in a classic muscle car.'”

Learning everything there is to know about the performance items you sell always demands some effort.

“For both shops and consumers, determining the benefits and drawbacks of the various exhaust products is getting harder and harder to determine,” notes Benty of Flowmaster/B&M. “Exhaust selection is a highly personal matter that is determined on a very personal basis by the owners. What sounds great to one person sounds terrible to the next. There is a lot of competition within the performance market and every company has something different to offer, with specialized attributes and stereotypes.

“Along with the vast amounts of good information available now on-demand through the Internet, there is an equal amount of misinformation or simply opinion masked as fact, making it very hard for consumers to find answers that are honestly answered on the Web,” he adds. “Ultimately, the retail shop is the final word.”

Oh, and don’t forget the price factor.

“Unilaterally, I feel it’s consumer confidence (that’s the biggest challenge), especially in regard to fuel prices,” notes Mr. Gasket’s Stutler. “We have seen the market behavior when prices at the pump push $4 per gallon. It seems that mid-$3’s are the limit. Once over that, wallets close.”

Add it all together, and you’ve got a handle on an industry with a lot of variables.

“Trying to figure out what the next trend is going to be (is the challenge),” says QA1’s Kass. “A good indicator is the large trade shows, as they are the place for everyone in the industry to unveil their new products for the upcoming season. It’s easy to identify trends once they’re happening, but it’s difficult to predict the next trend.”

Capitalizing on Opportunity

The popularity of muscle cars old and new means opportunity for local speed shops. The manufacturers suggest several approaches to help maximize profits.

“We keep hearing about mixing-and-matching parts from several companies on one car,” notes Hawley. “It is often far less costly for shops and car owners to buy as much as they can from one supplier. All of our systems are designed to work with each other-in other words, our front end products are designed to work with our rear end products.”

Stutler recommends immersing yourself and your shop in the local muscle car scene.

“Keep up with the trends in your region,” he says. “Go to local car shows and racing events to see what people own and what they are doing. Perhaps even sponsor local car shows, giving members of a club a special price, etc. Supporting your local market can go a long way toward making your consumer loyal to your store.”

And know your customers.

“One of the biggest struggles many shop owners are faced with is that every customer is different,” notes Kass. “Everyone is building his/her vehicle to achieve a different goal. Understanding what combination of products needs to be installed to satisfy these needs can be tricky sometimes.”

Being the local go-to guy for enthusiasts with questions helps establish your reputation as an expert, adds Santa Cruz.

“For instance, keep the customer informed that suspension components-not just shocks and springs, but worn rubber bushings-are all just as important to replace and upgrade. Most shops focus on engine builds and dyno numbers, but it all comes down to getting that power to the ground and being able to control that power and have the looks.”

Benty agrees that to compete successfully against the Internet, the service and expertise you provide is critical.

“With the level of retail competition available to consumers today, service has become the key to gaining and retaining customers,” he explains. “Many people are willing to spend a few dollars more if they feel comfortable with a shop, and that comfort depends on everything from shop appearance, price and certainly attitude.

“As we relate to shop owners and installers, the customer who wants an Internet-sourced muffler installed today may have 10 more cars at home and will remember where he received good service. Retailers can build their business by educating themselves on the products their customers request.”

It appears that the old- and new-gen muscle cars are still running strong.

Muscle Car Style

The best muscle cars have that just-right appearance of a lean, mean driving machine. Restoration parts and accessories company Goodmark Industries, Suwanee, Ga., offers tubs, hoods and related components for speed shops creating that muscle car style.

The company’s Greg Chesna took a few minutes to discuss the muscle car market for 2012, and what shops can expect in the year to come.

PB: Thanks, Greg. What’s your hottest product for the muscle car market?

Chesna: Mustang mini-tubs for 1964-’70 models are Goodmark’s hot new product on the market.

PB: What are some of its best features?

Chesna: The tubs allow wider rear wheels and tires to be installed on a vehicle that until now required extensive modification to do so into the rear wheelhouse. Our new mini-tub is approximately 2 inches wider than stock, giving the extra clearance, and only requires minor modification to the rear frame rails to accept the wider rear inner wheelhouse.

PB: Why should speed shops look to serve the muscle car market in 2012?

Chesna: Customers are not only restoring cars back to stock, but are also looking to upgrade brakes, suspension and drivetrain to make a classic car more drivable and comparable to a new muscle car like a Mustang, Camaro, or Challenger. Having the vintage look with modern performance is where the market trend is now.

PB: What’s the biggest challenge for shops serving this market?

Chesna: I’d say finding replacements for obsolete parts to keep classic cars on the road. As the OEM manufacturers tighten their belts, parts that were low production quantity and low margin have become obsolete. Companies like Goodmark try to keep these parts alive so enthusiasts can keep driving their cars without fear of parts breakage.

PB: What’s one thing shops can do immediately to increase profits in the muscle car sector?

Chesna: Try to stock all the components needed to complete a job. Instead of just stocking the Mustang mini-tubs, also stock the outer wheelhouses that would also likely need to be replaced on a car getting that modification done. Up-selling complementary parts is a great way to increase sales and profits and is an easy sell when customers are already invested in the job.