Rich Martsolf, owner and founder of Auto Illusions in Moon Township, Pa., (a suburb of Pittsburgh), has seen a lot. He’s watched automotive aftermarket products come out, be embraced first by consumers, then by carmakers-and then watched as those same hot products became passé and were replaced by even hotter, more trendy products.
“We’ve followed the fads that have come into the industry,” says Martsolf. “It’s rough if you don’t. Other shops that specialize, say in Corvettes, for example, don’t have to worry about that as much. But we generalize. We began in the business doing car audio back when that was popular. Remember 10 years ago, you first heard the bass of a car at a stop light? That was the popularity of customized car audio.”
And the market continued to change.
“Then remote starts came along and car alarms,” he adds. “We also watched navigation come out. The thing is, first the aftermarket world tests these products, and then the (auto) manufacturers come on board. We were installing audio, then alarms, then satellite radio, and we did mobile video before it came with a car. All the while, there’s a delay before the manufacturers catch up. Today, getting a new car without satellite radio already installed is unusual. Once those products start coming in new cars, we sell less of them.”
The company has turned to some performance items for more stability over the years as well. One of the first was a ride on the wave of sport compacts.
“Little ‘Fast & Furious’ cars were an import fad for awhile,” he says. “After the movie came out, that was a fad we tackled and specialized in seven or eight years ago for three to four years straight. Then the fad rolled away. Customers just aren’t interested in that sort of thing anymore. The point is that we followed that and others like it from beginning to end.”
Today, the fad Martsolf and his staff are most focused on involves the super-elite, comprehensive build, such as the kind that professional athletes can afford.
“In the last three to four years, we’ve worked to do high-end projects, the kind involving complete rebuilds,” says Martsolf. “For example, we do a lot of work for (members of) the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates-guys who want to customize their vehicle to the next level. We take it from start to finish and see the whole thing done from beginning to end-custom interior, custom paint, reskinned leather seats, custom audio, custom panels, suspension work, you name it.”
Tackling total builds has helped the shop stay strong in a less-than-stellar economy.
“We did a job for Trai Essex (a Steelers guard),” says Martsolf, “and it’s one of the nicest interiors we’ve done. We did a custom stereo build to his Lincoln navigator, and it was a big job. There was a lot of equipment involved and a lot of fiberglass customization that we created from scratch. The whole thing took about month.”
But there are other Auto Illusions grand-scale jobs that don’t necessarily involve professional athletes.
“We also did a Ford F-350, a really nice build that took a couple of months. We did full custom paint on that, with road armor steel, front and rear bumpers, and winches in front and back. There was fog lighting on the front bumper, suede leather interior, and we painted the dash and interior trim pieces,” Martsolf recalls. “It’s also got a Diamond Audio stereo system and the speakers are part of the bed, which is unusual. It’s got an air suspension-a 12-inch lift that’s fully adjustable. We did all custom exhausts, and we did tuning on the diesel motor to double the horsepower. We built that as a showcase for the shop and it was about a $165,000 job.”
Power-adders are a favorite of Martsolf and his shop.
“We’re building a 1,000-hp street car-a 1993 RX-7 with a rotary engine,” he says. “That’s a quarter-of-a-million-dollar car already. We’re going to use that to show. And we’ve got three or four Ferrari owners who are clients, and we finished a Maserati yesterday. The $100,000-plus-priced cars are the ones we’re getting into the shop now.”
Room to Roll
The shop those vehicles roll into is a spacious one.
Six years ago, Martsolf took the Auto Illusions staff to a larger location, after being at its original site for about 10 years.
“We keep a 4,000-square-foot garage and a 1,500-square-foot showroom,” says Martsolf. “We’ve got two racks, a wood room for audio and custom panels, and our own tire machines, which are the best tire machines you can buy. Everything’s here but the paint-a plasma cutter, a tubing notcher, metal brakes. We have an off-site paint location. Our old store is a paint shop. We still own our old building and it made sense to turn it into a paint shop.”
Six seems to be the magic number for Martsolf. He’s got half a dozen employees (counting himself) that do everything from sell to install to customize-all efforts that Martsolf is comfortable doing himself as well.
“We’ve got five full-time people here plus me,” he says. “We’ve got one salesman, one window tint guy, two installers, a shop manager and me. I’m the go-between guy. I do some sales, some installation, some managing. I admit that I like the garage more than the front. But I also do some on-site custom work; I get involved in Steelers’ jobs start to finish.”
It makes for interesting days, he notes.
“You have to do something you enjoy. I took a degree in mechanical engineering. When I finished school, I knew that I wanted to open a car stereo store as soon as I got out of school, so I borrowed $10,000 from my Mom and Dad and opened the shop. I’m glad that I did it because I definitely enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have this level of a business if I’d just done this sort of work at home as a hobby.”
As Auto Illusions grew over the years, and even as the company felt the need for larger facilities, Martsolf’s business sense led him to seek out a mutli-faceted marketing effort that put his services and products to the people.
“Over time, we’ve employed about every advertising medium there is,” he says. “We’ve tried everything and we’ve learned a lot.
“Radio, for example, when used for advertising around the Christmas season works best,” he says. “It’s funny, but for us, advertising during the Christmas season is when we can most feel the return.”
Show and Tell
Auto Illusions also uses local events to market its performance and customization services.
“The second best avenue for us in terms of marketing is going to car shows,” says Martsolf. “It’s a real boon to business. For the last few years we’ve been hitting two specific car shows. It’s great because people really want to see your work. They don’t just want to see your work, however, they want to see your car, they want to see for themselves what you built, what you are able to build.”
Like many in this industry, he feels that when it comes to top-notch customization, seeing is believing.
“When you get a customer looking at your car,” he adds, “it’s something that he knows you can do, and then he realizes that you can do what it is he wants.”
The effort to get out in front of customers always pays dividends.
“It’s not always the easiest thing,” Martsolf admits, “getting guys suited up in Auto Illusions outfits and getting everyone there. We’ve got four seasons here in Pennsylvania and the truth is that getting to the shows, getting everyone organized, getting everything done and finished and then just getting there can be hard. But it’s great; it’s worth it.”
Simple beginnings with a car stereo business, coupled with more than a dozen years of work that has led to custom builds for top-paying customers means that Martsolf knows a thing or two about getting into the business, and then getting that business to work and grow.
“If you’re going to be self-employed in any business, either you must have a lot of money to launch it or, as I did when I first started, you must have a lot of time. I can’t tell you how many times I worked 20-hours a day for two weeks straight.”
But that’s what it took to carve his niche in the industry.
“You can do one of two things,” he adds. “You can either do it all yourself, or you can pay someone, which is, of course, less profitable. I’m happy with the way it went for me. I began by myself and worked ’round the clock for six months. Then I went full-time.
“The rest is history,” he says. “And it’s all been very good.”