The Power of Trucks

May 16, 2011

Diesel pickups may be spiking the charts these days, but gas-powered performance trucks are and always have been a staple-even with today’s also-spiking gasoline prices.

We wanted to take a look at this market, so we asked a panel of experts to give us the pulse on gas trucks. How strong is the market? What are the popular vehicles? And, most importantly, how can local speed shops turn a profit servicing the needs of gas pickup owners?

Strength in Numbers

Our first question was about just how strong the truck market is today. Feelings are mixed.

“The new truck market is a lot weaker than pre-2008, that’s for sure,” says Amir Rosenbaum, president of Spectre Performance. “That said, the classic stuff is doing great, always has been, and we don’t see any reason for it to slow down. There is also a subset of people that enjoy towing their boat to the lake, going camping, off-roading, etc., that don’t want to give up their lifestyle. They continue to buy parts that improve power or performance on their truck. It’s just a smaller, more dedicated group than it was pre-recession.”

There are some specific product categories that are popular.

“For companies that specialize in truck performance-lighting, suspension, internal engine performance-the truck market is still very strong,” notes Don Fall of Bilstein.

Tom Bennett, Superchips’ division president, is optimistic.

“(The truck market) is actually quite strong, especially compared to 2008. Our sales are up compared to 2010. Our warehouse partners are all experiencing strong performance in the truck market as well as other key markets,” he says.

“March 2011 car and truck sales were up significantly higher compared to 2010. It is good for the industry, but we are cautious given the fragile state of the economy and rising fuel prices. I suspect some of the truck demand is commercial or work-related rather than a return of the casual truck enthusiast. We’ll have to wait to see if the rebound is sustainable.”

But either way, trucks are a solid part of the market.

“ProCharger continues to see a strong demand for intercooled supercharger systems for gas-engine trucks,” says Jeff Lacina, the company’s marketing director. “Trucks have become such an integral and essential part of the performance business segment. Another factor is that many businesses use their trucks to tow trailers to and from events where they are promoting their business, so it’s a great way to demonstrate the ‘work hard, play hard’ capabilities of our products.”

Model Search

Next, we asked which gas trucks are most popular. Fall gives us this pecking order: “Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota.”

Bennett adds that “Ford’s F-Series is the best-selling gas truck, followed by Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota Tundra and the Dodge Ram, but the Ram is gaining ground on the Tundra. The market is energized by this generation of trucks offering more power, comfort and amenities than ever before. I think the one clear leader in the space right now is Ford with their lineup-especially the Raptor-that’s just an awesome truck with no real competition! But don’t count out the others for long.

“Now if only Jeep would just produce the Gladiator concept. The V-8 engines are a priority over V-6s for the performance enthusiast, but that could all change this decade. Ford’s 5.0-liter and 6.2-liter are great. Hemi is a strong brand for Dodge and Chevy has an array of competent engines. Ford’s EcoBoost is getting a lot of buzz from the press, but it’s still too new to gauge its impact on consumers. Ford is betting big on the technology and we’re watching closely to see if it’s accepted. The twin-turbo V-6 could play a huge role in the future of gas truck performance.”

It seems that truck owners are just as passionate about their power as any other driver.

“Late-model GM trucks continue to be very popular with regards to installing our intercooled supercharger systems, especially on the 5.3- and 6.0-liter engines,” says Lacina. “However, the 2009-’11 Ford F-150s have shown some nice growth, especially the 6.2-liter engine that is used in the SVT Raptor and F-150 Platinum, King Ranch and Harley-Davidson packages. Our supercharger for the 6.2-liter engine produces more than 600 flywheel horsepower.”

But not everyone is willing to name Ford the current top dog.

“On the modern side, the Chevy/GMC Silverado is by far and away the most popular of the late-models, followed by Dodge and Ford,” says Rosenbaum. “Even though Ford sells more trucks, enthusiasts pick Chevy first, then Dodge and Ford.”

What to Add

So, which products are enthusiasts most-interested in these days?

“It looks like the usual suspects for hot products this year,” Bennett notes. “According to SEMA 2010, the most popular and most scanned truck product categories were tires, suspension and towing equipment. We’re seeing a good mix of performance products-tuners, intake, exhaust, anything that can provide better fuel economy and some diesel-specific technologies typically found in race-only products.”

And showing that speed lovers always crave more, “for 2011, supercharger systems and tuner kits for the SVT Raptor trucks are our hot product,” Lacina says.

And again, with higher fuel prices, economy is a common request.

“Improved lighting, suspension products, internal and external parts to improve economy and performance are all popular,” says Fall.

And sales appear strong.

“We specialize in air filters and cold air intake systems,” Rosenbaum explains. “We’re seeing more and more LS engines being transplanted into the older vehicles. This is a trend that will snowball, including in the truck market and particularly with classic trucks. Bolt-on cold air intakes for pickups have always been a hot product and continue to become more popular with consumers because it’s an easy install, makes a noticeable power difference, is not too expensive and in many cases is also smog-exempt. Stores and shops that carry our intakes report they like selling them because cold air intakes have a nice margin and a very high customer satisfaction rate.”

Find the Sale

That brings up the shops, so we asked about opportunities that are available among performance, racing, towing and hauling buyers.

“We offer a wide range of truck and SUV superchargers,” notes ProCharger’s Lacina. “So, regardless if it’s a brand-new truck or one as old as a 1988 7.4-liter GM truck, we have a system or tuner kit available. We also have standard carb Chevy and carb Ford supercharger systems than can be installed on older trucks as well.”

As a suspension company, Fall says Bilstein sees opportunities in improving stock chassis components.

“Retailers should be encouraging their customers to upgrade their suspensions to improve the drivability, handling and safety of their tow vehicles,” he says.

Spectre’s Rosenbaum is looking for an elusive product he believes would fill the needs of performance truck owners everywhere.

“If someone can invent a product that lets you tow at speed and get great mileage, they would get the key to the bank! The proverbial block of wood under the gas pedal won’t cut it. Everyone wants power and speed.

“At the end of the day, most enthusiasts are, at their core, not going to change their entire lifestyle because gas goes up another dollar per gallon. They’ll complain about it, and it is unfortunate, but they’re not going to stop four-wheelin’ or towing their race car to the track. So, we are focusing on making truck intakes and filters that improve performance, and if they improve mileage a little bit too, that’s the cherry on top of the sundae.”

In the end, truck owners have a variety of items to choose from.

“There have never been more consumer choices in these categories than now-especially when you look at how many tuning companies are competing for truck customers,” says Superchips’ Bennett. “Every year, the engineering departments of aftermarket performance companies manage to squeeze more horsepower, torque, fuel economy and other performance features out of new trucks. It’s a highly competitive market, and the future is wide-open with the constant talk of alternative fuels, the continued horsepower and towing/hauling capability wars, and even the race for improved fuel economy through new engines, aerodynamics and weight savings.”

Taking on Trucks

With so much to choose from, what challenges face the truck industry today?

Rosenbaum notes that so many applications can make finding the right piece more important than ever.

“Like everything else, parts proliferation means that the days of one A-mover covering 80 percent of the market are over. The key is to have all the niche items available.”

Of course, fuel prices are a main factor

“Current higher fuel prices should be creating some good opportunities for electronic and mechanical modifications to improve economy,” Fall says. “If you pay attention to what’s happening geopolitically, fuel prices will once again stabilize. If we literally pulled our heads out of the (OPEC) sand and start drilling and pipelining fuel within our own country, it would open up a world of profitable times for our economy-including the truck market.”

Bennett agrees.

“The number one villain is fuel prices. Number two is Washington D.C.-”CAFE and the EPA. $4 to $5 for a gallon of gas will put the damper on consumer sales. On the commercial side, high fuel prices will put the squeeze on fleets and businesses that will have to raise the price of their goods and services to cover the increased cost of fuel.

“If fuel prices don’t come down, a sustainable cost-effective alternate fuel solution will have to be implemented quickly,” he continues. “Current electric-powered vehicle technology does not provide good solutions for the kind of power a truck requires. Trucks are not just recreational vehicles; they are also the workhorses of our economy. Even if fuel prices subside, the pressure to reduce the ‘footprint’ of the American fleet may change the landscape for trucks. OEMs face significant pressure to improve fuel economy-regulations are driving redesigns and shaping consumer choices. The EPA is gunning for tailpipe emissions with no relief in sight.”

It seems in this economy, money is on everyone’s mind.

“There are several factors affecting today’s truck market. Number one would be the high initial cost of today’s truck. This makes it much more difficult for the performance-minded buyer to make big-ticket upgrades to a brand-new truck,” Lacina says. “On the other hand, we’re seeing some of these performance truck owners hold on to their vehicles longer, getting them paid off and then having more modification resources available. This is specifically why we continue to support older platforms with our supercharger systems and tuner kit offerings.

“Another factor affecting the truck industry today is fuel costs and fuel mileage,” he adds. “Most people don’t think about a supercharger increasing a vehicles’ fuel mileage, but depending on how they use their truck, we have had numerous customers say they’ve actually seen their supercharged fuel mileage go up due to the fact that their truck now has the power to haul and pull loads in a higher gear. The truck also has more power for cruising at today’s higher highway speeds, minimizing the number of downshifts the transmission makes, thereby keeping engine rpms lower.”

Where to Go

So, should shops be excited about the market and where it’s headed?

“There is still money to be made on trucks for retail shops and installers,” says Rosenbaum. “The days of giant jacked-up Hummers dripping with chrome might be over, but a combination of well-thought-out mods will improve just about any pickup, from daily drivers and work trucks to tow vehicles and full customs.

“This includes cold air intakes, exhaust systems, tuners/chips, wheel and tire packages and even suspension mods. In our case, we have worked hard to design cold air intakes and even high-flow, drop-in filters that make a noticeable performance difference in the truck, are easy to install for the shop or consumer, have a competitive price point and are backed by a lifetime warranty. They can make a healthy margin selling the parts, and then make another profit doing a straightforward install.”

Bennett is on the same track.

“Right now, products that offer fuel economy are in demand. Tires and suspension always seem to be the first ‘must have’ upgrade for truck buyers. In reality, there are so many categories it is difficult to really single out one product or niche in the performance truck market as the ultimate product.

“Consumers are seeking improved towing, racing, capability, appearance, accessories, engine performance, etc.,” he continues. “If you really understand the consumer mindset in any of those categories, there are always opportunities for profit. And if you can read the customers effectively, you can probably get them the right products for their immediate needs, which should keep them coming back for more.”

Lacina believes sales are out there.

“A dealer selling our systems and tuner kits to truck owners has the potential for some very nice per-unit profits,” he says. “Another great thing about selling and installing a power-adder is the fact that it can also lead to some additional component sales to complement their newfound power, such as exhaust systems, brakes, transmission upgrades, etc. More power always leads to more performance-based upgrades and sales.”