SEMA News - August 2010

By Steve Campbell

Classic Car Parts Make Classic Cars, But Restomod Has Changed the Market

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business Trends 
 

For traditionalists, automotive restoration refers strictly to classic cars rebuilt using classic car parts. For many, though, the definitions are changing. Courtesy of Mustang Monthly Magazine   

   
In traditional hobbyist terms, automotive restoration refers strictly to classic cars rebuilt using classic car parts. And while there remains a significant portion of the market for which that holds true, today’s restorations are just as likely to include an amalgam of modern running gear as well as comfort and safety systems combined with factory-spec knobs, moldings, panels and fabrics. “In today’s market, restoration holds the more broad definition of ‘resurrection,’” said Michael Manning, president of American Autowire, a wiring harness and accessory options manufacturer. “Many parts, such as trim, sheetmetal and glass, must be done to original specifications in order to fit. However, some original parts and original-specification reproduction parts are being replaced by technologically superior options. Brakes, crate engines, suspensions and wheel and tire combinations are examples of this. American Autowire has seen the necessity to upgrade the entire electrical system to accommodate more options and facilitate the demands on the whole system.”

The foundations of this restomod trend have been around for nearly two decades but have recently taken a greater hold. The name itself combines restoration and modification, creating a fusion that its proponents feel delivers the best of
both worlds.

“Owners still want the stock look but want their cars to accelerate, brake and handle better,” said Sandy Patterson, publisher of Source Interlink Media’s Mustang Monthly, Modified Mustangs & Fords, High Performance Pontiac and Vette magazines.

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business Trends 
 

This ’65 Mustang hardtop is typical of a restomod enthusiast’s desire to include modern power, handling, braking and safety features with classic design. This car features a Rod & Custom Motorsports Mustang II front suspension, Wilwood disc brakes, Billet Specialties wheels with modern 17-inch rubber, a late-model Ford 5.0L engine and numerous other upgrades. Courtesy of Modified Mustangs & Fords magazine 

   
Patterson adds, “Owners are bringing their classic cars up to modern standards with fuel injection, power disc brakes and upgraded performance products. Safety improvements are a big part of their projects as well. Restomods can vary from mild to wild, depending on how the owner wants to personalize the car. This segment of the market has helped our industry grow.”

The restoration market has also embraced lesser-known and formerly less-desirable cars as the confirmed classics have become harder to find and more expensive to purchase. While tried-and-true muscle machines, such as Barracudas, Camaros, Mustangs and ’55–’57 Chevys, remain stalwarts of the industry, enthusiasts are also daring to be different not just in how the cars are built, but in the raw materials they choose.

“If you’re looking to stand out these days, you need to go off the beaten path,” said Dennis Gage, host of the “My Classic Car” television show and CEO of the company that carries the same name. “You are seeing more orphan makes getting a lot of attention—cars such as Hudsons and Nashes. An early-’70s big-body T-bird or even a really nice LTD will draw an amazing amount of attention at a show.”

There have also been changes in the way consumers buy products, said Roger Niehaus, vice president of sales for Auto Custom Carpets Inc. Restoration retail customers are no longer filling all of their needs with one large order, he explained. Instead, they place smaller orders over a longer period through dealers who carry a large inventory and can ship immediately.

“Smaller dealers that have to drop ship to fulfill orders seem to be getting the shorter end of the stick,” Niehaus said. “People are looking for the very best deal for their money, and they’re also looking for free freight and immediate possession of their parts.”

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business Trends 
 

The restomod market has led some traditional restoration companies to develop products that address today’s technology. For instance, American Autowire has developed updated product lines that accommodate modern accessories, marketing the original reproduction line as “Factory Fit” and the resto performance line as the “Classic Update Series.” Courtesy of American Autowire

   
The market has thus become far more competitive. A couple of decades ago, consumers were restricted to classic car parts from only one or two companies, depending on which vintage vehicle they were rebuilding. Now, there are several large suppliers as well as numerous smaller specialty outfits for any given resto project.

“The number of parts options is the biggest change I have seen in restoration sales,” said Alex Tainsh, sales and marketing manager for TrimParts Inc. “If a part was made for, say, a ’69 Camaro 15 to 20 years ago, it was probably produced by only one company, so it was the only choice, good or bad. Now, with so many options, the consumer needs to be educated about the quality differences out there. Retailers may offer a quality part for $45 and find themselves competing with a poor-quality part that is priced at $19.95. If the consumer believes that it’s the same part, the poor-quality part wins, which can give the entire industry a bad reputation.” 

Technology has helped with the education process. The huge growth in web-based product sales, social networking sites, blogs and other information sources on the Internet has allowed consumers to easily perform their own research into classic car parts and the modern options available.

“Consumers prefer to hit forums or social media outlets and get feedback from other consumers rather than from company-issued testimonials used in marketing materials,” said Laura Bergan, vice president of marketing for American Collectors Insurance. “The Internet feedback is often considered to be more factual, more objective and less biased. Savvy companies recognize this.”

Manning agreed that the Internet has created the most obvious and dramatic changes in the way modern companies market their restoration-based products. Rather than waiting three months for new-product promotions to reach the nation’s newsstands in print, they can be introduced and publicized almost instantly via the web.

“An added benefit of the web is the ability to provide more details on the product, thus enabling customers to better determine if the product is right for them,” he said. “The additional benefit to the manufacturer is reduced phone time for the sales staff to explain the product and subsequently less technical support time.”

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business Trends 
 

Where new parts once had to be completely reversed engineered, many manufacturers of even restoration parts now utilize CAD data from the OEMs and use modern manufacturing processes to produce parts that exactly match original specifications. Courtesy of TrimParts   

   
Technology has also created improvements in manufacturing techniques through the use of computerized design and CNC machines, Manning said, allowing the production of better parts more quickly. In addition, tool innovations have helped to create whole new markets.

“Some of the most significant new-product developments I have seen have come from the new welders,” said Jim Christina, vice president and general manager of Dynacorn International and Dynacorn Classic Bodies Inc. “We use them in our body-shell program, but they’re also used at restoration facilities. They allow the welder to get into spots that were inaccessible by the types used on the original assembly line. The introduction of replacement body shells has been a gigantic boon for this industry.”

The 3-D printer is another example of how advanced technology is affecting the industry. “With a 3-D printer, nothing is impossible,” said Gage. “If you can scan it, this thing can make it. Since it creates a physical model, you can check it for fit in the actual application and make modifications if needed before casting or machining the final piece in the correct material. This is truly something out of the ‘Jetsons.’”

Tainsh and Manning pointed to programs such as SEMA’s Measuring Sessions and Technology Transfer program as helping to reduce the need for reverse engineering and speeding time to market. These new manufacturing techniques, along with improved materials, often mean a part that is better than the original while retaining the look of the OEM design, Manning said. Tainsh added that those types of improvements instill greater confidence in the buying public, which appreciates the quality, fit and finish of the products.

While the technology explosion has been a boon in some areas, however, it has created challenges in others, not only within the restoration segment but throughout the broader industry as a whole. For instance, the print medium has been struggling to reinvent itself as it competes with the Internet for consumer time and interest.

“We live in a world that wants information now,” said Jeffrey Broadus, former publisher of Car Collector magazine and current president of Waterford Media Inc. “Being able to deliver on this request requires solid support from our print media partners and expanding our web presence. I’m extremely confident that the print medium will not go away—at least not in my lifetime—but it does have the biggest challenge in vying for a younger generation than we served in the past decade.”

  SEMA News-August 2010-Business Trends 
 

The introduction of replacement body shells has been a significant advance in the restoration industry. New technologies, such as welders, that allow access to spots that were virtually unreachable by the types used on the original assembly line have also been a boon to restoration professionals. Courtesy of Dynacorn International  

   
Source Interlink’s Patterson said that her company—a multimedia corporation with outlets in print, broadcast, events and the Internet—sees an increase in the use of varied channels for marketing programs and new-product announcements, including mobile phones. But she recognizes the same challenge as Broadus in addressing the youngest elements of the market.

“The restoration segment of the automotive industry is aging,” she said. “Youth awareness programs, such as the Automotive Restoration Market Organization’s (ARMO’s) Take a Kid to a Car Show were developed to promote activities that expose children and young adults to the restoration hobby. Capturing the interest of these kids today will help to ensure the longevity of our hobby.”

In doing so, companies must take care not to prejudge what people perceive to be a collector car. “Continue to monitor trends and watch which makes and models become popular as each new generation plays a role in influencing the marketplace,” said Broadus. “We saw our grandfathers marvel over the antique era, the love our fathers had for the pre-World War II era and now the current generation’s enthusiasm for post-war ’50s through ’70s cars. With every new generation, our hobby shifts to different eras and renewed interest in some segment of the collector car industry.”

The recession also challenged the industry. Whether the current intimations of recovery are real or simply a pause in a volatile economy, most manufacturers caution their retail partners to be ready when customers begin to spend in earnest again.

“I would pay close attention to inventory levels,” Manning said. “You want to be able to service customers, but you must also be aware of order lead times as many suppliers cut back production to salvage their own cash flow. Inventory maintenance and usage combined with order lead times should be foremost on the watch list. Many manufacturers are operating with just-in-time inventory practices. Factoring that position into your planning is necessary. You should also evaluate your inventory and eliminate inferior parts that were rushed into
the marketplace.”

As the restoration industry incorporates the restomod movement, technological improvements and a younger consumer base, the restoration industry will not only survive but thrive, said Gage. But even a resilient market requires some care.

“The restoration segment weathered this economic downturn better that any other segment in the aftermarket,” said Gage, “but don’t take that for granted. Keep pumping out new products and encouraging people to get these cars out on the road and at shows so that those who aren’t currently in the hobby can see them and, hopefully, catch the bug, too. Participation in the hobby is what fuels the aftermarket. Don’t ever forget that.”  

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