Mike Austin took in the SEMA convention and admired his crew’s work like a proud papa.
The general manager of Findlay Customs, a car and truck customization shop, restored a 1949 Chevrolet truck that was on display at the Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show earlier this month at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The 40th annual show in Las Vegas had 2,400 exhibitors from around the world, and customization shops got a chance to see the latest and greatest products that will soon be installed on new and used cars and trucks people want to customize.
An improving economy giving people more discretionary income and the trend of people making vehicles more of their own is fueling an increased demand in customizations.
“This day and age, everyone wants the coolest- and baddest-looking vehicle out there,” Austin said. “If we’re talking about new cars, the dealerships and manufacturers are so conservative. That’s where we come into play. Our motto is you pick it, we stick it. Whatever you want done, we can pretty much do for you.”
That means customizing not only new, but used cars and trucks. The oldest car in Austin’s shop is from 1932 and goes through 2017 models.
“I have Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Cadillacs, Packards, Porsches and vans,” Austin said. “You name it, and I have it.”
Austin said he had five men working on the 1949 Chevrolet truck restoration 18 hours a day for two months. The rusted-out truck had to be built from the frame up and included painting. The owner supplied the parts, and the cost for the labor alone was $85,000, he said.
That is the upper end of customization work that’s requested, Austin said. The average customer gets customization work ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 and the upper-end work starts at about $10,000, he said.
For cars, that might mean lowering the vehicle to give it a sporty look. It’s upgrading a stereo system and changing out wheels, tires and lighting.
“Younger kids want a loud exhaust and fast cars and those at the higher end want to make them look sleek,” Austin said. “We try to make their car like no one else. We try not to copycat anyone else, even though the majority of the time that happens because someone wants cool new headlights that they can buy online. We try to get them to do it a little different than everybody else.”
Trucks tend to get new wheels and tires and suspension upgraded for drivability. Customers are requesting train horns and radar detectors and blacking off chrome and labels so no one knows what make and model it is, Austin said.
Jim Moore, a senior director with SEMA, said because consumers are looking for more personalization in their products, that’s changing the marketplace and what manufacturers and dealers are doing.
“As an automotive manufacturer, when you produce a large number of vehicles, you are looking for ways to convert a mass product and tailor it to the needs of the individual,” Moore said. “That’s where customization comes into play.”
That customization can start near the factories with manufacturer partners, Moore said. Even manufacturers are using the assembly lines to create packages like a Camaro made for drag racing, he said.
Some dealers are buying small fleets of cars and creating their own packages with superchargers, turbochargers, cold-air intake, big wheels and suspension kits, Moore said.
“They’re trying to create packages that get people excited,” Moore said. “You’re trying to engage the enthusiast culture by offering a limited edition and generate attention. I think customization is growing every year. Their needs are becoming more diverse and that’s putting pressure on dealers to have alternative packages.”
At Findlay Toyota, General Sales Manager John Barr said customization is a growing trend at his dealership, not so much with Toyota cars but trucks. People want lift kits to raise the vehicles and custom wheels. Based on the SEMA show, that trend is extending to utility vehicles, he said.
Not only is the work done on the exterior to improve the look and improvements made to enhance performance, people want to improve their interiors as well to upgrade from the factory.
What happens, Barr said, is manufacturers don’t add one item for customers but require an entire package that may include leather, wheels and navigation that can cost $4,000 to $5,000 or more. They can have a dealer put in quality leather without the other features and only cost a fraction, he said.
“We can put leather in the vehicles, and we find we’re doing more of that currently than we have ever,” Barr said. “It seems to be going that way quite a bit when it comes to customization.”
That’s why Barr said his staff went to the SEMA show to see the latest trends and products and get a grasp of what the competition is doing.
“In my experience, business is forever evolving,” Barr said.