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When Power Steering Isn't Enough : Autos: Southern California's thriving aftermarket has influenced Big 3 factory options.


Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories is an aesthetic haven for the proud owners of everything from commuter cars to high-speed racers. Shiny BBS wheel rims and Recaro seats grace the showroom; emblem-embossed wallets and key fobs gleam under glass counters.

"Style is everything," said owner Andy Cohen, surrounded by custom floor mats, bras and car care products. "Twenty years ago, you could buy a car for $3,000. Now the average is $18,000 to $20,000. It's in the best interest of the owner when spending that kind of money to keep a car in good shape."

Southern Californians hardly need to be reminded to baby their wheels. From the wary owner who guards his car with Ft. Knox-like electronics to the wide-eyed speed freak to the fashion-conscious motorist, the Southland's streets are asphalt strips of style.

Nationwide, the auto aftermarket business--from Big Three parts makers to the small-time garage--generates $3 billion in profits. Statistics are elusive, but Southern California is universally regarded as the biggest market.

Right now, Cohen's store, which was founded in 1975, is in the throes of the sports utility boom, dressing up and outfitting vehicles such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer.

"We're doing a lot for them." Cohen said. "Brush guards, side steps, wheels, leather interiors--even TVs."

In the Los Angeles area, the aftermarket additions stretch beyond spoilers and polished wheels to ever more sophisticated security systems.

"Business is excellent," said John W. Raber, director of marketing and sales for Lojack Corp., a Boston-based company that had sales of $15.4 million for the six months ended Aug. 31, the lion's share of it in Southern California.

In Los Angeles alone, the company has equipped about 50,000 cars with its anti-theft system, a tracking device that helps police find stolen vehicles.

With auto security experts predicting a sevenfold increase over the next 10 years in carjackings--let alone conventional auto thefts--Raber says he is optimistic about Lojack's prospects.

Southern California's crime woes also mean good business for Lojack's main competitor, Inglewood-based Teletrac, a division of Pacific Telesis.

"Sales have increased dramatically" for the systems, which sell for $400 to $500, says John Lankes, vice president of marketing for Teletrac.

But it is muscular confidence, not fear, that energizes the performance end of the aftermarket. These car owners are likely to have engines rebuilt for power and suspensions adjusted with lower springs. Some may add thicker anti-sway bars and larger wheels and tires in the quest for better handling.

"We receive calls from all points around the United States and the world," said Alfredo Cortez, a sales technician at Jackson Racing in Huntington Beach, which specializes in Hondas and Acuras.

Jackson Racing's business has increased nearly 70% in the last five years--a gain Cortez attributes to consumers' desires to keep up their cars and to make them look different.

"There is no limit," Cortez said, noting that enthusiasts have been known to spend $6,500 to turn their cars' engines into full-bore racing motors. "The pocketbook is the only limit."

To stay within California's clean-air rules, owners must remove the engine themselves and then reinstall the modified version. "You'd be amazed as to what people will do," Cortez said.

Though small business plays a big role in the aftermarket, the revenue stream has not gone unnoticed by the auto industry.

General Motors Corp., Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have their own modification divisions, as do Honda, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And upgraded wheels, tires and theft-deterrent devices are available as options at most dealerships, if they have not been installed at the factory.

Some of the modifications may expose motorists to higher insurance premiums and moving-violation citations--even the risk of carjacking. But drivers pursuing the quintessence of motoring seem not to care.

"There's no difference between accessorizing a car and accessorizing a wardrobe," said Joe Molina, president of JMPR, an auto industry public relations firm. "It reduces the boredom and familiarity."

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