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AUTO MART / A Guide to New Products

Looking to Accessorize? You Don't Have to Look Far

July 30, 1998|LYNN SIMROSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Henry Ford rolled out the first Model T in 1908, and Americans have been crazy about cars ever since.

But from the start, we weren't necessarily content with our cars as delivered. Generations have loved to fuss over their vehicles, tinker with them and personalize them. (Remember, Mr. Ford's tin lizzie came only in black.)

Each year we spend billions on aftermarket accessories to customize our cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles, changing their looks inside and out.

"Folks into accessories spend $1,500 per year on up," said Jim Spoonhower, chief statistician for the Diamond Bar-based Specialty Equipment Market Assn. "The average is about $2,000 to $3,000 per person." In all, Americans spent $19.3 billion nationwide on performance parts and accessories last year, he said.

There are thousands of companies in the aftermarket business in seemingly scores of specialized niches. Here, we'll explore a few trends in customizing by focusing on market leaders and some of their latest offerings.

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The Wheel Deal: Although there are several thousand kinds of aftermarket products, the most noticeable are custom wheels, Spoonhower said. Vehicle owners spent $1.05 billion on those in 1997.

The current trend in wheels: Bigger is better.

"People are using bigger and bigger wheels. It's the look," said Terence Scheckter, head of Santa Ana-based TSW Alloy Wheels, an industry leader that is introducing six new custom wheels this year.

The aftermarket makers are the ones producing the new big wheels, said Scheckter, explaining that car manufacturers are usually two years behind what's trendy in aftermarket wheel design.

Drivers are using high-performance tires with these big wheels to improve handling and create a slightly more European look, he said.

TSW's Tundra, a new wheel for SUVs and street and off-road-style trucks, will be out next month. Its design features 16 spokes and a hub cover, giving it the appearance of a larger-diameter wheel. It comes in 16-by-8-inch, 17-by-8-inch and 18-by-8-inch in silver-painted and chrome finishes. Prices vary according to size and finish: A 16-inch silver Tundra costs $250; an 18-inch chrome, $500.

Information: (800) 578-4879. On the World Wide Web: http://www.tswnet.com.

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In Fine Trim: Many owners like to add trim to their vehicles, whether it's simple pinstriping or giant flames that appear to be shooting from the side of the car or truck.

The current trim trend is toward pressure-sensitive, heat-type vinyl graphics, said Tim Daman, marketing/advertising director at Spartan International in Holt, Mich. Daman said Spartan, which opened in 1960, introduced car graphics to the aftermarket industry.

"Detailing is a personal preference, people expressing their personality," he said.

Textured, dimensional graphics are the style these days, with geometric designs and fancy stripes in earth tones (browns, beiges and greens) selling well, he said.

"The textured graphics give a 3-D look--not a true 3-D but along those lines," Daman said.

Car graphics vary in size and complexity. More than 50% of Spartan's designs cost $17 to $25, Daman said. Users can apply the graphics themselves or have the work done by a trim or detail shop.

Spartan's line of trim products carry the brand names Trimbrite, Spar-Cal and Prostripe. Information: (800) 248-7800); http://www.spartanintl.com.

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Lights Out: G.T. Styling, an aftermarket styling accessories firm in Irvine, has added the Mask, a headlight cover styling kit that is intended for show, competition and off-road use only. The Mask received the Specialty Equipment Market Assn.'s 1997 award for best new accessory product.

The kit allows the user to create, through use of vinyl templates and paint, many styles of headlight lenses, including the popular projector beam look.

Although it is illegal to alter headlights for use on streets and freeways, drivers are doing so anyway, according to several aftermarket sources. The California Highway Patrol notes that use of such kits on the road violates state vehicle code provisions. If you're caught, the penalty could range from a "fix-it" citation (which comes with a $10 administrative fee) to $77, according to a representative of Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Moral of the story: Keep it off-road.

The Mask kit costs $10 (paint not included) and is available at major auto parts stores. Information: (800) 969-7327; http://www.gtstyling.com.

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Inside Job: Interior customization is also a thriving aftermarket business, for all kinds of trim to dashboards, stereos, consoles and doors.

Although carbon-fiber trim is popular with those who want a high-tech look, real wood trim, which adds more of a luxury feel to the vehicle, is the biggest seller, said Roger Tibbetts, director of aftermarket sales at TrimMaster Inc. in Rancho Cucamonga.

"Over 80% of our sales are wood," he said. "Rosewood and burl wood--light and dark--are the two most popular." Interior trim "adds a very personal touch to a car--it's like buying furniture for your home."

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