Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2007   by J.D. Ney, Assistant Editor

Press Here For Performance Profits

Forty-plus drivers driving the push to performance upgrades

Admittedly, few market segments in today’s independent installation business can ebb and flow quite like the performance market. In terms of the various SKUs involved, a garage looking to capitalize on the success and profit margins involved in this kind of work can literally run in circles trying to keep up with the latest trends and designs that fundamentally drive this particular segment. Until recently, a younger and much more fickle crowd largely dominated the scene, and their insatiable appetite for cheap, import ground effects and purple under car lights, represented a largely unsustainable business model. According to many specialty parts manufacturers, the times they are a changin’ and those 16 year old tuner kids have grown up, and they are looking to spend their new found adult dollars further customizing their cars, and pure performance is the new name of the game. What follows here then, is literally a crash course in what is on the horizon in terms of the specialty performance market, and what an independent shop might want to brush up on, in order to take advantage of these niche markets.

New Domestic Muscle Leading the Charge

In today’s automotive landscape, where fuel efficiency is king and hybrids continue to turn impressive quarter-over-quarter sales results, it seems almost counter-intuitive to suggest that muscle cars might be playing an increasingly significant role. Yet never before have so many consumers had so much horsepower at their disposal.

According to several industry experts, the market for performance parts in this segment is on the rise.

In fact, with the rejuvenation of the Mustang, the constant presence of the Hemi within the public’s consciousness, and the anticipation of new offerings from General Motors, the muscle car is looking a little more robust today than it has for some time.

Part of the good news, at least for the aftermarket, is the growth in consumers looking to soup-up their ride; both the young tuner and the silverback are in the game.

While image-enhancing products (mostly on the wheel and tire side of the business) remain a common first stop for many consumers getting into the modification world, when it comes to the new muscle cars on the block, performance is the name of the game.

“We’ve seen the market for performance grow quickly, not only for our company, but from the OE side as well,” says Mike DeFord, marketing manager for Bully Dog. “For us, it’s growing all the way from the average daily driver to people looking for nitrous kits.”

Obviously disposable income is something not readily available to those 18- to 24-year-olds traditionally associated with the fast and furious crowd, the results of which are being noted quite clearly.

“The muscle car segment has a lot of people in the 45-and-up category,” notes Ralph Ruzzi of Keystone Automotive. “There is a lot of grey hair in those cars, because they were likely people that drove SUVs, and are now looking for something a little more economical, but aren’t going to be talked into driving a Civic.” Kevin Dundas at Karbelt notes a similar baby boomer streak among the current performance market.

“There is a huge push among the 40-plus crowd [towards] buying and modifying cars; they are really making the business these days,” he says.

While the general market segment of performance parts is incredibly broad, it is possible to clearly identify, at least in part, the most common elements being employed by this new breed of automotive tuner, specifically as it pertains to the modern muscle car.

According to Jim McFarland at Hypertech, there has been something of a shift in terms of what can be done to a new muscle car, compared to its 1960s ancestors.

“With the complexity and quality of engine systems, we’re finding that the OEMs just aren’t leaving as much on the table as they used to, and replacing things like a camshaft just doesn’t translate into the kind of performance improvement-to-dollars spent ratio that it once did,” he states. “As a result, the field has been narrowed a bit to rely mostly on cold-air intake on the hard part side, and electronic management systems, which act as kind of an optimizer or enabler to any hard part you install on the car,” he says.

That said, where some see a marked difference, others find similarity, albeit with a modern twist.

“The first modifications people make are really the same as they were in the ’60s,” says Ruzzi. “We see most of our clients starting with things like cold-air intake filters, which basically serve the same purpose as putting a filter on a carburetor did years ago.

“I guess the difference today, though, is that customers aren’t just looking for pure horsepower; they also want to go further in terms of fuel efficiency, programmers, and appearance packages; I think the aftermarket is really helping to drive that growth.”

The Profit Power of Performance Exhaust

Exhaust and the related systems are still a fantastic place to leverage the performance market, as it well and truly represents some of the best profit potential around. Furthermore, as Jeff Boychuck president of Zoro Muffler in Hamilton Ont. notes, the performance up sell is not as tough as it used to be. “The success of the performance muffler segment has to do mostly with dollars,” starts Boychuck. “Back in the day, a new standard replacement muffler would cost somewhere around $125, whereas a stainless steel performance replacement would be $500, and that’s too big a difference for most people.”

“However, today, a pretty standard replacement can run you $400, and so the difference to upgrade to a much better system is not as significant anymore,” he says. That being the case, Boychuck is also quick to point out that just because the dollars are more aligned today, doesn’t mean you can take the performance upgrade client for granted.

“You can’t treat all of your customers the same,” he says. “A guy who comes in because his ’94 Chevalier muffler is dragging on the road is a pretty motivated buyer, and depending on the car, probably just wants your cheapest system. However, a guy that shows up in a brand new ’07 Jetta, is there because he wants to upgrade his car, not because he has to be there, and you need to treat him differently. A lot of people will get annoyed if someone spends a bunch of time asking questions, but if the customer is there because he wants to be, you owe him that time; service writers need to remember that this particular customer has a perfectly functional muffler system already.”

Obviously identifying this kind of customer can be a major help. According to Jim Fox, national sales manager for Maremont, the makers of the recently revitalized Cherry Bomb line, says that service providers can train themselves to spot the signs of a potential performance up sell.

“Service writers should start identifying potential by looking at what the customer has driven into the parking lot,” says Fox. “If a guy shows up in a pick-up truck with a toneau cover or custom wheels, he’s probably a good candidate for a performance system, because it shows an interest and a willingness to improve on the original equipment,” he says.

However, as Fox went on to note not all potential performance exhaust customers should be sold on the horsepower or customized look side of the coin. “Service providers should be able to tailor their approach to the individual client, so not only discuss the appearance and sound, but sell it based on the significant fuel mileage savings as well,” he says.


In order to ensure your shop will be able to cater to the changing needs of the performance market, it is important to understand that today’s tuner is less inclined to deal with the purely cosmetic than with real tangible power, meaning the functionless-albeit-badass ground effects kit is no longer in vogue.

“We really try and stay away from the fluff,” says Karbelt’s Kevin Du
ndas. “These days in the sport compact market, we do a lot of exhaust work, clutches, and a bit of nitrous, although that’s a pretty specialty item,” he adds.

There has also been significant shifts in what is actually being modified. Some installers are now doing a lot of full EMS [engine management systems] these days. According to those placing them on vehicles, customers love them, because a well-built intake and EMS can get 20-25 per cent more horsepower. Add that intake and EMS system to a performance exhaust, and there is up to a 30 per cent increase in horsepower. And such modifications are not as expensive as they used to be, improving the dollars-to-horsepower ratio.

In terms of which actual models are being modified, the song remains the same, as the saying goes. Hondas will always be strong in terms of the tuner market. But there is an increase in Toyotas getting tuned-up, and some expect the sport compact domestics, like the Cobalt and the Pursuit, to be full of opportunities for installers.

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