Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2003   by Andrew Ross

Cover Story: There’s Nothing Light About Light Truck Parts

Chassis Parts Take the Load; Aftermarket Offers Solutions

The Lincoln Navigator pictured weighs in at 4,818 lb., or more than 2,000 kilograms: no lightweight by any standards. A close look, however, reveals the use of a very car-like suspension design.

Rather than what used to be called a “conventional” suspension of coil springs and shocks with leaf springs in the rear–it is a truck after all–what you’ll find underneath is a Short-Long Arm suspension and a monotube shock arrangement that would seem more appropriate on a sporting vehicle. Even though it may be termed a Sport Utility Vehicle, sporting it ain’t. You can tow 8,000 pounds of sporting goods to the lake if you want sportiness and, like its brethren across the different makes and models, it is this kind of use that takes its toll on those car-like character traits.

The use and popularity of the light truck and sport utility vehicle is part of what has become a very good news story for the aftermarket.

“I think it’s great,” says Ron Strain, program manager, chassis products, Dana Brake and Chassis. “It has been talked about for a number of years and the popularity has really begun to take hold,” he adds.

It is not without its downside; the light truck replacement parts market is not immune from parts proliferation, but at least there is the growth in sales to support it.

From a manufacturer perspective, Strain admits that it is hard to know exactly what applications seeking service in the aftermarket are made up of. There is a great deal of crossover among different models, but his sense is that the owner of the luxury SUV is less likely to seek service in the independent aftermarket than the owner of the slightly older, mid-level SUV or light truck. However, he adds, it is still a strong market due to transition of the light truck into a passenger vehicle by all segments of society.

“It is like a car,” says Luc Gelinas, manager of Accessoires d’Auto Berthier, a Uni-Select Auto Parts Plus member in Berthierville, Que. His market area, the birthplace of Canadian Formula One legend Gilles Villeneuve, has a mixture of light industry and farms. “The chassis, brake and exhaust system [sales] are all strong,” he says, adding that the electrical side of the business has held up well, too. He doesn’t have to do anything different to capitalize on this market. It is, as he says, just like the traditional passenger car business. “There’s no difference. It is the same all around.”

Jim Goshulak, who takes care of counter and outside sales duties at Advic Bearing & Auto Ltd. in Dauphin, Man., says he has noticed one important difference though.

“We have a lot of [business from the] farming community and most of the farmers have half tons. Even a lot of people in the city are driving trucks and SUVs.” In some cases though, he says that the requests for parts coming to the Auto Sense shareholder are for quite new vehicles: idler arms on GM half tons, ball joints on some models.

“But once you replace them, they seem to last. The aftermarket is better quality than the OEM. On the GM I have noticed they just don’t last. We probably stock four or five at a time. We know they are going to move.”

Ian Edwards, owner of a NAPA Auto Parts associate store in Carleton Place, Ont., has seen a similar trend.

“All the new trucks have poor brakes and poor suspension,” he says. “You would think that when you buy a brand new vehicle, you’d have a couple of years when you wouldn’t have to replace things, but we have seen the garages putting brakes on.”

Full brake jobs–friction and rotors–on a vehicle with 20,000 km on it may be alarming to the owner, but suspension work on a relatively new vehicle delivers a whole new level of surprise.

“We have replaced parts on a 2000 model year truck in 2001 with our own stuff,” says Edwards. “And we haven’t had them come back for warranty yet. It has lasted twice as long as the original, so far. Maybe more. It seems to be that they are standing up better than OE.”

There are good reasons for this. According to information from two of the major players in the Canadian aftermarket, Dana Brake and Chassis and Federal-Mogul, design features that improve on OE construction are paramount for aftermarket parts.

Dana’s Spicer line, for example, has an aftermarket exclusive on high temperature bushings used on radius arm and strut rod bushing kits. These applications are typical of light duty trucks and are produced from unique materials designed to withstand exhaust systems’ heat. Spicer bushings possess excellent flex fatigue endurance properties which enable them to handle both high loads and off-road applications. Together, these qualities greatly increase bushing service life.

In addition, you can see the thought that goes into aftermarket product offerings. Spicer Alignment, for example, offers an option of O.E. rubber or polyurethane bushings for front camber adjustable kits, along with 4WD alignment sleeves that adjust camber and caster in both O.E. style bushings for light truck and SUV adjustments, and pinion angle-adjusting bolts that correct the pinion angle on the Jeep CJ Series. Also, Ford eccentric caster bushings replace the O.E. radius arm bushing and provide up to one degree of caster change.

Federal-Mogul, for its part, has offered its “Problem Solver” line for some time. One of the classic improvements was to the 1988 GM C/K idler arm. The original equipment design was prone to wear at the bracket pivot and allowed movement of the arm. This vertical arm movement at the centrelink connection produced undesirable toe change at the wheels, which created an unstable steering feel, among other issues.

The Moog “Super Duty” Idler Arm incorporated an improved double taper (opposing tapered bearings) bearing design to lock down any potential movement in the bracket pivot. It uses a telescopic spacer and Belleville spring type washer preload to further reduce the possibility of vertical movement.

Other improvements in the past have included a revision to upper and lower ball joints for Ford E150, E250, and E350 vans, normally carrying the Econoline name. The original ball joints tended to wear relatively quickly, due to the design of the part and the suspension, which placed the lower ball joint under compression. The OE design encapsulated the stud in plastic, and was also a sealed unit.

The Moog unit took a different approach. It uses a powder metal bearing at the load area and a polyethylene preload–which also acts as a seal–that is positioned on the unloaded side of the ball joint. In addition, it is a greasable unit.

These are just a few examples of the design elements that the aftermarket can bring to increase the life of light truck chassis components.

Jobbers seem to all agree, though, that it is not a market where you should lead with anything but the highest quality parts.

“Especially anything four wheel drive, we’re not going to sell a cheaper product unless the customer demands white box,” says Edwards. “They are harder on everything: suspension, brakes, and driveline. Everything is heavier and harder to fix.

“That’s a good selling point,” he adds. “It’s going to cost the same labour, so why not do it once and be done with it?”

“There is a large second line market,” says Steve Van Kessel, vice-president Parry Automotive, “but we try to stay as far away from it as possible.”

The Auto Sense shareholder’s market is a diverse mix, says Van Kessel.

“We don’t have a huge segment of SUVs. In the SUVs it is mainly the Explorers, the Chevy Trailblazers, regular Blazers, C/K pickups. We do a lot of commercial business and there are a lot of cargo vans.” It is, he says, a very solid market segment for them.

“The light duty truck chassis segment particularly, because they are using them as trucks. The OEM stuff is durable, but you tend to see it wear quicker. That’s the way we like to see it!”

Chassis Parts Sales Analysis

This top level unit sales analysis shows with great clarity the impact of the light truck on chassis parts sales. Interestingly, though not shown here, there are very few import applications represented and onl
y a handful of parts for upscale vehicles represented, one being the Lincoln Navigator. There may be some import crossover parts–Ford and Mazda share some light truck platforms for example–but there is still surprisingly low demand for import parts, at least from the traditional aftermarket.

Total SKUs in analysis86
Percent of total annual unit sales49.2%
SKUs that include truck applications60
SKUs specific to light trucks44
Represent percentage of SKU count (60)69.8%
Represent percentage of SKU cumulative (60)73.6%

This is not a scientific survey, as there are many variables, but it does provide some insight into the market. Any sales representative of a major supplier could provide you with more detail. You should take advantage of that service.

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