Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross

Flexibility Fueling Light Truck Fleet

Premium Chassis Parts Demand Strengthening

Despite the price of gas, and the bleating of pundits from the press and even government, people are still driving and buying trucks and SUVs.

This phenomenon is expected to continue for some time and, combined with the existing population of light trucks and SUVs on the road, this is very good news for the aftermarket.

Trucks–whether they are used for hauling bricks to a job site or hauling junior hockey teams to practice–are an exceptional source of demand for the parts business.

Heavier and generally more abused than passenger cars, wear items such as chassis parts and ride control are prone to replacement at far higher rates than their counterparts on the family four-door.

But as anyone who has watched developments over the last decade or more can attest, in many cases trucks are themselves becoming the family four-door, and the family wants them to feel that way.

With this in mind, automakers have gradually replaced the typical truck-like construction of suspension and steering components with more car-like versions.

Take the venerable (and perennially bestselling) Ford F-150 pickup. Many older members of the aftermarket may remember the hard sell regarding the F-150’s twin I-beam suspension. Many technicians faced with complaints of rapid tire wear and tough wheel alignments will also remember them, perhaps less fondly.

Today, the F-150 is a different animal. A rack-and-pinion steering system has replaced the old steering box. The current model of F-150 has what Ford calls the largest and strongest unit ever used on a Ford vehicle.

In addition, both the 4×2 and 4×4 models of the 2007 F-150 use coil-on-shock, long-spindle, double-wishbone front suspension. This type of suspension reduces unsprung weight to help provide better ride and stability on choppy, broken surfaces.

Also with an eye to comfort, the Hotchkiss-design rear suspension has been optimized with rear shock absorbers placed outboard of the frame rails, for smoothing the ride and controlling body roll. The shock position also provides better control of axle “skipping” and “skating”, which can happen on washboard-type surfaces, according to Ford.

It should be noted that Hotchkiss suspensions have been around for a century and, though greatly evolved from a tuning perspective, still feature essentially the same leafspring design. For trucks, this still seems to be a common choice.

Not to be outdone by Ford, General Motors has countered this year with remakes of its full-sized Silverado and Sierra pickups. Under the re-skinned exterior, the front suspension, for the first time, features a coil-over-shock design. It wasn’t that long ago that a coil-over design would have been the sole purview of the racing set; the adoption of this suspension design in the most traditional segment of the light truck market should convince any skeptics that trucks are now nothing more or less than cars with added towing and carrying capacity.

Also new on those GM vehicles is a rack-and-pinion steering system that provides precise and responsive control and enhanced on-centre feel. And, like Ford, a revised Hotchkiss-type suspension brings up the rear.

Not to make the aftermarket’s job any easier, the all-new Silverado will come with five suspension systems, each tailored to suit specific driving requirements. They include:

* Z83 – Delivers a solid, smooth ride with monotube front shocks and twin-tube rear shocks.

* Z85 – Designed for enhanced handling and trailer towing, with monotube front and rear shocks.

* Z71 – Delivers enhanced off-road capability; features specific monotube front and rear shocks.

* Z60 – Designed for maximum street performance and offered with 20-inch wheels.

* NHT – Designed for maximum towing capacity, with monotube rear shocks, 17-inch wheels and off-road tires, and high capacity rear springs.

Light trucks can challenge the aftermarket. More than a few of the designs have come into disrepute among those in the service sector. The net effect of all this is a continued demand for replacement chassis, steering, and ride control parts.

In addition, because drivers continue to abuse these vehicles, quality is a growing concern.

“Branded is growing more and more,” says Robbie Fahey, manager of Rafuse Auto Parts in Bridgewater, N.S. “People are getting away from the economy, white box parts. People are keeping their cars and trucks longer, so they are buying the branded product.”

This is turning back a tide that has been some years in development, says Fahey.

“The quality in the white box is not there. And there is the frustration of changing the parts every year.” He gives credit for getting that message across to a counter staff that talks about the benefits of national brand, premium products “like clockwork.”

“But it doesn’t take as much convincing as it used to. If you can tell them that it’s that much better a part, they will buy it.”

Rob Grabowski of Auto Parts Central in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the 2005 Jobber News Counterperson of the Year, senses the same trend in light truck chassis parts sales.

“It’s really strong, especially in Northwestern Ontario [where] a lot of people run off-road. It seems to be growing quite fast, but the wear and tear on the vehicles is triple what it is in Toronto.

“I find a lot more people are going for the premium instead of the white box. One of my fellow counterpeople got a call asking for a price on premium parts for a 2001 Dakota. It was a $600 bill. He didn’t even ask for white box.

“It all depends on what people are using their truck for. The guys going in the bush are putting premium on. Some people get white box and replace it in a year. I just had a guy call me about a pitman arm and idler on a Chevy truck that he just replaced a year ago.

“And he’s still ‘selling the truck’,” Grabowski laughs. “In five years he’ll probably still be selling it.”

Barry Germaniuk, owner of light truck suspension and accessories distributor Interior Offroad, says that when that customer does sell, it presents another opportunity: suspension upgrades.

“There are lots of old vehicles out there, and lots of suspension and wheels and tires sold into old vehicles. After two or three years the vehicle is paid for, so they have more money to throw at it anyway.”

Germaniuk says that suspension upgrades are usually part of a whole package.

“Usually people want to put a suspension kit in unless they’re looking for more wheel clearance; 90% is with wheels and tires too. They’re putting on $300 aluminum polished rims. So it’s $1,800 in wheels and tires on top of the suspension.”

He says that changes in suspension systems, notably coil-overs, take much of the work out of the realm of the unequipped do-it-yourself customer. While in the past a ride control or coil upgrade might have been possible–though time-consuming–with a single hand jack, the need for a spring compressor with coil-over construction changes things.

“It’s like a MacPherson strut. It takes it out of the backyard mechanic and into the dealership or specialty shop.”

Still, the trend to premium products for standard replacements seems to be widespread.

Chris Glyde, a counterperson at Automotive Trade Supply in Kitchener, Ont., says that warranty coverage plays a big role.

“I was working at PartSource for four years, but a lot of people are staying away from white box, despite how cheap the price is.”

And, much of that demand will continue to come from the light truck and SUV sector, regardless of the price of gas.

“I think there will always be a strong market,” says Germaniuk. “And there is the suspension market and the whole work truck market. They cost more to run, but you get all that flexibility.” And the price of gas? “Those who can afford a full-size truck are people who can afford it.”

Boomers Driving Performance Exhaust Market Segment

Along with chassis replacements and upgrades, the light truck has also become a strong market for exhaust products.

Often chassis and muffler work go hand in hand. And, as with other segments of the exhaust market, one of the fastest if not the only growing segment is within the performance upgrade niche.

Tenneco Automotive, maker of the Dynomax line, recently hosted an information session at its Harrisonburg, Va., facility.

Frank Murkoski, North America Aftermarket marketing exhaust manager, sited mid-life crisis as the major mover behind the performance market upswing.

“We’re finding it’s largely the baby boomers who are either looking for better performance, towing capacity for their new boats, or more often than not, a sound,” he says. “People now are looking for that sound they remember from their old cars, and are looking for a product that can give them that,” he adds.

Unfortunately, while that performance market is undeniably strong, it still represents a small part of the business, something Tenneco marketing executive Rick Alameddine is careful to point out. “I feel badly about focusing so much on the performance side,” he says. The fact remains though, that for Tenneco and virtually every traditional exhaust parts seller, the performance market represents a bright point in an otherwise virtually flat market.

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