Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2002   by Auto Service World

Specialty & Performance: Inside the Import Performance Culture

It's About More Than Just Speed.

Years ago, the worlds of domestic Detroit Iron performance and the import world could be divided with a series of straight lines and curves: muscle cars went in straight lines, imports went around curves. And in many ways this also defined the performance markets. In the past few years, however, something has changed: import performance enthusiasts have discovered the thrill of straight line speed.

While much attention has been showered on the import performance market since the release of the film The Fast and the Furious, the phenomenon predates that 2001 screen gem.

Despite the focus on straight line speed, the sport compact culture–that’s what it has become–has not overlooked curves entirely. Women are very much a part of this performance scene.

The practice of show models may have all but disappeared from most of the traditional aftermarket, but the poster signing spokes model is very much a part of the import market. It goes beyond just that: fashion shows have become an integral part of many of these performance events.

Politically incorrect is the catchphrase that comes to mind, and those who are part of it embrace the culture glamorized by Hollywood with a rebel vengeance. A quick scan of import performance websites shows as much teenage lust for the scantily-clad models as for the tricked-out Honda Civic. This is as true of the event organizing companies as it is of smaller e-zines.

Of course, it’s not just about girls and cars. While the Import Revolution “Hot Import Nights” events in Vancouver July 20 and the one planned for Toronto on August 17 have a “Model Expo” and car competition, they also have a sport bike challenge, an “Interactive Zone” of video gaming, a break dance arena, and a D.J. battle sponsored by a major automaker.

If you’re marketing into this niche, you should be prepared to at least grin and bear it if not make it an integral part of your marketing plan.

“The culture is almost the same environment as in the high tech, dot-com companies,” says Doug Coates, vice-president sales and operations, Lord Parts Ltd., in B.C. “It’s the skateboard generation. They go to business in a totally different way. The import car thing is almost the same thing.”

There is, he agrees, a note of rebellion in the market, a note loud enough to take most middle-aged performance experts out of the realm of trust. “I don’t get out and work in those front lines. I become a spectator. We have guys who specialize and it is a different world.”

“It’s about music and movies,” says Randall Perks, general manager of Karbelt Speed and Custom. At a recent event he attended, for example, there was a Sony Playstation trailer. “It’s like us when we were building hot rods and being rebels. It’s the same for them.” Perks has also noticed the emphasis on the culture, on youth.

“I go to an import race that we sponsor and I’m standing there looking professional. A guy who works for me with earrings and half dyed blond hair, well, there are 50 people gathered around him listening because he’s the guy,” says Perks.

“I call them the young bloods,” says Walt Moore, sales manager, Keystone Automotive Operations of Canada. “They’re the ones out there spending on stereos and a lot of them aren’t doing the hard core performance. A lot of it is just making them look good when they open up the hood. There definitely is a hard core market out there, but we see a lot of it is bolt on and easy to do.

“We try and use the phrase ‘today’s performance.’ This way we don’t upset the other guys. You have the Mustang, and the Neon, and the Cavalier. They really don’t feel they’re imports, but they are in that class.”

Moore says that the culture has also drawn young women into the market as more than just “accessories.”

“We’ve been seeing more and more female customers. You just need to have a bit more patience because they may not understand as much about applications and fit. It is sometimes a little more challenging over the counter.” But, he adds, it’s worth working for. This includes paying attention to your retail showroom: putting in the product, putting up the right decals.

“You have to have something on display. They’re a breed that has a tendency not to ask. You need to have something to catch their eye. Also, we find that the guys who are successful at selling this have a young blood. You need that mix on the counter in this business.”

Perks says that it can be a fast changing market, but it’s also one that is brand aware. He has seen different speed shops have different levels of success. “Some of them have embraced it, some have fought it, some have given in and some are still holding out. We’ve had all kinds. Some of the traditional guys have a whole import section in their stores,” he says, adding that those who embrace it tend to do well.

A shop can investigate the market with an inventory investment of a couple of thousand dollars.

You can, he says, put together a pretty decent display wall at that level. “If you want to load your wall up with lights and boots and shift knobs, a couple of thousand can get you a pretty nice display. If you want add exhaust and other parts, though, it’s going to increase.”

Perks says that the primary application is, by far, Honda products: Civic, Integra, even Accord.

Nitrous systems have taken the market by storm, but other key products include everything from suspension lowering, bushings, cat-back exhaust systems, tips and mufflers, and a variety of underhood bolt-on products. “We have really tried to grow into it,” says Perks. “We really didn’t want to sell a lot of the trinkets, but we wanted to be in the import business; we wanted to be a performance place. For us, probably 50% of the new customers are sport compact oriented.”

He’s cautious not to overstate the market, though. Growth rates have been high, but the overall base is still less than the traditional performance market.

“But the growth is there. It’s the next phase. We’re certainly not doing it at the expense of the traditional V8 drag car business; we’re doing it as a complement.

“We’re not forsaking the things that brought us to the dance.”

Probably good advice all around.

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