Auto Service World
News   September 29, 2003   by Auto Service World

Specialty Vehicles Will Be Called On To Fill Special Demands

As car buyers look for more niche-oriented vehicles, and car makers look to become more efficient, off-site produced specialty vehicles are expected to fill the need, says an executive with custom vehicle producer ASC Incorporated.
Mark Thostle, the head of design for ASC Incorporated, made the comments last night. The company has played a central role in such automotive designs as the Chevrolet SSR, Dodge Neon SRT-4, Buick Grand National GNX, Ford McLaren Mustang and Porsche 968 Cabrio. Thostle predicts that there will be “radical shifts in automotive consumer preferences” in the next few years and that “riding the crest of the wave of those changes will be OEM- produced specialty vehicles.”
In remarks and discussion last night before the Michigan chapter of the Industrial Design Society of America, he said, “In the past, specialty vehicles were more or less ‘one-offs’ that automakers created to fill the relatively small cracks between their very large product-segment offerings. In the future, with hyper-segmentation becoming even more prevalent throughout the global auto industry, it’ll be ‘nothing but niches’ out there. And specialty vehicles, buzz models, halo vehicles — whatever name you want to give them — will play an ever-greater role both in attracting consumers to individual niches, and in keeping them from jumping to other niches clamoring so hard for their attention.”
Among the broad trends Trostle predicts for the future:
* The general revitalization of the passenger car, as baby boomers grow weary of SUVs and minivans;
* The comeback of the coupe, as empty-nesters seek to add more sportiness to their lives;
* The widespread proliferation of “open-air” systems (convertibles and retractable hardtops) in virtually every vehicle type, including four-door cars, as aging baby-boomers seek both fun and functionality in the same vehicle;
* A continued explosion in micro-niches, as American auto shoppers, even entry-level buyers, seek as much personalization in their cars and trucks as they do in all the choices they receive today in music, fashion and information sources such as the Internet.
* In the realm of heritage-oriented design, a move away from retro styling toward what Trostle calls “new-stalgia” — auto design that taps into emotions such as nostalgia in more sophisticated ways than have some designs to date.
“Those who think halo vehicles haven’t been doing the job of late for automakers have, I believe, confused true image models, which almost by definition should be low volume and therefore highly aspirational — say, no more than 20,000 to 50,000 units per year — with high-volume, mass-production vehicles that just happen to have somewhat radical styling,” said Trostle. “The truth is, halo models are working better than ever at attracting attention to individual nameplates and brands, and in breathing new life into existing nameplates and brands.”
By way of proof, Trostle pointed to the Chevy SSR, which garnered no fewer than 20 magazine covers before its current launch.
He also noted the success of the Dodge Neon SRT-4 sport compact, for which ASC provided design and component assistance and which was named “Sport Compact Car of 2003” by Sport Compact Car magazine; the Pontiac Grand Am SC/T model, for which ASC has provided more than 15,000 composite, dual-scooped hoods in the past 18 months; the ongoing success of the Dodge Viper SRT-10, which ASC has painted since 1992 and for which the company recently won a coveted Chrysler Group Gold Award; and its seven straight generations as the open-air supplier and integrator for the Toyota Solara Convertible, three generations for the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder Convertible and two generations for the BMW Z3 and Z4 Convertibles.
“Design will be the differentiator,” said Trostle, in predicting which nameplates, brands and companies will win in the fierce shakeout currently taking place in the world auto industry. “People want vehicles that either set them apart from the crowd or that reinforce their lifestyle — that’s especially true today. And well-designed specialty vehicles can do just that.”