So many wheels, so many cars: Southern California sets the pace

Feb. 1, 2001

To better understand the trends in the fashion-conscious world of custom wheels, Modern Tire Dealer took the pulse of what's going on right now in Southern California.

Here's what we learned. There are between 150 and 250 custom wheel makers vying for your business (the numbers vary depending on who you ask).

Some of them inventory blank wheels that can be drilled to either four- or five-hole bolt patterns and then painted or coated to fit a wide range of color requests.

Also uncovered was the different marketing strategies among wheel makers. Some want it all, while others are finding profitable market niches. It's all about making money, so don't worry about finding a supplier that's right for you. Here is a quick look at what some of the West Coast market participants had to say.

Tuner, SUV wheels are hot sellers at Heafner

Bruce Buckles, vice president of marketing, Heafner Tire Group West, says the tuner segment continues to be strong, and its influences continue to spread from its birthplace in California to markets all across the country and the world.

"Tuners are characterized by ground-hugging, lowered Honda Civics and other popular Japanese imports," Buckles explains. These consumers spend thousands of dollars "tweaking and tuning" their cars with interior dash kits, custom seats, special exhaust systems, powerful car stereos, engine enhancements such as turbo chargers, and larger diameter tires and wheels.

"While 17- and 18-inch wheels were the style two years ago," Buckles points out, "today we are seeing 19-, 20- and even 22-inch wheels coming into the market.

And while chrome-plated wheels for tuner applications were cool last year, today's tuner customers are looking at painted wheels in colors like red, black and white, often times to match the color of their cars."

While other segments continue to be strong, Buckles says the area of greatest growth in custom wheel sales continues to the SUV segment -- the "grocery getters," like the Ford Expedition, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Tahoe, Dodge Durango, Toyota Land Cruiser, etc., driven by suburban soccer moms.

"The look (for custom wheels) is big and mean, but with a touch of class," Buckles says, "just like the vehicles they drive." These vehicles are not for off-road use, he adds, but more for style and status as they are driven to the supermarket.

"The profit potential for independent tire dealers who attract these consumers is high, as the average retail sales ticket for an 18-inch tire and wheel package will easily be $2,500 or more and the price tag grows as the wheel diameters get larger,"Buckles says.

"These consumers tend to be more upscale and sophisticated and will purchase additional accessories and services, creating even greater profit opportunities for dealers."

Team Dynamics fills tuner needs

Don Kane, vice president of Team Dynamics in Ontario, Calif., is at the very heart of the one-piece low pressure, cast aluminum wheel business.

As you might imagine, Team Dynamics is in a constant state of design evolution. "While this keeps us busy it also allows us to compete very well in the tuner market where knowing what's hot is all that matters," says Kane.

Team Dynamics is also able to offer multiple offset wheels as well as a custom color program that gives the buyer 250 color options.

"We see the trend to larger wheels growing faster in the truck market than the passenger car market," says Kane. "The truck tire sizes are even more aggressive, going as high as 20- and 22-inch for now with the 23-inch not far away." To address those needs Team Dynamics is adding a 20-inch wheel to its Goodwood and Brooklands sport truck line of wheels. It will also offer more SUV offsets for 17- and 18-inch size tires.

Cragar sticks with the classics

For the record, the major strategy at Cragar Wheels in Ontario, Calif., these days is not to be all things to all people. "We are in the 'classic wheel' business," says Sales Manager Bob De-Young. Cragar only stocks 17 different kinds of custom wheels.

"Our wheels have been around for a long time, the Cragar S/S since 1964, the Cragar GT since 1973, the Keystone Klassic since the early 1970s and our Star Wire 80-spoke for at least as many years. We don't make many changes, we don't add new wheels every few months. We stick with what works and what people want."

He seems comfortable with the plan. "We are a manufacturer - we roll our own rims, we make our own centers and we assemble the wheel. The only thing we don't produce is the steel."

That adds up to a 10% to 15% annual growth in the classic wheel business, numbers that suit DeYoung just fine, thank you.

ROH says bigger not always better

The show car market in California, especially for imports such as Civics and Accords, is trending toward bigger tires such as 19- and 20-inch models, agrees Jean-Andree Roberts, ROH Wheels' western region sales manager. But that's not the norm for street applications, he feels.

"Big tires and wheels defeat the purpose of owning and driving a sporty car," Roberts says. "They tend to slow down a car. Plus many consumers just do not want the bone-jarring ride of these bigger tires -- especially the older consumers. These customers are looking for a more comfortable ride. Many of these buyers are dropping down to 16-, 17-inch models.

"Plus the lighter wheels mean less rolling resistance."

The company makes one-piece wheels and is now producing custom-built, three-piece modular wheels for higher-end vehicles such as Mustangs, Corvettes and Ferraris. This market is much smaller, but it can be a profitable niche since each wheel is more expensive so the money spent on production can be earned back quickly.

Center Line looks at truck segment

At Center Line in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., which has been manufacturing and marketing wheels since the custom wheel market began, MTD spoke with Bob DeVour, vice president sales and marketing. "After years of working with custom wheels for passenger cars, we are expanding that strategy to focus more carefully on the light truck and SUV market as well," he says.

"We are also selling lots of 17-, 18- and 20-inch wheels for this market and are tooling up to make 22-inch wheels at our forging plant."

The custom wheel market is not likely getting any easier to sort out. Grab a copy of any popular car magazine and take a look at the wheel ads. It's not uncommon to count hundreds of different wheels in a single issue.

The secret, as dealer Faron Schultz notes, is to draft a business plan for custom wheel sales in your market. Without one you may be in trouble already.

Smaller wheel sizes still dominate

Recommended by a wheel manufacturer as an expert on the West Coast's wheel market was Faron Schultz, wheel buyer for Les Schwab Tires in Prineville, Ore.

"We are selling more 20-inch wheels than before, but the numbers remain small," said Schultz. "It is still the 15- and 16-inch wheels that remain the most popular, and that is primarily because a tire and wheel change remains relatively inexpensive. When you move to a 20-inch tire/wheel package the price starts at $3,000 and climbs from there. Most people aren't willing to pay that price."

Continuing that discussion, Schultz said that when a better price point wheel is available there will be broader growth.

Schultz also sees a growing trend of marrying tires/wheels and suspension lines together. "As tires get shorter, rim widths and suspension components become more critical," he said. "So you need suppliers of all three that work well together."

Although Les Schwab doesn't do demographics, Schultz says he sees a surprising balance of men and women buying custom wheels. Also, "We go to the SEMA show every year and listen to what consumers are saying. We also conduct focus group sessions with people from our organization who have been to the SEMA show for input. We call this our wheel and marketing group and they are largely on target."

In Schultz's opinion the appearance/tuner market will never go away. He also sees the one-piece wheel taking over with three-piecers phasing out. Like any fashion market, the custom wheel market moves very fast," he said.

The Les Schwab wheel man also pays attention to such things as less handling forgiveness now on the larger 4,000-pound rear-drive cars and the need for a more accurate fitment on such cars as the front-drive Honda Civic which is a light car with a light suspension.

"Think of the tire/wheel package on a vehicle like this as a rolling mass that transfers highway imperfections to the passengers. You have to get it right. The only time you don't worry is when you are dealing with the extreme guys who only care about cosmetics. Some of these customers will even remove their springs and 'air bag' the car so they can make it ride even lower."

Six items Schultz says are important when thinking about SKUs are color, wheel finish, wheel look/styling, size (diameter), offset and width.

"This may sound mind boggling, but it doesn't have to be," he said. "With a good plan you can cover your market.

"Of course for those rare exceptions when we don't, we simply call our tire or wheel supplier for help and we get it.

"Keep in mind that manufacturers are building lots of SKUs and must operate with very little margin for error. That's why you can count on them to have what you need. It's their business to know what you need and being wrong can cost them big."