DETROIT — Tonneau covers and truck caps used to be an exclusive market for aftermarket part suppliers.
But now automakers themselves are using plastics in a range of factory-installed design options aimed at boosting truck sales.
Several trucks on display at last month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit featured the new styles, with optional tonneau covers on Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer Sport Trac, the Ranger Edge pickup and a standard one on the new Lincoln Blackwood luxury truck.
"It adds to the versatility of the vehicle," said Ford spokesman Miles Johnson. "It's an optional piece, but it provides so much variety to [the vehicle].
"We're redefining what we can do with the truck."
General Motors Corp. offers thermoplastic polyolefin sectional tonneau covers on the new Chevrolet Avalanche and its sister vehicle, the Cadillac Escalade EXT, due out in 2002.
Toyota Motor Corp., meanwhile, has teamed up with aftermarket molder Snugtop Custom Fiberglass Manufacturing Co. to offer a composite truck cap for some versions of its Tacoma pickup.
For automakers anxious to capture a bigger slice of the market, truck-bed coverings offer a new way to hook consumers' interest.
According to a report by market research firm Frost & Sullivan in Mountain View, Calif., consumers spent a little more than $468 million in add-ons for truck beds, including tonneau covers, caps and bedliners, in 1995. Last year they spent about $673 million. By 2005, analysts estimate they'll drop $841 million.
"It's the next thing for [automakers]," said report author Meenakshi Ganjoo, industry manager for Frost & Sullivan. "When they see something doing well in the aftermarket, they act on them."
Aftermarket sales can be a design proving ground, she said, with small companies proving that consumers will spend money to tweak their rides.
"It's driven by style," Ganjoo said.
It only makes sense that automakers are paying attention to those numbers, said Mike Dorney, chairman of the Automotive Composites Alliance in Rochester, Mich., and vice president of sales and marketing for Budd Co.'s plastics division.
"They're able to get a share of the revenues," he said. "This is a segment of the industry that people have been spending money on, but the [original equipment manufacturers] have not participated in."
Traditionally, thermoplastic and thermoset covers and caps were handled solely by independent fabricators. Consumers bought them at auto supply shops, recreational vehicle stores or through car dealers. Dealers also would sell and install them on newly purchased trucks — separately from orders placed to the automakers.
Now, with truck makers considering covers and caps, the rules are changing.
Tier One suppliers like Budd, Decoma International Inc. and Meridian Automotive Systems are newcomers to tonneau production.
Troy, Mich.-based Budd began building tonneau covers in June to complement its contract to supply sheet molded compound truck beds and body panels for Ford's Sport Trac.
About one in every three orders for a Sport Trac calls for a cover — adding up to about 30,000 of the parts this year for Budd.
"It's a very exciting new product for us to get involved in," Dorney said.
Decoma of Concord, Ontario, sponsored a clinic last year to help it design tonneau covers for automakers, anticipating growing demand from its customers. The company makes a soft tonneau now for a Ford F-150 pickup and is working on future developments for both GM and DaimlerChrysler AG.
"We need to know what the end user really thinks and wants from a tonneau cover," said Decoma spokeswoman Molly Fitzpatrick.
Meridian Automotive of Dearborn, Mich., likewise is investing in tonneau cover projects. It will make a two-piece SMC top for the Blackwood, due to hit the marketplace this year.
"We certainly see a lot of growth and a lot of customer interest in tonneau covers," said Dan Dowdall, director of engineering exterior/structural composites for Meridian. "It's certainly a growing trend."
Snugtop, meanwhile, has teamed with Toyota to supply a cap option for the four-door Tacoma pickup, installed by the automaker at a central location before being shipped to individual dealers. Snugtop expects to sell more than 3,000 annually through the alliance.
"This just broadens our horizons," said Jeannie Clough, marketing manager for the Long Beach, Calif., company. "Ten years ago, this wouldn't even be happening. It's not that [automakers] disowned us, but they didn't take the aftermarket into consideration.
"Now we're gaining real credibility within the industry."
Toyota's involvement will not hurt Snugtop's traditional sales channels, she said. If anything, the company expects sales to grow because automakers are exposing more potential customers to the traditional aftermarket products.
The more caps and covers on the road, she said, the more likely it is consumers will want one for their own vehicle.
"It's a very positive project for us," Clough said.
Automakers still are new enough to the tonneau industry that they are unlikely to hurt aftermarket sales, Ganjoo said. Their advertising budget, however, could drive new sales to existing aftermarket suppliers that are too small and too diverse to reach a wide audience on their own.
Seeing automakers embrace the covers could help convince existing truck owners that they are a worthwhile addition, she said.
"There is a feeling that if the OEMs are doing it, that this must be a good product line," Ganjoo said.
Bringing caps and covers inside automakers' gates also gives carmakers more control over the final look and design of their vehicles, Johnson noted.
Ford required Budd to make the Sport Trac tonneau withstand the elements as well as any other body panel.
"We don't want to do something that's going to tarnish the `Ford-tough truck' image," Johnson said.
Automakers and their suppliers can work together to develop a stronger total package than an aftermarket producer can on its own, Dorney said. They team up years in advance of a product launch, giving each member of the team time to tweak both performance and style.
That sort of effort prompted Decoma to sponsor a study of consumer preferences last year, Fitzpatrick said. The supplier has to learn what the end buyer wants, so it can deliver those products to the automaker — just as on any other part.
"People want something that's lockable, that's color-matched," Fitzpatrick said. "From an aesthetic standpoint, that presents a really clean look."
Several more trucks with some kind of factory-installed cover are in development stages, Dowdall said.
"This is really a growing trend," he added.