ASC Inc. paints the composite body panels of the Dodge Viper sports car.
The company also molds and paints a sheet molding compound hood for General Motors Corp.'s Grand Am SC/T, and turns out spoilers, fascias, hood scoops and other specialty parts for the SRT4 version of the Dodge Neon.
So it is no surprise that the Southgate, Mich.-based company wants to convince automakers to back more low-volume specialty vehicles - a move that also leads to increased sales of composite parts. But President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Wilbur said those cars and trucks mean more to the industry as a whole beyond his own firm.
Stylish, attention-grabbing cars get consumers into dealerships, creating a ripple effect of sales for standard vehicles.
``Our customers are becoming more and more discriminating and we need to listen to those customers collectively,'' Wilbur told automakers during the industry's Management Briefing Seminars, held Aug. 2-6 in Traverse City.
``The only way to stand out is to make a bold product, through passionate design, through innovation and obviously a lot of collaboration.''
Wilbur has more than just his love for edgy cars in mind when he calls for investing in niche vehicles, though. Foresight Research of Rochester, Mich. has a new study showing that cool cars help to sell the standard vehicle line.
The survey conducted in April and May showed that 2 percent of the people who purchased one of DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge Ram pickups only went to their local vehicle showroom because they wanted to see a Viper for themselves. That translates to nearly 8,000 vehicles this year, Wilbur said.
About 8 percent of the buyers of GM's Chevrolet Silverado and Avalanche trucks visited the showroom solely to see the company's SSR sports roadster pickup - which equals out to about 22,000 truck sales for GM.
Those are real pulls that send shoppers into the dealership, without resorting to inflatable attention grabbers or costly incentives.
``I'd rather talk about the product than the big purple gorilla on the roof,'' he said. ``Honestly, you want to talk about zero percent financing, the big gorilla or the carbon-fiber accents on the car? The industry is easier than we're making it out to be. Go back to the product.''
Buyers of the Neon SRT4 - designed to attract the young ``tuner'' set that soups-up and individualizes Japanese brand-name vehicles - also are getting an exposure to Dodge they normally would not have, said Steven Bruyn, chief executive officer of Foresight.
``Dodge didn't have a product for the youth market,'' he said. ``The satisfaction with these cars is very high, so guess where these [buyers] are going to go for their next car? Dodge will have a serious shot at retaining these buyers if they can get them in the first place.''
If automakers buy into the concept and bring more dollars into the specialty market, they also could bring additional dollars to the low-volume vehicle production, where composites really can compete, Wilbur said.
``There are a number of new technologies, in the plastics world and in other worlds, that absolutely are geared for low volumes,'' he said.
There is no guarantee composites will win every specialty contract. GM opted for steel on its SSR truck, for instance, but composites have their role.
``Composites help the business case,'' said Jeff Steiner, ASC vice president of sales and marketing. ``When you look at the numbers, even the finance guys can make a case for it.''
Composites also can respond faster to changing tastes, Steiner said.
ASC is investing in carbon-fiber production programs specifically to tap into the interest in the high-end material. The company built a specialty version of GM's SSR, called the Blackbird 425 concept, using the composite for a hood scoop, rocker moldings and other interior and exterior parts.
``Quite frankly, carbon fiber's kind of hot right now, and in a couple of years it might not be,'' Wilbur said. ``Speed's very important, which is also why a lot of our manufacturing methods are geared to not necessarily be capital-[equipment]-intensive. The more capital-intensive it is, it slows us down.''