ASC (American Specialty Cars) Incorporated is a full-service specialty-vehicle design and development partner for the automotive manufacturing industry. David Soyka sees how a low production, custom approach shifts auto making into higher gears of niche marketing performance.
ASC is getting back to a low-volume coach-building business model in America – something that thrived in the 1920s and 1930s with companies like LeBaron, Fleetwood, and Derham – with the Dearborn Deuce Convertible, the company’s ultimate expression and tribute to this almost forgotten way of building specialty vehicles.
The company is now in high gear to put the fun back in driving with its modern approach to hot rodding. It was founded as American Sunroof Company, Inc. (ASC) in 1965 by Heinz Prechter to offer sunroof technology developed in his native Germany to the U.S. Back then, the sunroof was as foreign to American auto manufacture as the idea of switching on the high beams from the steering column instead of pushing your foot on a floorboard button. Also, the first sunroofs were steel panels that only let light in when withdrawn, unlike today’s glass versions that are a common feature available on almost any model. That glass version was also first developed by ASC. Similarly, ASC manufactured components to convert Toyota Celicas to convertible tops back in the days when it was thought the prevalence of air conditioners rendered the ragtop an unnecessary impracticality.
“ASC has always been about applying technology that wasn’t being utilized to create a niche product that generated consumer excitement and helped an automaker develop a distinctive brand identity,” explains Mark Trostle, president of creative services. “That some of these very same technologies are now part of the mainstream attests to the vision of this company and the engineering innovation we offer to help our customers succeed.”
Headquartered in Southgate, Mich., today ASC is even more valued in an auto industry that is very different from when Prechter first began. “Back in its hey day in the 1970s, Oldsmobile used to make a million Cutlass cars, with two or three different models to choose from. There’s a lot of efficiency you can get out of any process when you’re making that many units,” Trostle says. “Today, a carmaker will produce maybe 45,000 units of a given make. That’s because it’s no longer just the Big Three dominating the market; you’ve got the Japanese, the Korean, and the European makers all competing in North America. So the consumer has a whole lot more choices, which means production rates go down because the individual manufacturer isn’t selling in the same large quantities. So the question becomes, how do they most economically distinguish their particular badged model from everything else that’s out there? Which is where we come in.”
What ASC offers is a modern day equivalent to coach building, which Trostle describes as an “art form that dates back to the early days of the automotive industry, when the car body was styled and designed separately from the chassis. Custom body design was a way for the wealthy to display their personal tastes and styles. Well, today we live in the age of mass customization, like everyone has their own cell phone ring tone. People are looking to customize their cars, but for an OEM to try to do small scale production is just too costly. As a coach builder, we have the lean manufacturing and engineering expertise in place to economically provide the subcomponents that redefine, enliven and/or invigorate the mass market brands.” To a lesser extent, ASC also supplies sunroofs to several Honda models, such as the Accord, Civic, Oddysey, Pilot, Element, Ridgeline, Acura MD-X vita it’s A.Y. Manufacturing Ltd. joint venture (with Japan’s Yachico Manufacturing Ltd.) in Columbus, Ohio.
Among its many projects is the supply of convertible subassemblies for such vehicles as the BMW Z4, Toyota Solara and Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. But it also gets involved in the design and engineering of more specialty vehicles. What it terms as its “Halo” production is a low-volume automobile that stands out by design. An example is the Chevrolet SSR, a sort of pick-up truck that looks like a sports car that won a “Gold” award in the 2004 Industrial Design Excellence competition sponsored by Business Week magazine, for which ASC produces 42 subassemblies – from body panels to the retractable hardtop to the instrument panel – used on the architecture of a Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT (long-wheel-base) SUV.
“Image” cars are higher performance looking versions of standard models, such as the Dodge SRT4, for which ASC provides all the unique exterior components, and it was such a success that the initial 2,000 units a year production has been boosted to 12,000 or more units annually. “Buzz” models are intended to “spruce up” the nameplate. An example is the Pontiac Grand Am SC/T. “We designed the SC/T concept as a regular production accessory, but consumer demand led GM to contract with us for 6,500 units over three years,” Trostle says. “That actually turned into over 20,000 units a year that today continues in production and accounts for 30 percent of all Grand AM sales.”
Typically, ASC provides the components for the OEM to assemble on its own production line. “By doing the final assembly themselves, it’s a car that they’ve made, which justifies putting their nameplate on it going out the door,” Trostle says. “It also helps them keep assembly lines running.”
Adds Tim Yost, director of marketing and communications, “We’re not looking to compete with the automakers. And we’re not really into putting together the engines and drive trains for them. We’re offering them the flexibility to help them fill out their product line in an economical way. We don’t care whether consumers know that they’re buying something ASC designed or enhanced, though the real aficionados probably do. Our customers are the OEMs.”
One new twist is the Dearborn Deuce Convertible(tm), an all-steel-body replica of a classic 1932 Ford “street-rod.” It is sold as a “kit car,” meaning that the customer can order any engine for it. The kit car was liked so much by Ford that the company has shown it on the auto-show circuit.
The Dearborn Deuce Convertible is actually a joint venture between ASC and Hot Rods & Horsepower of Branford, Conn. H&H provides the frames and suspensions, as well as the retailing, while ASC builds its design for the all-steel body shell. As Jim McCraw in Car & Driver points out, “Thousands of 1932 Ford hot rods have been built in garages, driveways, and backyards in this country since the 1950s, but this is the first all-steel ’32 to be built in volume using contemporary OEM construction techniques and design software.”
“The ’32 Ford roadster is the quintessential hot rod,” Trostle explains. “But as cool a car as it is, it has a few drawbacks. There’s no side glass windows, it’s tight to get in and out of, and the convertible top is awkward to operate and stow. So we decided to make a car that retained the classic look but would have more contemporary appeal. We made the doors three inches longer, installed weather sealed side windows and figured out a way to hide the convertible top.”
As McCraw comments, “Every car comes with power curved-glass windows that mate perfectly with the convertible top. The windows are controlled by hidden switches, and electrically operated doors can be opened by underdash switches or by the key fob. The body sides are perfectly clean from end to end. There are no door handles, no visible hood latches, and no trunk latch. This baby is smooooth. This is the only 1932 Ford replica we are aware of that comes with a convertible top that stows away behind the seats. ASC has built more than a million convertibles over the past 40 years, and it knows how to do tops.”
Indeed, ASC knows how to do it so well that a project that was originally intended as something to do during the slow winter months to sell to hot rod enthusiasts has stepped up to production of one a day, with 350 orders placed and no reason to think demand will slow.
“We chose to serve a micro niche that turned out a little larger than we expected,” Trostle says. One reason is that while ASC’s Dearborn Deuce starting price is $85,000, this is still far less than what you’d pay a specialty shop for custom build, which is closer to a quarter million price tag. Another is the burgeoning hobby of hot rodding that Yost compares to the Harley-Davidson phenomenon. “There are a growing number of people who are really into it. They go to rallies and travel around the country with their vehicles much like their motorcycle enthusiast counterparts.”
Equally key, Trostle points out, is that the Dearborn Deuce offers retro coolness with contemporary convenience. “Our surveys show that about 30 percent of buyers are non-street rodders for whom this is just a unique car to have to drive around in. More importantly, 40 percent are women, who historically have never been a significant number in the hot rod segment. And that’s because it’s a comfortable car, unlike the original. I know, I have an original ’32 Ford, and my wife hates to go in it.”
ACS employs about 1,200, half of which are dedicated to design and engineering; the remaining balance is devoted to manufacturing, as well as a small marketing staff. Trostle notes that typically either a manufacturer will approach ACS with an idea or a rendering, or vice versa. ACS also produces concept cars just to demonstrate the feasibility of a technology. “We recently did a four door convertible for Chrysler just to show the industry how it could be done,” Trostle says. “There are a lot of technical issues related to making a four door convertible work, which we think we’ve demonstrated can be effectively handled.”
He adds that the people who work at ASC are there because they enjoy the challenge. “A lot of people here could be working for the major manufacturers, but the diversity of the projects and the opportunity to do unique design and engineering work is what attracts people. They have a passion for cars and pushing the envelope of automotive technology. I know that, for myself, it’s a lot more rewarding to be always working on something new and different, whereas with a big manufacturer it’d be more routine.”
ASC maintains10 facilities in the U.S. and Germany accounting for some 780,000 square feet of space. In addition to its design and engineering centers, manufacturing is performed at Bowling Green, Ken., Gibraltar, Mich., Lexington, Ken., and Huntington Beach, Calif.; Ohio, and Lansing, Mich. and are QS-9000 and ISO: 9001/2 certified. The Reeck Road Assembly Plant in Southgate dedicates its 15,000 square feet to Dearborn Deuce production.
“We’re able to offer an OEM a flexible, cost-effective means to do low volume production because that’s our mind-set,” Yost explains. “Sure, our labor costs are higher. But we’re more nimble in how we can best take advantage of that labor and use it most cost-efficiently. Also, we use soft tooling, as opposed to steel, to keep expenses down because the nature of the products we’re dealing with usually only have short three-year production runs. They don’t have to last forever, they don’t have to churn out high volume runs. So it’s more cost-effective. Each of our production runs is set up uniquely for the specific product and we truly perform to just-in-time methodologies. OEMs are simply just too big to operate like us. Which is why they like to use us.”
Trostle points out that ASC’s diversified customer base provides it with some competitive invulnerabilities. “Different companies compete with us in the convertible segment, yet another group in custom design and someone else in the hot rod segment.” Indeed, in 2004 ASC had sales of $493 million, a significant increase over sales of $428 the previous year. And Trostle is confident the trend will continue.
“Historically, when the auto industry as a whole is declining we have our better years,” he says. “It’s precisely at that time that the automakers need someone like ASC to reinvigorate their line, get consumers excited again about a model, and generate interest.”
He also thinks that ASC is properly positioned with its U.S. base of operations to offer its services throughout the world. “Ten years ago, it was different. You had to have international locations. In fact, we used to have a plant in Germany to provide convertibles for the Porsche 944 and 968. But, today, North America is where it’s at. Everyone is here. The Japanese have plants in Kentucky, BMW and Mercedes are in Tennessee, for example, the fact is that in the automotive industry, the rest of the world is coming to us. We see that providing us with significant future opportunities.”
Since become a significant player in the custom hot rod niche, Trostle doe not discount the possibility of developing models in addition to the Dearborn Deuce. “We’re always looking for what’s next,” he says. “Which is why over the years we’ve developed so many “firsts” in this industry – from the sun roof to the all-steel frame hot rod with an integrated concealed convertible top.”
So it looks like green lights and open roads ahead for this industry speedster.