GM, converters try to foster comeback of large vans popular in '70s, '80s
Monday, January 3rd 2005, 2:41 pm
News On 6
DETROIT (AP) _ An automotive fad of the 1970s, customized vans, might be the next big thing coming out of Detroit.
The big vans once decorated with shag carpeting and beads have evolved into sophisticated vehicles for families and groups alike, and General Motors Corp. and two dozen companies are spending a couple of million dollars to spread that message and try to revive demand for the big, souped-up rides.
GM helped form the Conversion Van Marketing Association last year to raise awareness of the customized vans _ the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana in particular _ and to dispel outdated perceptions of vehicles decked out with wild paint jobs and crushed velour upholstery.
Today's vans, which typically cost less than a loaded full-size SUV, feature leather seating, central air conditioning, home theater-quality sound and flat-panel televisions.
GM's investment in the effort underscores the ultra-competitive nature of the U.S. vehicle market, where the world's largest automaker can't afford to cede one iota of business. GM's chief competitor: cross-town rival and No. 2 U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co.
``With the proliferation of vehicles over time _ SUVs, crossovers, etc. _ this is one more niche vehicle we can offer the consumer,'' said Ross Hendrix, GM's marketing director for commercial vans. ``We see an opportunity and we're pursuing it.''
Conversion van sales peaked in the early 1990s but have fallen steadily over the past 10 years because of the popularity of hulking SUVs. Sales totaled roughly 181,000 in 1994, fell to 76,000 in 2000 and dropped even further to 38,000 in 2003, when Dodge ended production of its full-size Ram vans, according to Conversion Van Marketing Association figures. But Dodge added the Sprinter, which is available for conversions, to its lineup in 2003.
That basically limits the choices to the two GM models, the Sprinter and Ford's E-Series model. Virtually every major automaker, in contrast, sells some type of SUV.
The CVMA is composed of 24 manufacturers who buy the vans from GM, outfit them with premium paint, electronics and customized interiors and sell them to GM dealers for sale to consumers. About 800 of GM's 7,400 dealers sell conversion vans, according to the CVMA, which would like to increase that number as well.
The CVMA's goal is to boost sales of GM vans by 25 percent in the next two years by raising awareness through a Web site, direct mail and other avenues, said association president Rod McSweeney, owner of Southern Comfort Conversions Inc. in Trussville, Ala.
The timing for the push is ideal, McSweeney said, because of the metamorphosis of the vans over the past several years. After upgrading the chassis in 1996, giving it a smoother ride, GM enhanced the styling and added an all-wheel-drive option in 2003, making the vans more feasible for those in colder, icy climates.
GM contributed $2.1 million to the marketing effort, which McSweeney said will target outdoor enthusiasts, college alumni groups with a penchant for tailgating and others who might be ready to trade their SUVs for premium vans that can seat up to nine. CVMA also plans to showcase the vans at this month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
McSweeney and other converters say one of their biggest selling points is price. A conversion van, they say, can cost several thousand dollars less than a full-size Chevrolet Tahoe or Ford Excursion SUV, whose prices can climb to $45,000 or higher.
``The thing we've lacked the most is basic awareness,'' said Joe Smucker, whose company, Santa Fe Vans in Elkhart, Ind., ships converted vans to dealers in 48 states.
Barb Sawher of Clyde Township, Mich., said she recently chose one of Smucker's customized vans because of its all-wheel-drive feature, which the mother of four says helps her navigate the sometimes icy roads in Michigan as well as any SUV.
``When you think of conversion vans for my generation, you think of hippies, beads and shag carpeting,'' Sawher said. ``Now there are cup holders everywhere, convenient places and pockets to store things, a television screen that folds down so the kids can watch DVDs.''
Ford said it also works with dealers and outfitters to promote the conversion van business, but it has no plans for a CVMA-style effort. One ongoing initiative is a 310,000-piece direct-mail campaign that includes a $500 gift card for a van purchase.
Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., said an effective campaign by the CVMA could provide a nice lift to GM's business. His research shows the vans' refinements have created one of the most loyal buyer segments in the industry.
``What we find, for the most part, is they're considered a lot more comfortable than minivans and certainly roomier than sport utility vehicles,'' Spinella said. ``Seventy percent of owners say they'll buy another, and 90 percent will recommend them to friends.''