Carving a Niche

The '04 Chevrolet SSR roadster pickup has been on the road barely four months. But already, Paul Wilbur, president and CEO of ASC Inc. of Southgate, MI, declares the vehicle program a success on many fronts: It secured union jobs and brightened the future of General Motors Corp.'s Lansing, MI, Craft Centre; program costs are lower because ASC shouldered about 70% of the development and ships 42 separate

The '04 Chevrolet SSR roadster pickup has been on the road barely four months.

But already, Paul Wilbur, president and CEO of ASC Inc. of Southgate, MI, declares the vehicle program a success on many fronts: It secured union jobs and brightened the future of General Motors Corp.'s Lansing, MI, Craft Centre; program costs are lower because ASC shouldered about 70% of the development and ships 42 separate subassemblies to the Craft Centre for final assembly; and Chevrolet gets an exciting new halo vehicle.

Besides, the Craft Centre was feeding GM's overcapacity problem, as it was barely in use until the SSR program came along. Plus, Wilbur says the program is profitable for both GM and ASC, although he declines to give details. Wilbur even says the SSR program is more profitable for ASC than its well-known sunroof business, which gave birth to the company in 1965.

ASC built 124 prototype SSRs at its engineering center in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park. The supplier opened the facility three years ago specifically for the SSR program. With the vehicle now in production, the engineers and technicians in Oak Park are dedicated to rolling changes and new optional equipment that will be offered on the SSR, says Mark Trostle, president of ASC's creative services group.

But Trostle concedes the Oak Park operation needs to win another specialty-vehicle program with GM within the next three years to remain viable.

Once dedicated solely to sunroofs, ASC now wants to lead specialty-vehicle programs — as well as convertible conversion packages — for the Big Three and other OEMs. The SSR is the most extensive complete-vehicle program ASC has ever tackled, and it wants to do more projects like it.

Wilbur tells Ward's that ASC has been in discussions with GM, the Chrysler Group, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. about similar niche-vehicle programs. “We have agreements for multiple vehicles,” he says, declining to share details.

Several suppliers, including Magna International Inc.'s Steyr division and sunroof competitor Webasto AG, have an eye on the niche-vehicle market. At this year's Frankfurt motor show, Webasto showed its Welcome 2 concept car “multi-sport coupe,” based on a Mercedes CL500. The concept has a glass panorama roof that slides open, and both side pillars slide inward, like in a T-top configuration.

Likewise, the SSR has a retractable hardtop, engineered by ASC. But the supplier did much more than merely work on the roof. GM's original SSR, shown as a concept at the '00 North American International Auto Show, was based on the old Chevy S-10 small pickup.

The production version, however, would be based on the long-wheelbase TrailBlazer SUV and would be 4 ins. (10 cm) longer than the concept. It meant more complications for ASC, which started its engineering and design work in January 2001.

The supplier built a new plant in Lansing, MI, five miles (8 km) from the Craft Centre and staffed by 230 new hires represented by the United Auto Workers union. There, ASC receives body stampings from outside suppliers, assembles the body-in-white and ships it, as well as all closure panels and various components, as a kit to the Craft Centre, where the body is painted and final assembly completed.

“We fully dress the engine and mate it to the transmission,” Wilbur says. ASC also worked on the interior, chassis, electrical system and climate-control system. The supplier even manages the distribution of SSR service parts to GM dealers, as well as the sale of promotional SSR clothing.

ASC has evolved well beyond sunroofs, although at one point the company had several U.S. plants producing them. Today, it has only one, a joint venture in Columbus, OH, producing sunroofs for Honda of America Mfg. Inc.

Wilbur suggests the company name, which used to stand for American Sunroof Co., could become American Specialty Cars. A formal announcement may be forthcoming. “Sunroofs are a commodity,” he says. “Many suppliers offer sunroofs. In a world of specialty vehicles, few can do what we do.”

Although ASC has de-emphasized sunroofs, Ward's data shows their popularity is growing in the U.S. In the '92 model year, 5.6% of U.S. cars had factory-installed sunroofs. That figure climbed to 12.7% of '97 models and to 27.7% of '02 models.

Still, Wilbur says the real growth for ASC will come from program management of specialty-niche vehicles. He says the number of vehicle nameplates is up 37% over the past 10 years, but average sales per nameplate are down drastically, from 110,000 annually 20 years ago to some 40,000 within the next few years.

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