AKRON, Ohio-Whether they are used for mud bogging, rock crawling or just plain showing off, big tires mean big sales for some private-brand tire marketers. Dealers specializing in off-road tires for light trucks and sport utility vehicles, such as Jeep Cherokee and Range Rover, are enjoying increased sales and a growing market, according to marketers interviewed by TIRE BUSINESS.
They also agreed that increased light truck sales and the popularity of sport utility vehicles are responsible for the growth.
Since 1985, light truck sales (including minivans and sport utility vehicles) have increased about 28 percent while car sales have decreased about 22 percent, according to industry statistics.
Off-road tire sales are in-creasing right along with them, according to Warren Guidry, president of Interco Tire Corp., a private brander in Rayne, La.
``The market's as good as it's ever been,'' added Danny Jones, Dunlap & Kyle Tire Co. sales manager. ``There are more pick-up trucks than ever.''
Batesville, Miss.-based Dunlap & Kyle sells off-road and specialty tires for use in anything from the gumbo mud in Mississippi to the glaciers in Iceland, Mr. Jones said.
The breakthrough for the light truck market came during the Arab oil embargo in the mid-1970s, according to Mr. Guidry.
Car makers were forced to cut back on the size of engines to conserve fuel. The smaller engines lacked the power for towing and hauling, he said, so people began buying light trucks.
It forced public awareness of the practicality of light trucks, he said. ``Once it swung in that direction, it didn't come back.''
Matching the correct wheels, tires and suspension for a customer's needs takes ``special knowledge of that particular field,'' said Tom Cepek, CEO of Carson, Calif.-based Dick Cepek Inc., which specializes in a wide variety of off-road tires. Dealers need people with that knowledge to properly assist customers, he said.
Geography-and neighborhood preferences-also play a role in what kind of tires people buy. ``You don't find people buying a lot of mudders in Phoenix,'' he said.
``I believe it is the most highly specialized part of the tire business, period,'' said Mr. Guidry, noting that most owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles are more knowledgeable about their vehicle than car owners.
``They like to go to the store and talk the language. They know a lot. Some of them know more than the (tire) dealers,'' he said.
But some dealers believe serious, off-road enthusiasts are only a small part of the market.
A larger percentage of people buy off-road tires for the looks, according to Mr. Cepek.
``The closest they get to off-roading is when the street is being dug up in front of their house.''
Whatever they're being used for, dealers agreed that sales of off-road tires will continue to grow.