PORTERVILLE, Calif.—Like the NASDAQ, the "hot look" in light trucks and sport-utility vehicles has its ups and downs. But like a full-service brokerage house, savvy tire dealers can make money in both directions.
Zeroing in on the dropped look or "sport truck" trend, Carroll's Tire Warehouse in Porterville has engineered its prosperity, in part, by touting that it lowers vehicles "the right way."
There's a lot riding on the modifications, which include new suspension hardware, wheel alignment, driveline shims, and, of course, new larger-diameter wheels and tires. "Lowering cars and trucks can be the `Nightmare on Elm Street' if you don't know what you're doing. If you're not willing to do it right, don't do it at all," said Kevin Burford, vice president and general manager of Carroll's.
The company's nine stores are all in California's agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, where the weather and culture are ideal for light trucks and SUVs.
Typical "2/4" jobs (two inch drop in the front, four at the rear of the vehicle) cost from $700 to $850. A set of 18-inch custom tires and wheels will add another $1,700 to $1,800 to the tab, Mr. Burford said.
Then there's the "grand slam," where the vehicle is dropped as much as five inches in front and seven at the back. Twenty-inch wheels and tires are extremely desirable, but not as many owners can or are willing to pay $3,500 for a set.
"We only use the best components" to lower a truck so that ride, handling and safety aren't degraded, Mr. Burford said. The company relies on BellTech and DJM components.
"The manufacturers have done their homework. We, like the suppliers, have made mistakes, and we've worked hand-in-hand with them, giving them feedback, and they've made improvements." Certain BellTech products, he added, are approved by General Motors Corp. and will not void warranties.
That's no small issue, since many of the lowering jobs (60-70 a month; more in the summer) are on new or almost new vehicles.
Aaron Klassen is a case in point. The 16-year-old drove up to Carroll's 10,000-sq.-ft., 13-bay superstore with a 2000 extended-cab Chevrolet Silverado. Carroll's had lowered one of his friend's trucks and "did a good job," Aaron explained.
The Bakersfield, Calif., high-school football player said the $24,000 truck was "part of a deal I worked out" with his parents in return for earning good grades. He said his dad, an architect, was going to spring for the $2,300 in modifications, which would consist of a 2/4 drop, 18-inch tires and Centerline wheels.
Mr. Carroll was in high school himself, selling tires out of his parents' back yard, when he got together with Mr. Burford, who was in the same business law class in high school (seating was alphabetical). After graduation in 1977, they started selling recaps at a flea market on Sundays and out of Mr. Burford's camper trailer on weekdays.
The business kept growing, and Mr. Carroll sold his beloved 1965 Corvette to buy a dirt lot in Porterville. It's still the headquarters for a business with outlets in Delano, Visalia, Tulare, Clovis, Hanford, Fresno and Bakersfield.
There may be a lot of glamour to truck and SUV style, but "it's a low mark-up area because so many people are out there chopping up springs," Mr. Burford says. "It's got to be done correctly the first time."
Carroll Tire sees a lot of disasters. "One comeback (on these jobs) and you've lost money," he insisted. To eliminate costly returns, the company seeks and, if necessary, trains technicians who are patient and follow procedure to become experts.
Anyone contemplating getting into the market needs to be sure that instructions are followed, wheel offsets are calculated, drive line angles adjusted with the proper shims and speedometers recalibrated. Newer trucks require more labor, especially when it comes to the spindles.
Dodges and Fords are also a little trickier. Mr. Burford said that though their demand is heavily weighted in Chevrolets—"We do one Dodge and one Ford for every 100 Chevy trucks"—he credits Dodge and Ford with "doing 1,000 percent greater in the last five years" and taking some market away from GM.
Carroll Tire, which averages 14,000 tires a month, has ridden the popularity wave in SUVs, too. "Suburbans used to be used strictly to take kids to camp, now 50 percent of them are lowered and have tinted windows. Soccer moms want their Subs lowered."
Mr. Burford pointed out that even though "the more trucks and SUVs we lower, the more people see it and want it done," lowering is "definitely not a money maker.
"What we're after is the whole family's cars and trucks. One (signature) vehicle done right will usually bring their other cars in for tires."