RICHMOND, Calif.-``Eighty percent of success is being there,'' is one of Woody Allen's most memorable one-liners.
Meet Dave Vanek, poster boy for the Woody Allen School of Success. Mr. Vanek-whose sports-car racing hobby led to a thriving family business specializing in the Datsun/Nissan Z cars-developed a suspension and lowering package for his wife's Ford Explorer sport-utility simply because he ``hated the way the thing drove.'' That was in 1997.
Of course, it didn't hurt that the previous year Nissan had pulled the plug on its groundbreaking Z car due to dismal sales and the ``Z Doctor,'' as Mr. Vanek was known, figured he needed to find a new automotive niche.
Fast forward to 2000 and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s summer of discontent. News of Explorer rollovers began dominating the headlines, leading last August to BFS' recall of 6.5 million P-metric light truck tires. With Ford Motor Co.'s recent plan to replace an additional 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires on its Explorers and other Ford vehicles, there's been a dark cloud hanging not only over the tires, but Ford's massively popular mid-sized SUV, which rang up sales of 445,157 vehicles last year.
As Mr. Vanek, owner of Richmond-based Explorer Express by Z Doctor Inc., saw it, a niche business was just waiting to be born.
Mr. Vanek believes his ``Explorer Express'' handling packages-which also are available for sale to tire dealers and auto service shops- are just the ``cure'' the Z Doctor ordered for 1991 through 2000 Explorers. Prior to the Firestone recall, the packages racked up respectable sales, but the negative publicity over how the SUVs handle has pushed stability demands to new levels.
``We used to order 25 sway bars from our suppliers; our last order was for 150 and the lion's share of those are already sold,'' Mr. Vanek said recently, noting that he has sold more than 400 packages since 1997.
Depending on the year of the vehicle, the cost of the Explorer Express handling packages range from $460 to $890. The standard kit includes front (1.375 inch) and rear (.875 inch) sway bars and bushings and specially tuned shock absorbers.
Because 1998 and newer Explorers come factory-equipped with a solid front sway bar much like the bar developed by Mr. Vanek's company, his packages for those models omit the front component and are less expensive.
The upgraded ``X-Spec'' handling package adds a lowering kit, suspension bumpers and split collets that prevent lateral movement of the rear sway bar.
Al Wissinger, an IBM manager, praised the Explorer Express instructions and upgrades that he installed on his wife's Explorer-a project he did in his driveway in about five hours.
``If you go out now and you do 55 or 60 mph, and you make some strong evasive moves left and right, it won't go out of control,'' said the Georgetown, Texas, engineer. ``I used to auto-cross as a hobby many years ago in San Diego. Having auto-crossed, you learn about suspension, performance and handling.''
After the first news of Firestone tire-related problems broke, Mr. Wissinger asked his wife if she'd like him to upgrade the suspension on her Explorer.
But nothing came of that, he said, until the day she came back frightened by a close call she had on a highway.
``In central Texas it's a very high growth area. It parallels Silicon Valley. They're doing a lot of widening and repaving. She came up on a part of the road where the lanes funneled down to one lane and there was an uneven lane. At that point, at 55 mph, the Explorer went out of control. The car oscillated so much it went back and forth across both lanes. That really scared her. When she came home, she said, `Honey, make my car safe.' ''
Mr. Wissinger said he went with Mr. Vanek at Explorer Express (Web site: www.explorerexpress.com) ``not only because he took the time to talk to me technically, but his solutions were more balanced in terms of suspension upgrades.''
After installing the ``X-Spec'' handling and lowering package and having the vehicle realigned, his wife noticed the difference. ``She felt it right away and told me the next day that she felt much much safer,'' Mr. Wissinger recalled.
Mr. Wissinger said he and his wife like their Explorer, equipped with the optional 4.0-liter, 205-horsepower SOHC V-6 motor, and would have no problem considering buying the newest Explorer, which features independent rear suspension.
After trying out the X-Spec package on an Explorer, Matt Stone, executive editor of Motor Trend magazine, wrote: ``Perhaps the most impressive is how downright `easy-to-live with' the Explorer Express vehicle is. Definite measurable improvements are achieved in every performance aspect, yet the ride feels no harsher than stock.
``The float and wallow, so common to stock SUVs, is gone and the steering feel and response are much better. It's clear the components in the Explorer Express X-Spec package work well together in a very balanced manner.''
Mr. Vanek said he isn't surprised by the reaction to his X-Spec package.
``People are starting to recognize that a better-handling car is a safer vehicle,'' he noted, stressing that aftermarket vendors need to respect the wife's or girlfriend's role in any buying decision.
``Women are a crucial part of the equation. I'd say that about one in 10 buyers comment that their wife is really impressed by the changes.
``If the modifications are too noisy, too stiff-too much anything-it won't fly.''