When General Motors Corp., the world's largest auto maker, expresses concern about the use of non-factory custom wheels on its vehicles, tire dealers should pause and think about what this might mean to their own dealerships.
That's our take on GM's stand in urging its auto dealers to stop selling non-factory custom wheel sets for safety reasons.
This is no small issue. Sales of custom wheels have more than doubled in the past 10 years, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), with wholesale revenues growing to nearly $1.1 billion annually in 2001.
So offering custom wheels has become a big business for many aftermarket installers.
But GM, with memories of the Firestone-Ford Explorer roll-over crisis still vivid, has taken the strong step of warning its dealers that it will not assume warranty costs or defend product liability suits that involve non-GM wheels.
While some critics question GM's motives, noting the company is looking to boost sales of its own aftermarket accessories, the auto maker's concern about liability in wheel-related accidents is very real. This is the same issue independent tire dealers should weigh whenever they alter a vehicle from its original specifications.
And it covers not only the installation of custom wheels, but also the plus sizing of tires and wheels, the mounting of tires with different speed ratings, the repairing of tires and the mounting of snow tires, to name a few. In all of these instances, dealerships and their employees should be aware of and follow the industry-recommended practices and specifications.
As for custom wheels, altering sizes can detract from a vehicle's handling, said John Smith, GM's group vice president for vehicle sales, service and marketing. ``Some wheels and tires may not work well with a chassis,'' he said. ``Some wheel-and-tire combinations we're not comfortable with. We want to be very studied in involving ourselves here.''
These are valid points, but with the exponential growth in the sales of custom wheels, tire dealers can't easily turn their backs on these lucrative aftermarket products.
But considering GM's concerns, tire dealers should choose a reputable wheel supplier and check to be certain the products they are offering meet all federal and safety requirements.
Dealers also should train their employees in proper wheel selection and installation procedures and consider displaying in their outlets the new wheel and tire installation guidelines poster recently published by The Wheel Industry Council of SEMA.
Yes, the custom wheel business offers enticing profit opportunities.
But considering today's litigious environment, this should not get in the way of following sound business practices.