Even before R.J. DeZera got his first car at 16, he spent virtually every dime he earned on custom parts.
He didn't know what car he eventually would get, but he ended up with his mom's Acura Integra. Now he thinks he spent between $15,000 and $20,000 customizing the car in the four years he had it.
Mr. DeZera is the kind of customer auto marketers crave. Known as tuners, they're young, auto-savvy trendsetters willing to spend money customizing or ``tricking out'' their cars.
It's a fast and furious crowd, an urban, hip-hopping car culture with a contemporary twist on the baby boomers' muscle-car era of the 1960s that has inspired magazines, movies, video games and other pop culture creations.
``It's kids reinventing the hot-rod culture, building a social phenomenon,'' said Mr. DeZera, whose hobby has blossomed into a career customizing cars for major companies such as PepsiCo. Inc.
Started in the West
Jim Jordan, motorsports and enthusiast manager at Mazda North American Operations, said tuners are ``the people their buddies go to when they're buying a car.''
The tuner craze started in California in the late 1980s with Generation X Asian Americans customizing four-cylinder Japanese compact cars, said Jim Spoonhower, vice president of market research at trade group Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), based in Diamond Bar, Calif.
American Honda Motor Co. Inc. had dominated the tuner category with an estimated 45 percent of the cars, mostly Civics. But SEMA said Honda's share has dropped into the 30-percent range.
SEMA said consumer spending on products in the auto aftermarket skyrocketed to $3.2 billion in 2003 from $295 million in 1997.
According to SEMA, nearly 34 percent of tuners spent as much as $1,000 each on parts in 2003, and the next-largest group, 27 percent, spent $5,000 or more. Nearly half of that parts number-48 percent of the total-went toward exterior modifications for small cars, with engine changes next at 32 percent and custom interiors the smallest at 20 percent.
Hard to reach
Tuners are lucrative but hard to reach. In Generation Y fashion, they don't respond to advertising, a Ford Motor Co. executive said. However, they do respond to product placement, which is why in the last couple years the auto maker has made deals for placement of its vehicles-including tricked-out Lincoln Navigators-in several recent movies.
Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. spent about $25 million last year to co-promote Universal Picture's ``2 Fast 2 Furious'' movie and for product placement in the film, which was a follow-up to 2001's ``The Fast and the Furious'' tuner car/street racing hit. The stars of the latest movie also appeared in Mitsubishi commercials.
In 2003 General Motors Corp. launched a ``Tuner Tour'' that made stops at a 10-race circuit of National Hot Rod Association races, said Todd Christensen, sport-compact integration manager at GM. The auto maker brought in two tractor trailers featuring tricked-out small cars: the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire.
Consumers vied for prizes in the simulated Reaction Time game, in which two ``drivers'' took off from the line when the light turned green. GM collected names and e-mail addresses of participants before they played the game.
`Like a nightclub'
GM cars weren't always on the top of tuners' shopping lists, Mr. Christensen said. But the car maker was hoping to turn that around by marketing its cars, parts and accessories to tuners at events, he added.
As many as 500 owners display their cars at the now-indoor tuner events, where marketers have booths and small giveaways. Each event attracts as many as 18,000 attendees.
``It's like a nightclub,'' GM's Mr. Christensen said of Hot Import Nights, where disc jockeys spin music in various areas, overhead lights are off and neon mood lights on cars prevail.
Vision Entertainment's Hot Import Nights began in California and expanded to Detroit, Boston and Baltimore. A 16-city tour was planned for 2004, in cities including Cleveland, Honolulu and Charlotte, N.C.
Mazda North American Operations has been turned on to tuners from the start, sponsoring the Mazda Stage at Hot Import Nights. It features break dancing, live bands, laser light shows and car award announcements.
``This is a very hard group to advertise to,'' Mazda's Mr. Jordan said. ``So we just hang out with them. It's a very soft sell.''
Mr. Russell said other Hot Import Night sponsors include Nissan North America Inc. and PepsiCo. Tire company sponsors include Dunlop Tires and Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp.
The tuner culture is growing. In the early 1990s there were just two tuner enthusiast magazines. Now there are 14, according to an ad manager for three of Primedia Inc.'s nine tuner titles. Among Primedia's tuner magazines: Custom Rodder, Honda Tuning and Eurotuner. ``There's room for all of them,'' he said. ``Each magazine has its own niche.''
And the next evolution, which began in Japan, appears to be ``drifting.''
In drifting competitions, drivers are judged in a series of sideway skids. Last August more than 4,000 had to be turned away from the first U.S. event, at California's Irwindale Speedway. Events in 2004 include the first American drifting championship.
There already are several drifting video games in the works, as well.
``Drift Battle,'' a movie on the sport released to the mass market last fall in the U.S., Australia and Europe, featured the second and third stops on the ``Falken Tire Drift Showoff'' tour. It included interviews and multi-angle drifting footage of Japan's top drifting professional drivers. Live Sockets Entertainment, the film's producer, called it the ``definitive movie for the drift generation.''
It's clear to participants that tuning has become entrenched as a part of pop culture. ``Hot Import Nights has become a social outing,'' tuner Mr. DeZera, said, ``and your car becomes part of it.''