``Why didn't I think of that?''
That's the reaction most automotive service technicians have when they use the Tru Align wheel alignment adapter system for the first time-followed almost immediately by a ``dope slap'' to the forehead.
The essence of the Tru Align product is its simplicity, said Dean Pellegrino, 54, owner of California Tire Co. in Thousand Oaks and inventor of Tru Align.
For Mr. Pellegrino-owner of his own business for 16 years-frustration, not necessity, was the mother of his invention.
``I was getting increasingly frustrated,'' he said in a recent interview, ``with the newer, bigger wheels, especially the lipless wheels and the tires with rim guard. It was getting nearly impossible to mount the alignment head on these wheels without either scratching one or not getting it on properly.''
Whichever resulted, he said, was bad for the customer, and on top of that, he found alignments were taking longer and longer because of the extra time needed to deal with the custom wheels carefully.
``The new alignment equipment is being built to allow for more accuracy,'' he noted, ``but if you can't get the head on properly, it's all for naught.
``I was simply not comfortable with not being able to do the job right,'' he said. ``That's when I took a fresh look at what we were trying to accomplish with an alignment. And it struck me that a wheel alignment actually is a hub alignment, so I had to figure out a way to take the wheel out of play.''
Mr. Pellegrino hit on the alignment plate idea almost immediately, but it took him several months and a few thousand dollars in prototypes to get it just right.
In essence, using Tru Align involves affixing an alignment plate to the hub by replacing three of the wheel's studs with specially designed adapters. The alignment head is then attached to the plate, essentially taking the tire and wheel out of the alignment scenario.
``When I realized how well it worked,'' he said, ``I thought, `I better patent this.'''
Once he had the patent in hand, Mr. Pellegrino had to come up with a business plan and a components supplier.
Mr. Pellegrino developed that plan and had Tru Align units ready in time for last year's Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas. He was rewarded for his efforts by having Tru Align picked as the best new product by a panel of SEMA judges, who said it ``answers a real need'' in their evaluation.
While the primary function of the Tru Align is to improve the accuracy of alignments, it also offers other benefits to the shop owner, Mr. Pellegrino said, including extending the life of existing alignment equipment by allowing the shop to align larger wheels on that equipment.
``The system does two basic things for the shop owner,'' he said, ``helps improve profits and reduce liability.''
The system even allows technicians to align a vehicle with bent wheels, prompting the firm's marketing catch-phrase, ``The cure for the uncommon wheel.''
For Hank Heeber, owner of Chatsworth Tire in Chatsworth, Calif., the system allows him to get into the high-end car service business by letting his technicians align vehicles with 20-plus-inch size wheels. This is a service for which he can charge a premium because he can pretty much guarantee the customer's wheels won't get damaged.
``I can charge $100 for an alignment on some of the top-end vehicles,'' he said, ``and we're able to get more cars through the alignment bay per day because the system saves set-up time. I paid for my system in about a month with the extra revenue it brought in.''
A testimony to the effectiveness of the Tru Align system is Honda North America Inc.'s specifying it earlier this year for all its dealers to handle alignments on the 2005 Odyssey equipped with the Michelin Pax run-flat tire/wheel system.
Along the same lines, Michelin North America Inc., acknowledging that its Pax run-flat tire/wheel system ``presents challenges to wheel-alignment technicians using conventional techniques and machines,'' suggests dealers employ the adapters to their wheel alignment equipment to facilitate accurate alignments.
The basic Tru Align kit adjusts to handle most any size wheel, the firm said, since the mounting plate bolts to the hub, the size of which is limited. The kit is being sold by a number of distributors for $1,695.
Mr. Pellegrino started in the automotive service business 30-plus years ago, working at gas stations, Firestone company stores and a performance shop before eventually setting up his own business, West Valley Auto Specialties, in the late 1970s.
He sold West Valley about 10 years later and started California Tire, a six-bay shop dedicated to tire, wheel and undercar service.
These days, though, he's spending more and more time fostering the Tru Align business and leaving California Tire in the capable hands of his employees.
When will Tru Align supplant his tire store as his primary vocation? ``Soon, I hope,'' he said, ``very soon.''