2023 HOT-ROD MARKET TRENDS
"The Stuff we thought was cool in the '80s is coming back":
A trip to just about any street-rod exposition nowadays should provide a clue that things are not as they once were. If the usual Ford roadsters and Tri-Five Chevys seem to be in shorter supply, and OBS trucks and G-body cars seem more abundant, it's possibly because the latest generation of builders and customizers has cultivated an automotive aesthetic that differs, sometimes sharply, from that of their predecessors.
They've cultivated different technical skills, too: Leading-edge technologies such as 3-D printing and CNC machining have revolutionized the way these vehicles are built, and today's hot-rod owners are more than likely to want the latest onboard bells and whistles such as Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay incorporated into their rides, making later-model vehicles more desirable as build platforms. In any event, the hot-rod market now constitutes a $1.26-billion industry, according to the most recent survey from the SEMA Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA) council.
Like many other market segments, hot rodding faces a certain number of challenges in the coming years while also presenting opportunities for growth. For this article, we contacted a dozen or so industry leaders for their takes on this rapidly changing market. What follows is a compilation of their insights, edited for clarity and length.
"If you made me lay a wager at the beginning of COVID what was going to happen with our business, I would've said we're going to plummet," said Jeff Grantmeyer, Borgeson Universal sales manager and HRIA select committee member. "And it went just the opposite: It was completely unexpected."
And the vehicles of that unexpected performance took some by surprise: trucks. "You could throw a rock in any direction at a show and hit a truck with our wheels on it nowadays," said Billet Specialties Marketing Manager Scott Sandoval. "That's definitely the current trend. That right there is keeping us busy as all heck."
ididit Inc. Sales Manager Eddie Mohr agreed. "For us, the truck market right now is huge. I mean we still have our musclecars and all that, but trucks are up there at the top."
"You used to see a lot of '32s and all that kind of stuff," said Dennis Overholser, co-founder and vice president of product development at Painless Performance Products. "Now it's either lowered trucks or something that's like 10 ft. in the air. It's amazing that in the last two or three years, the number of shows that are truck only."
Mohr called the later C-series GM trucks the leaders of the pack. "We have quite a bit of '60–'66 products, but the '67 all the way up to '87 are huge. Ford trucks in that '67–'72 market have been climbing as well."
"We can't make [products] fast enough," Overholser added. "We're coming out with more conversion kits for LS engines." According to him, of the questions he fielded at a Goodguys event the week before this interview, more than half pertained to the C10 and LS. "The only thing halfway close is the Jeep market."
The rationale? "I think people are just sort of getting priced into what they can afford, and what they can afford right now is trucks," said Hemmings' Director of Digital Content Evan Perkins.
"That's what started hot rodding," observed Classic Instruments COO John McLeod. "If you remember, it was, 'I can't afford anything, so I went to the junkyard and there were a lot of '32 Fords. Let's drag one home.'"
"They also made a lot more trucks than musclecars," Perkins adds. "The smog-era trucks still had V8s, whereas most of the cars went to V6s and four-cylinders. They're all rear-wheel drive, and they made each body style for years or even decades without real big changes."
"They're like Tri-Five Chevys in that sense," McLeod opined. "The funny thing is, when we were asking what's next, nobody saw trucks."
"We've seen a lot of growth in the '89–'98 old-body-style trucks as well," Grantmeyer said. I think it's kind of driven by what platform is affordable for people to start modifying. So, people are going where they can and a lot of that's—and I can't believe it—the OBS trucks. We started shipping after [the SEMA Show] and things have taken right off on us."
"You know, we're working on a kit for the OBS truck now," said Vintage Air President Rick Love. "That's going to be our next new bolt-in SureFit system."
The consensus isn't quite as solid regarding the obstacles, a good thing since the supply chain was the unifying cry this time last year. "On our end, the supply chain stuff's starting to heal up," Love said. "Our lead times for systems are going down."
"Our biggest problem right now is getting small parts to finish harnesses," Overholser added, explaining the abundance of square-body part numbers languishing in barrels due to a shortage of ignition-switch plugs. "So now we're looking at having molds made at like $60,000, $65,000 a shot."
Ford's more recent discontinuation of a connector, and Delphi's decision to discontinue connectors that GM used in everything from 1955–1979, inspired Painless to explore other options, among them 3-D printing. "We had another company draw it and we bought a 3-D printer so we can make 'em ourselves." Make no mistake: vendors will eventually fill that market gap, but by then Painless will have found other problems to solve with its printing program.
The next pressing issue? "Labor,"
Grantmeyer lamented. "Getting people to understand that it's a 40-hour work week and that work is more than just showing up is a problem," he said.
"Well, we've got plenty of people in the plant as far as assembly workers, [but] it's hard to find someone who really wants to get into engineering," Overholser said. "We've got people in the tech department, but getting them there every day is a
"I hate to say it because I like to dabble with youth engagement," said Amy Fitzgerald, HRIA select committee member and co-owner of Cool Hand Customs in Middleton, Wisconsin. "We have a high school and an alternative school across the street from us, and they just built a $12 million addition. It's like a small college campus. But there is not even one room for automotive. They don't even have a basic welding class. So, it makes it very difficult to get any of these kids involved."
"We're running multiple ads, word of mouth, and the usual," Sandoval said. "But it's…it's just frustrating. I don't know what else we can do."
But hot rodders are nothing if not creative. "In the sales staff, I've had great success getting enthusiasts out of the auto-parts industry," Grantmeyer said. "They got all the patience in the world: They can sit there face-to-face with somebody screaming at them about their broken car on a Sunday. They also have a good foothold in automotive knowledge."
On labor's heels is inflation. "With inflation, nobody's gonna take less on the bottom line," Grantmeyer said. "Everything's going up everywhere, and we're trying to manufacture a quality product for a fair price."
The frequency of those increases doesn't help, either. "Some of our suppliers have forgotten to let us know that there were multiple increases in like a six-month period," Fitzgerald said. "So, we find out we're undercharging for materials. Well, you can't just go back and fix that."
Overholser called price increases inevitable. "We're looking at doing something because of copper prices and so forth." But he refuses to go without a fight. "We're trying our best to keep the prices low and volume high." His rationale? "We can turn that volume into labor: the more the volume, the less overhead per part."
And The Weird
According to the breadth of emerging markets, that volume could well hold the key to success.
"Everybody has been doing the C10s," McLeod noted. "But now you're starting to get the orphan trucks. The Old Body Style ['88–'98 GM] trucks are now coming on strong. So are later Ford trucks. We're even starting to see Dodge trucks."
"Now that trucks have become the piece, we're starting to get G-bodies," McLeod said. Case in point: Last year Vintage Air introduced kits for those cars, and it just released one for '82–'92 Camaros and Firebirds.
"There's quite a bit of what I call cross-pollination going on, truck guys buying G-bodies and putting big wheels on 'em," Sandoval observed. "You would never have thought, you know, a [guy] with a Dixon flannel and a flat-brim hat would be cruising some big-wheel G-body, but here we are! It's a new world, and they think it's cool.
"And it is cool," he enthused. "Most people might not be ready for it right now, but they will be soon. There's that acceptance gap, but I think that gap is getting shorter with social media."
"I've noticed that as well because I wouldn't have been caught dead in something like a four-door sedan years ago," Love said. "But you look at the musclecars of today, Chargers, BMWs, Porsches, Audis and stuff like that. It doesn't matter to people that they have four doors."
"The '55 Chevys and stuff, I think that's kind of run its course for now," said Steve Szymanski, principal at Industrial Chassis and shop manager at Phoenix Hotrod Company. "The stuff we thought was cool in the '80s is coming back." Case in point: A Mustang II competed for the Don Ridler Memorial Award at the Detroit Autorama. "It's kind of a neat car. You know something like a Nissan Hardbody is going for the Ridler one day. And I'm serious."
Sandoval recognized it in broader cultural terms. "Hey, that Maui and Sons ['80s surf lifestyle brand] style is coming back too. I was shopping with my wife, and I'm like back in the '80s and early '90s with these clothes! Now's the time for that style to come back."
"I think you know [that] part of the allure of this whole hot-rod thing is nostalgia," Love said. "What was cool when you were younger still is cool when you're older, you know? My daily driver's an '87 Monte Carlo Aero Coupe. I guarantee you I get more reactions from people in that Monte Carlo than I ever got in my '39."
"That group that graduated between 1980–1990, that's the sweet spot right now," McLeod concluded. "Now that they have a little extra money, they build the cars that they liked as kids—it's the same thing we did with Tri-Fives and first-gen Camaros."
"You know, everyone's so worried about the industry declining and I just don't see any signs of that," Fitzgerald said. "Is this going to stay, or is this a fluke?" Grantmeyer asked. "That's a conversation we constantly have. Every economic indicator out there says that business should absolutely suck right now. And it doesn't."
"You hear that layoffs are happening or we're heading into a recession, or we are in a recession, or whatever," Mohr said. "Well, we're not seeing that."
But Love had something to ponder. "We all compete for discretionary income," he said. "You know, during COVID, people weren't going out to eat. They weren't going to concerts. They weren't going to football or baseball games. But, you know, car stuff was still there. And I think part of the boost we're enjoying is due to that. There was less competition for that discretionary income.
"And now all that stuff's back in place, now we've got to go back to competing for that limited discretionary income," he said. "And I think that's the biggest challenge yet."
HOT ROD ALLEY
As of August 15, 2023
Aces Fuel Injection 23777
American Autowire 23595
American Retro 22785
Aprisa Industrial Co. Ltd. 22483
Autoclinic RestoMod 22882
Bangin Headlights 23194
Bed Wood and Parts LLC 22897
Bous Performance 23186
Brookville Roadster 23077
Burr King Manufacturing Co. Inc. 23477
Coker Tire 22677
CVF Racing 23677
Dapper Lighting 23381
Dove Racing 23792
Engaged Media Inc. 22697
EPAS Performance 23580
Fine Lines 23591
FiTech Fuel Injection 22993
Flaming River Industries Inc. 22682
Flat Out Autos 23685
Fuel2Electric LLC 24512
Gardner-Westcott Co. 23087
Gear Vendors Overdrives 22477
Goodguys Rod & Custom Association 23277
Good Times Classic Cars 22377
Grex Power Tools 22797
Hot Rod Fuel Hose 23081
Hughes Performance 23481
HushMat & ZyCoat 23195
Ikon Industries 22585
In The Garage Media Inc. 23180
LEED Brakes 23196
Legacy Classic Cars of Texas 23693
Legacy EV 24913
March Performance 23177
Mattson's Custom Radiator 22492
MB Marketing & Mfg 22391
Mooneyes USA Inc. 22385
National Street Rod Association 22577
North Star Plating-Chrome Electroplating 22482
Powermaster Performance 22691
PRW Industries Inc. 22484
Pyramid Optimized Design 22981
Restomod Air 23493
Retrofit USA LLC 22582
Road Cartel 23284
Roadster Shop 23577
SaltWorks 3D Solutions 23082
SEMA-HRIA/ARMO Councils 23295
SendCutSend Inc. 23485
Show Cars Automotive Inc. 23192
Speedway Motors Inc. 22891
Steele Rubber Products 22587
Syracuse Nationals 22490
TIGER Drylac U.S.A. Inc. 22885
Tuff Stuff Performance Accessories Ltd 23377
Under Dash Hydraulics/Malwood USA 23282
United Pacific Industries Inc. 23183
U.S. Radiator 22877
U.S. Wheel Corp. 22381
Veethree Group 23093
Vibro Solution 23697
Viking Performance Inc. 22987
Vintage Air Inc. 22581
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