OCALA, Fla. - Sport-utilities are in constant short supply, yet manufacturers are diverting an ever-growing trickle of them to van converters.
Dealers sell every stock sport-utility they get, but the market for more-luxurious, converted vehicles is growing and is largely untapped, say members of the conversion industry.
They say their companies can add warranted luxury touches at a lower price than the factories and with better quality than the aftermarket.
Evidence that the factories are opening the spigot comes from the latest figures available from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. They show 1,600 sport-utilities released by the makers to the converters in January and February, double the 800 released during the same months in 1994. March figures are due this week.
Consumer interest has been growing for nearly two years, said Mark Dormady, special vehicle coordinator at Southern Comfort Conversions Inc., in Trussville, Ala.
'People had been buying them at the dealership and fixing them up themselves,' Dormady said. 'Now, they want to buy them already fixed up, coming right from a converter.'
Designers at Mark III Industries Inc., the nation's largest vehicle converter, are poring over a Jeep Grand Cherokee to see what can be done to gussy it up.
'There's a consumer need that we're trying to fill,' said Clark Vitulli, Mark III president and chief executive officer, in an interview at company headquarters here. Full-sized vans will always be Mark III's bread and butter, Vitulli said, but he is eager to get hold of Ford Explorers, GMC Yukons and more Chevrolet Suburbans.
If the conversion industry doesn't obtain more sport-utilities from the manufacturers, he said, consumers will do the conversions on their own. Aftermarket conversions leave customers less satisfied, said Vitulli, in arguing for more sales to companies like his.
William Hutson II, Mark III vice president of sales and marketing, believes more sport-utilities will begin flowing to the converters as soon as the manufacturers see what can be done with them.
'Maybe we can put a hightop on one,' Hutson said.
Ford and Chrysler, which have been adding sport-utility capacity, are more willing to consider increasing the flow.
GMC, which already allows a few of its hot Suburbans to go to converters, is not interested in sending them more until dealer demand is met.
A Chrysler spokesman said it has not considered selling any Jeeps to van converters, but it is willing to talk about it.
Chrysler now offers the conversion industry Dodge full-sized vans and minivans and Dodge Ram and Dakota pickup trucks.
Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee owners often spiff up their vehicles on their own with running boards and other luxury amenities, said Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12, which represents workers at Chrysler's Jeep assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio.
'They can really jazz them up,' Baumhower said. 'It's interesting that the conversion companies seem to have found a new market for our vehicles.'
Mark III will send its modified Grand Cherokee to Chrysler Corp. for inspection.
Upgrades on a Jeep might include ground-effect running boards, exotic hardwood trim on the instrument panel and door panels, mood lights and reading lights along a roof-mounted hardwood panel, exterior graphics and wheel upgrades.
'The real trick is getting the TV inside,' said Jim Hossack, Mark III vice president of product development and materials. Mark III is experimenting with inserting a TV in the back of a front seat in the Grand Cherokee.
Ford doesn't offer its Windstar minivan or Explorer sport-utility to the conversion industry, but automakers eventually will build more sport-utilities than the market can bear, Hossack said. That's when they will be redirected to the conversion specialists, he predicted.
EXPLORER? NOT YET
Sport-utilities may be an emerging 'opportunity market' for the van converters, said Jerry Mittman, Ford Division recreation and special vehicle sales manager.
But dealer demand for Explorers has just been too strong to divert any to converters, he said.
In addition, Explorers coming out of the factories 'are a really good product to start with,' Mittman said.
'It's a real challenge for converters to add value to an Explorer,' he said.
But it makes more sense today to talk about freeing some Explorers for the van conversion industry than it did, say, six months ago, Mittman said.
'We've added 50 percent production capacity for the Explorer,' Mittman said. 'It's something we can now consider for the future. But if we do anything, we'll be highly selective with which ones would convert it.'
A handful of van conversion companies now get Explorers through individual dealers who want to offer something special to customers, Mittman said.
Last year, Ford sent about 20,000 F-series pickup trucks, 48,000 Econoline full-sized vans and a limited number of Broncos to Ford-authorized converters.
LOW PRIORITY AT GMC
With GMC dealers dramatically undersupplied, GMC Truck Division has placed 'very low level' caps on the number of sport-utilities it allocates to conversion firms, said Sharon Basel, a GMC Truck spokeswoman.
There is also a cap on the Jimmy and Yukons allocated to converters, she said.
Chevrolet has no cap on the number of Suburbans it ships to converters, but they fall under the same allocation system as dealers, so converters can't get all they want.
'The converters are another customer, just as important as our dealers,' said Chevy spokesman Dan Hubbert.
GMC and Chevrolet have about a 30-day supply of Suburbans, half the desirable level.
Mark III converts a handful of Suburbans. They are ideal candidates for conversion because they are large enough to accommodate a TV in a hardwood console between the seats, as well as other luxury modifications and amenities, said Vitulli.
Centurion Vehicles Inc. in White Pigeon, Mich., converts some Ford Explorers and Chevrolet Blazers and Tahoes that it gets directly from dealers who want to offers something special to customers.
'There certainly is a market out there for converted Subs,' said Bob Froschauer, president of Centurion.
'But I think our ability to grow in that segment during the next 12 to 18 months will be severely limited.'