LOS ANGELES - Automotive megasuppliers may rule the original-equipment market, but the aftermarket still shelters the little guy with a big idea.
Horst Leitner is about to prove it. Leitner, president of AMP Research, is about to cash in on his brainstorm: a bed extender for pickups.
After a successful debut on the aftermarket, AMP has signed deals with all the domestic-label automakers, plus Toyota and Nissan.
AMP's anodized-aluminum Bed Xtender, sold as a factory accessory for a little more than $200, will be offered as an option this fall on the Ford F-150, Crew Cab and SportTrac.
AMP's rapid rise is no accident. According to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, rising truck and sport-utility sales has been accompanied by booming sales of aftermarket components.
'In four model years, the sale of light-truck performance parts and accessories has almost doubled,' said Carl Sheffer, SEMA vice president of OEM relations.
Leitner, an avid off-road motorcyclist, was at a trail head watching bikers struggle to load a motorcycle onto a pickup. The bike barely fit with the tailgate down, and all the equipment rattled off the end of the bed as the truck drove off. Inspiration struck, and AMP cranked out a crude extender in 1996.
The Bed Xtender provides a barrier at the end of the tailgate with the tailgate open. With the tailgate closed, the accessory can flip the other way to form a cargo area to keep small loads from sliding.
In the September 1996 issue of Motocross Action magazine, AMP's crude-by-comparison first-generation Xtender was reviewed as a 'must-have' item, with the admonition, 'If you own a pickup truck, you should own an AMP Bed Xtender.'
After showing the Xtender on a Ford Ranger at SEMA that year, AMP started negotiating deals with automakers.
Because Ford was the first to sign a deal with AMP, only Ford can install the Xtender at the vehicle assembly line for the F-150, Crew Cab and SportTrac. Other automakers must sell it as a dealer-added accessory until the 2002 model year.
John Lohin, Frontier model line planner for Nissan North America, said he expects more than 50 percent of Frontier Crew Cabs will come with the Xtender, given the four-door truck's truncated bed.
Leitner came to America from Austria in 1979 to head the launch of ATK off-road motorcycles. Although it lacked the research and racing budgets of the Hondas of the world, ATK was a cult hit.
Leitner sold the company in 1988 to head out on his own. After being an independent consultant for a few years, Leitner formed AMP, which muddled along making fork braces for sport motorcycles and other piece work.
AMP's tiny headquarters in a light-industrial tract in Laguna Hills, Calif., doesn't have the space to build the flood of orders for Xtenders. So AMP has signed a licensing deal with Plastech Inc. in Dearborn, Mich., to build the part. The only Xtenders AMP builds are those for the Nissan Frontier. The company produces 200 to 400 units a day on two four-person assembly lines.
The Xtenders are made from aluminum tubing, and the support uprights are nylon.
Last year AMP generated about $8.6 million in revenue, a figure Leitner expects to increase dramatically, given the 'tens of thousands' of Xtenders he figures to sell.
Said Leitner: 'Our goal here is to be an r&d center, not a mass-production line. But doing just r&d without a product is a tough dollar.'