Conversion vehicles enjoyed their heyday in the early 1990s, before the sport-utility craze reached full strength.
The industry's high-water mark came in 1994, when 259,600 units - including vans, sport-utilities and pickups - were sold. Last year, the industry hit just 148,600 units.
But since March, conversion vehicle sales each month have made modest gains over 1998.
'I think we've seen it finally bottom out and it looks like the industry is about to start back up,' said Kelly Rose, CEO of Starcraft Industries Inc., a vehicle conversion company in Goshen, Ind.
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Several factors have combined to start the turnaround, said Kevin Slater, vice president of Chariot Vans Inc., in Elkhart, Ind. First, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler's Dodge division have banded together with the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va., to sponsor a conversion vehicle advertising program.
The advertisements, appearing in RV and other trade papers, tout the viability of the segment and stress how profitable conversion vehicles are for dealers.
Dodge also has showcased its conversion vans in TV spots, targeting consumers with a message of versatility and economy.
Dominic Tucci, who runs the conversion vehicle and commercial truck department at Les Stanford Chevrolet in Dearborn, Mich., has noticed a sales uptick.
The advertising campaigns, coupled with Chevrolet lease promotions and 4.9 percent financing, have helped boost his year-to-date sales by about 25 percent, to 300 units through October.
Dealers who sell conversion vehicles must adopt different strategies than a typical new-vehicle dealer, Tucci said.
Some of Tucci's retailing techniques include stocking temporary replacement TVs and videocassette recorders. When a customer visits with a defective TV, Tucci's service department installs the temporary replacement until the factory-installed replacement can be ordered. Tucci also stocks such items as window shades and some wood trim pieces.
Many of the traditional conversion-van design cues have been dumped. Shag carpeting is out. Molded plastic is replacing wood trim.
Nicked and scratched wood trim pieces are among the most common woes customers bring to his service department, Tucci said, and 'less wood means less warranty repair. Wood chips and fades.'
One reason for the steep sales decline was the growing popularity of sport-utilities. Buyers who had sought conversion vehicles for their roominess and functionality flocked to the more trendy sport-utility, Slater said.
But after four years of booming sport-utility sales, some buyers of those vehicles are returning to conversion vehicles, Slater said. Dealers who carry Chevrolet vans customized by Chariot report that some customers are trading in such vehicles as the Chevrolet Blazer and Suburban.
'Sport-utility vehicles ride hard. Your coffee spills on your pants every time you cross a railroad tracks,' Slater said. 'It's not that the SUVs are not well built, it's just that they don't offer what the customers imagined they would.'
Another factor that attracts conversion vehicle shoppers is the price, Slater said. Conversion vans, pickups and sport-utilities had an average 1998 retail price of $31,765 according to the RVIA.
That compares with between $30,000 and $40,000 for a mid- to high-range sport-utility, Slater said, adding: 'What was our nemesis four years ago may come back to be our savior.'