General Motors has recruited 24 van conversion companies to help it revive a market segment that has been overshadowed by large SUVs.
The Conversion Van Marketing Association, which was started this year by conversion van companies, is working with GM to sell upgraded versions of the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana.
Conversion van companies buy full-sized vans from automakers and customize them with premium paint and special interiors. They sell the vans to dealers for sale to customers.
The president of the association, Rod McSweeney, owns Southern Comfort Conversions Inc. in Trussville, Ala. He says the group is developing a marketing campaign aimed at persuading more dealers to sell conversion vans and more consumers to buy them.
Conversion van sales peaked at 204,200 units in 1988 and have declined steadily since then, largely because of problems with service and residual values. The auto industry sold 38,800 conversion vans last year, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association says.
During the first half of this year, U.S. consumers bought 15,400 conversion vans - a 25.6 percent decline from the year-ago period.
McSweeney says his group's goal is to increase GM conversion van sales by 25 percent in the next two years.
According to R.L. Polk & Co., a research firm in Southfield, Mich., GM had half of the U.S. conversion van market in the first half of 2004.
Ford Motor Co. had about one-third of the market and Dodge had the rest. Dodge ended production of its full-sized Ram vans in summer 2003.
As of July 15, there were 4,551 conversion vans on GM dealers' lots, an average of less than one per dealer, McSweeney says.
"Things have really changed in the last 10 years," McSweeney says.
"SUVs have taken the spotlight. It's part of the craze. It's like fashion, except it's the automotive industry. I'll bet you know 10 people with SUVs."
The typical conversion van has two captain's chairs each in the front and middle row of seats and a rear sofa that folds out to become a bed.
More elaborate vans have leather interiors and entertainment centers with high-definition TVs, DVD players and theater-like sound systems. The new marketing campaign will showcase these features.