Paul Wilbur: An open-air SUV?
ASC, of Southgate, Mich., makes convertibles for the Toyota Camry Solara and is ramping up for the launch of the convertible version of the Mitsubishi Eclipse. It also produces 42 subassemblies on the Chevrolet SSR, including the retractable hardtop.
The company halted production of convertible tops at its plant here for a few minutes on July 13 to celebrate the production of ASC's 1 millionth convertible over 23 years.
Industry Editor David Barkholz talked with ASC CEO Paul Wilbur.
What's the future of four-door convertibles?
Four-door convertibles haven't been done since the Lincoln Continental back in the mid-'60s. Because of the long wheelbase, many manufacturers didn't think it was technically possible. A long-wheelbase car, when you take the roof off it, has a lot of structural problems that need to be solved.
The ASC Helios (shown at the Detroit auto show in January) is all about proving to the auto manufacturers that we have the structural solutions so a four-door car could come back into the market.
Why would four-door convertibles sell?
It's all about the baby boomers right now. They are reaching the age where they are empty nesters. The kids are through college or they are out of the home. And baby boomers in particular like to socialize in couples. We see two series of couples having some fun. They are very active. And there's a group of those who would be energized by a four-door convertible.
What can we look for in the convertible market over the next two to three years?
The convertible market has been changing. For many years, the convertible market has been on a very slow growth curve. Six percent growth in this past year is pretty healthy. What we really see happening is a lot more diversity of what a convertible is. I predict in the next few years we'll have a convertiblelike SUV. We'll have minivans with much more open-air expression. We'll have crossover vehicles where you can get wind in your hair and sun in your eyes.
Is the automakers' push toward flexible manufacturing - where they build different models on a single line - changing the market for niche vehicle manufacturers such as ASC?
There's still a place for low-volume specialty manufacturers. With the flexibility, it means they can bring more high-volume opportunities into the plant.
What does the future hold for you in terms of manufacturing full cars?
We have some negotiations under way right now for additional vehicles beyond what we are doing on the Chevy SSR. But the SSR as a business model has legs. We think in the U.S. there'll be more opportunities for doing car buildup like that.
What's your time frame?
The next three to five years.
What are your financial challenges?
Capital for growth. When we get involved in a project like SSR, putting up facilities, assembly plants - and often we have customers who want us to take on some of that investment ourselves - that eats up capital. We have pretty good capital partners, so we're in good shape. Private placement will not be a problem for us. But it does have to be justified project by project. Capital is our No. 1 inhibitor.