On the Level                                                                        By Jim Wilder                         ...
tems. Finally, he added a phone                                                           variety of vehicles, including t...
hour for each wheel, although an expe-rienced technician familiar with theproduct probably can do the job inabout half tha...
one out of 100,000 solenoids go                                                                 Orders are received fromba...
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Strutmaster feature.layout

  1. 1. On the Level By Jim Wilder Undercar Digest Editor “When we got to Gatlinburg and were drivingS trutmasters, a company that offers cost-efficient replacement parts for vehicles that use air-bag around town, people would ask, ‘What do you have, or electronic suspension systems, is in existence two dead men in the trunk or are you hauling moon-today because of a choice the founder made in buy- shine?’”ing a used car. Once the vacation was over, Lofton took the That’s how Chip Lofton explains the start of his Continental to the local Ford dealer and learned thatever-expanding business in Roxboro, N.C. In the late he needed four suspension air bags and a compressor1990s he had become a mortgage broker and knew for a total of $3,500 – money that Lofton didn’t wantthat an older Chevy van wasn’t the type of vehicle he to spend on a car that he paid $4,500 for and that heneeded when visiting potential customers. learned had a blue-book value of only $1,900. “I purchased an ’89 Lincoln Continental from a “It was a long way from having a good invest-good friend of mine,” he said. “It was a nice, clean ment,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s not a problem. Surelycar. Its body style still looked current, and I really someone has found a way around all of this to fixthought I had gotten a great deal. The first thing that these old cars.’”happened to it was the head gaskets blew on it – a After about two months of religiously surfing the$1,280 repair. Then the starter went and that was Web, he determined there wasn’t an aftermarket so-$500, and then the alternator went and that was an- lution. He and a neighbor, who was a mechanic,other $500. It started to cost a little bit, but after a gathered some coils and struts to try to fix it. The firstHere are before-and-after photos of a Continental with the old leaky air-bag system and a new strut-and-coil system.while I thought I had caught everything that was attempt looked good, but the car went down as soongoing to go wrong.” as his children got into the back seat. The spring rate Unfortunately, Lofton’s problems had just begun. wasn’t right. But after a second try it worked.He hadn’t taken his family on a vacation in years, so “I had done this only to save $3,500 on my ownwith the “better” car, the family headed for car,” he said. Somebody else in town heard I had“Dollywood.” done this and asked me if I would fix their car. I ex- “We were 60 or 70 miles down the road and pulled plained to them I was a mortgage broker and not ainto a gas station to fill up, and the rear end of the car mechanic, but they followed me around and beggedwent down. I thought at the time that it was making a lot. So I figured my contribution to mankind wouldsome type of adjustment. I did have two children in be to fix it for one other person. One led to 10 and 10the back seat and a lot luggage in the back.” led to 100. Toward the end of 1999 I put Strutmasters The car didn’t come back up, so Lofton read the on eBay for just one body style of car, which was theowner’s manual, checked the fuses, played with the 1988-94 Continental. Within just a few months I hadwires and bounced it up and down a few times. sold about $53,000 worth of parts.”When he slammed the door in frustration the car lev- One of his mortgage customers built a Web site foreled out and they were off. Within 10 minutes the him. Lofton, in turn, began to sell hot rods and mus-car’s rear was nearly dragging the pavement. After cle cars for friends, along with his Strutmasters prod-stopping several times and slamming the doors to uct line. He got so many hits that the Web site movedlevel it out, Lofton finally gave up. to the No. 1 slot under Lincoln air-suspension sys-14 Undercar Digest
  2. 2. tems. Finally, he added a phone variety of vehicles, including thenumber and sold $53,000 in GMC Envoy and the Cadillacproducts the first month it was Escalade, have electronic suspen-listed. Then people started con- sion systems that will be costly totacting him about their Town replace at the dealer.Cars, Mark VIIs, Mark VIIIs and One of Strutmasters’ best cus-others. One by one he started tomers is a Ford dealer whoadding applications, and his would rather replace the OEbusiness started growing by 20% parts with Strutmasters’ strut andeach month. Sales reached coil kit because there is less$1 million in 2001, $2 million in chance of a comeback. Price is a2003 and $3 million in 2004. They factor, too, because the OE re-are expected to exceed $5 million placement sells for $3,500 com-by the end of this year. pared with the Strutmasters kit, With business booming, which is $529 delivered and has aLofton moved from a barn build- lifetime warranty.ing on his family farm to a Another replacement system16,000-square-foot rental build- that is becoming popular is foring that he thought he could the Infinity Q45.never fill. A year later he was Buck Harris, Chip Lofton and Matt Lofton of “When it goes bad there is oillooking for more space. Today, Strutmasters examine a replacement coil-and- everywhere and it is nasty,” he strut system.Strutmasters occupies a former said. “The only people who canyarn mill that has 220,000 square feet and plenty of work on them are Infiniti dealers, and it’s a $9,000 re-room for expansion on its five-acre site. pair. “We sell a kit for that car delivered that is $795 Strutmasters now offers replacement suspension with a lifetime warranty.”air bags and compressors for Lincolns at about half Strutmasters sells to a variety of markets, includ-the cost of OE replacements. He notes that motorists ing DIYers and direct sales to shops, and even made awon’t experience some of the electrical problems that special strut-and-coil system for a heavily armoredare common with other OE replacement bags and that Mercury Navigator owned by the CIA. O’Reillythe warning light on the instrument panel will stay Automotive, a popular parts-store chain in theoff. Many compressors are near failure by the time Midwest, contacted Strutmasters to obtain the line, asthe car owner finally decides to replace the air bags. did a variety of warehouse distributors. The companyThat’s because the compressors continually try to re- also is an approved vendor for Meineke, which hasfill the leaking air bags. The remanufactured com- experienced great success with its more than 800pressors have been improved, with capacities of 165 shop locations, Lofton said. Meineke officials havepsi compared with only told Lofton that the120 psi for the OE unit. product has enabled His business of selling them to get customerscoil- and strut-replace- they normally wouldn’tment units just keeps see, which in turn en-growing. He’s learned ables them to get addi-that the rubber bags on tional undercar salesair-suspension systems because the customershave an average life ex- are so happy.pectancy of four or five Although the compa-years, about the same as ny started by selling tofor electronically con- consumers, it hastrolled suspension sys- learned that aftermarkettems. distribution channels “Now we do all the The Strutmasters sales staff includes (from left) Brent Suddreth, make more sense for re- Garry Moore and Darnell Carver.Lincolns, all the peat business.Cadillacs, a few 1980-84 “This is a profit cen-Chrysler New Yorkers and Dodge Dynastys, Range ter for shops,” Lofton said. “Before we came along,Rovers, Jaguar, the Subaru, Subaru XT, the Infinity the shop would have to say, ‘This is a dealer itemQ45 with hydraulic leveling and Lexus.” only; I’m sorry.’” Looking down the road, he already knows that a A fair installation charge for a shop is about oneAugust 2005 15
  3. 3. hour for each wheel, although an expe-rienced technician familiar with theproduct probably can do the job inabout half that time, Lofton said. One question that always comes upis, “Do motorists have to sacrifice theloss of a better ride?” Lofton’s son, Matt, answers thequestion: “I like to tell these people thatthey probably have a 10-year-old sus-pension on these cars. Anytime you Fred Long prepares UPS shipments.take a 10-year-old suspension off of avehicle and replace it with new parts –whether it be the replacement air suspension or elec- “When you go through turns with 17° banks, thosetronic systems or our conversion kits – it’s going to cars with air bags would try to level themselves andride better just for the fact it’s new.” make the cars push. When we put our coil/strut kits The senior Lofton noted that his company is more on, the cars just hug the curves. A Mark VIII will real-involved in designing and packaging than being a ly corner. With air bags a Mark VIII will squat on amanufacturer. He and his staff have found that coils fast takeoff. That won’t happen with our kits.”made from cold-rolled steel work better than those Buck Harris, Strutmasters general manager, notedmade from hot-rolled, and they also have learned that the company now offers about 100 part numbersthat one major brand of strut may work better on a making up about 35 different kits.specific vehicle but that another brand is the best “Our biggest chore has been to educate people thatchoice for another vehicle. When there’s a need for a we exist and that our product exists,” Lofton said.new kit application, the company tests a variety of “By advertising in Undercar Digest we’ve educated aspring rates and strut valving until it finds the right lot of shops to know that there is something outcombination. Struts used include Gabriel, Monroe, there.” Sachs and Visitors to the plant soon recognize that the cus- Tokico. tomer-service “We know and sales staffs people want a do more than luxury ride, just take orders. and we’re “When a call mindful of comes in, our that,” Lofton main focus is to said. “We get a educate the cus- lot of com- tomer on what ments back that could be wrong the car has with the car,” never driven so Harris said. “If well.” they call to That makes order a sense on the solenoid, we cars originally could just write equipped with an order and air bags if you sell them a think of a solenoid, butConnie Gill checks a remanufactured banked race Wayne Pruitt tests a spring rate. we know for acompressor. track, he said. fact that maybe16 Undercar Digest
  4. 4. one out of 100,000 solenoids go Orders are received frombad. We know that he has some- 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. easternthing else going on.” daylight time, seven days a The company always goes the week. When a consumer callsextra mile for the customer, about the product, the staffLofton said. If something will ask for their ZIP codedoesn’t go quite right, whether and then tell them the loca-it’s the company’s fault or the tion of the closest shop thatcustomer’s, Strutmasters will do installs the systems.everything possible to make it Harris noted that this is aright, including shipping prod- strong market niche for shopsuct overnight to help the cus- that take advantage of it.tomer. In addition, the customer Through a computer search,will receive a personal letter he found that at least 11 mil-signed by Lofton, apologizing lion vehicles on the roadfor the inconvenience. For or- today eventually will requireders received by 4 p.m., the replacement of air-bag orcompany ships product the electronic suspension sys-same day – if not, Lofton said, tems. Strutmasters helps thesomeone at the company is shops with marketing materi-going to hear about it. Order fill als that include generic bayis basically 100%, unless it’s a Strutmasters’ office staff includes (front row, from banners explaining that the left) Brenda Hart, Carla Hodgin and Laura DeJesus;new part under development. (back row, from left) Sarah Crutchfield, Lisa Grubbs shop repairs Lincoln and The company re- and Robin Calhoun. Cadillac suspensioncently opened a systems. It also of-distribution center fers scheduling cal-in Los Angeles to endars for shops,meet the needs of and vehicle enthu-its California cus- siasts can find in-tomers, cutting de- formation aboutlivery time to one Strutmasters on theor two days. Web site of popularAnother distribu- TV auto techniciantion center is ex- Sam Memmolo.pected to open near Strutmasters’Jackson, Miss., in niche continues tothe next several expand, Loftonmonths. said. Because the Shop operators company is in-have found that the volved in stock-carskill level required racing, it has devel-to replace a worn The company’s latest prototype product is rear air-bag suspension kits for oped a rear air-bagsuspension system 1-ton pickups. suspension systemwith one from Strutmasters is similar to that required for one-ton trucks that pull heavy trailers. It also hasfor a brake job. developed a level-select air-suspension system for “It’s a bolt-on product,” Lofton said. “Everything 1962-72 Chevy pickups.fits in exactly the same place. We’ve taken care of all “The business keeps on growing,” Lofton said.that.” Strutmasters 50 Providence Road Roxboro, NC 27573 866-597-2397 Fax: 336-597-8838 Circle No. 50 on Reader Card www.strutmasters.comAugust 2005 17