Los Angeles Times

May 14, 2012
Los Angeles Times
May 14, 2012

Custom Car Shops Beat VW to Top
2 Southland Firms Fill Consumer Demand for Convertible Beetles
Los Angeles Times – Los Angeles, Calif.
Oct 8, 1998 By John O Dell

Southern California is home to a huge and versatile automotive aftermarket industry that often designs and produces dress-up and performance-improving add-ons for new vehicles before the car makers even funnel their new models into dealer showrooms.
The Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler and the convertible Toyotas, Nissans and Ford Mustangs that sprang forth in the late 1980s can trace their bloodlines to Southern California’s custom car shops. These and other vehicles eventually became production models from the slower-off-the-mark high-volume manufacturers in Detroit, Europe and Japan.
Now come the convertible Beetles: soft-top versions of Volkswagen’s hot-selling New Beetle.
Two competing Orange County auto customizers have just hit the market with the world’s first convertible New Beetles after substantially re-engineering the car to stiffen the body. It took just six months from the March introduction of the new VW Bug for the convertible models to hit the streets.
Industry insiders say that even with price tags that boost VW’s base price for a hard-top Bug by about 60%, the firms should be able to sell all they can make, given their admittedly limited capacities. Together, they expect to build fewer than 1,000 a year, converting less than 2% of the 50,000 New Beetles that Volkswagen plans to sells in the U.S. each year.
“There’s a lot of demand for a convertible,” says Miles Brandon, owner of Capistrano Volkswagen Inc. in San Juan Capistrano. “We’ve got customers asking us to take advance orders even though it will be a few years before Volkswagen comes out with one.”
The official version for VW’s delay is that the company doesn’t need a convertible yet because it still can’t satisfy demand for the New Beetle with its hard-top models. All of the Bugs are made at a single factory, in Puebla, Mexico, that is running at capacity, VW officials say. New production lines would have to be built to begin making convertibles.
But assembling convertibles is far more complex than building hard tops, and VW is reportedly reluctant to begin making soft-top Bugs because of quality-control problems with its hard tops. Addition of a convertible line isn’t likely, dealers and other sources say, until VW can resolve production glitches that require many of the cars coming off the line in Puebla to be reworked before being released into the retail pipeline.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen customers have been gobbling up the company’s Cabrio, a convertible version of the Golf. Cabrio sales are up about 70% this year and account for almost 10% of the 76,000 vehicles VW has sold in the U.S. through September. The Cabrio typically costs about $4,500 more than the Golf, a 24% premium that is typical of factory-built convertibles.
But there still is a big demand for a topless Bug, and the two Southern California conversion firms have grabbed the opportunity to profit from VW’s delay.
The aftermarket convertibles by Newport Convertible Engineering Inc. of Anaheim will sell for at least $10,000 above VW dealers’ prices for a regular Bug.
With 1999 Beetles typically selling for $16,000 to $21,000, depending on options and dealer profit margins, that puts the convertibles in the $26,000-to-$33,000 range.
Although both are convertibles, the battling Bugs have as many differences as similarities, Newport Convertible has opted for solid canvas, eliminating rear side windows and counting on the large rear window to lighten things in the back seat.
The converters used different approaches to stiffening the Beetle’s frame and body to compensate for removal of the rigid hard top.
Both companies provide warranties on their work, Straman for a year and Newport for two years. The warranties cover the tops and top mechanisms as well as structural rigidity.
The alterations won’t affect VW’s factory warranties on powertrain, suspension, emission and electrical systems.
He says he will market the Beetle convertibles through a network of VW dealers as well as take orders directly from customers. He started sales in late September, almost a month after Newport Convertible launched its marketing effort, and says he has sold three cars and is processing orders for “several dozen more.”
Al Zadeh, founder and president of Newport Convertible, says he expects his volume to hit 50 a month. Newport has specialized in “one-off” conversions of luxury coupes and sedans. Zadeh said the company, which he started in 1983 shortly after graduating from USC with a degree in engineering, has been averaging about 75 custom conversions a year.
He said his company received more than 100 inquiries from an ad in a recent issue of the Robb Report, a lifestyle magazine aimed at the well-to-do. The company has also picked up several clients referred by area VW dealers.
Pete Cameron, owner of Special Vehicle Concepts Inc. in Newport Beach and one of two worldwide distributors for Newport Convertible (the other is ConvertiBeetle Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.), said he has sold a dozen converted Beetles in the last month.
One buyer is Vickie Boyd, a Laguna Beach resident who picked up her yellow convertible Monday and says she’s been driving it around the beach town ever since. “I just love it–it’s so incredibly cute,” says Boyd, who got rid of an expensive Mercedes-Benz roadster to make room for the Beetle.
“I had a yellow convertible {Bug} when I was in school, and when I saw the new ones I started asking if VW was going to make a convertible.”
Boyd says she was told repeatedly that the factory wasn’t going to have one for some time, so she started asking about custom conversions and last month was referred to Cameron by McKenna Volkswagen in Huntington Beach.
“Everybody I see asks me where I got it,” Boyd says. “Nobody asked me about my Mercedes.”
PHOTO: Al Zadeh, above, president of Newport Convertible Engineering Inc. in Anaheim, says his company has received more than 100 inquiries about transforming hard-top Beetles.; PHOTOGRAPHER: KARI RENE HALL / Los Angeles Times; PHOTO: At left, Robert Ramirez of Newport fastens a soft top onto a Bug.; PHOTOGRAPHER: KARI RENE HALL / Los Angeles Times; PHOTO: A ragtop Beetle converted by R. Straman Co. attracts attention at a Newport Beach car show Sunday.; PHOTOGRAPHER: GERALDINE WILKINS-KASINGA / Los Angeles Times
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