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Generation Y drivers spending big on upgrades to their cars

November 22, 2010

To Generation Y drivers—defined as those born between 1977 and 1989—nothing beats a tricked-out ride with the latest aftermarket upgrades, from chrome spinners and custom grilles to voice-activated navigation systems.  

Some say young tuners are driving a car-customizing craze. Others say they buy what they buy because they crave social currency: possessions that give them clout or make them popular.

"Consumers look at their automobiles as a reflection of their personalities," said Peter MacGillivray, vice president of marketing and communications at the Specialty Equipment Market Association. "A lot of kids are turned on by personalization andaccessorization."  

At one shop that specializes in stereo equipment and trendy aftermarket items, none of the employees are older than 30. And considering that more than 75 percent of the customers are in their teens and 20s, it is little surprise that most clients ask for merchandise they saw on the street, in magazines and on TV shows like "Pimp My Ride."

With a rising demand for aftermarket accessories, business for repairs and modifications is booming. Two common requests are body kits and $200-keyhole cameras, which are popular for those who are repeatedly pulled over by the police. Aftermarket additions range from $500 to $15,000.  

Whether at a hip car show or a customizing war where street cred is at stake, one speaker or screen just won’t do. In some cases, a half-dozen to several dozen are needed to one-up the other drivers.

According to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, any aftermarket modifications that prevent adequate rear vision, including TV screens, could be subject to federal violation. Although regulation is typically left up to the state, the NHTSA has penalized custom shops for removing air bags to make room for televisions and other accessories. 

While most young people don’t have six-digits of disposable income, many do have a few grand to kick around. Avid auto tuners tend to be men. In the SEMA youth study, only 28 percent of women identified themselves as auto enthusiasts compared to 57 percent of men.

For more than a decade, Charity Irby has bucked the enthusiast trend.  

When Irby bought her 1994 Honda Accord EX, she was in her 20s and didn’t have much cash to put into it. But that didn’t stop her. Soon after starting a makeshift car wash with some friends, Irby invested in big rims and bumping bass for her import.

"Back then, that’s what everybody was riding," she said of the Honda.  

For years, Irby saved her money to buy a better ride and more modifications. Today, the 37-year-old owns a1987 Cutlass Supreme, pimped out with $35,000 worth of accessories, including Lamborghini-style doors and 10 televisions.

"You don’t see too many guys’ cars that can top mine," she said.  

While few of her friends share her car-customizing passion, Irby said it wouldn’t be long before more ladies get in on the aftermarket action.

"In two years, women are going to be just like the guys" when it comes to their rides, she said.