Written by: Stan Rarden
Taking brand-new cars and modifying them for people isn't a well-populated industry. Leaving aside limo builders and those folks who build huge bulletproof Mercedes for Arab oil sheiks and dope dealers, there really aren't many companies participating in, much less turning a substantial profit from, this business. We're talking about a tiny niche of an already small niche of the new-car market. The companies that are doing well in this market are those that have spent time and energy in making their cars easy to buy, as well as elevating their performance and image.
You might not think so (until you actually go through the process), but no other single factor has been more of an impediment to owning a "special order" supercar than going through all the extra steps involved in buying one. These complications, while not insurmountable, are many, and can become a pain in the neck. For example: The base vehicle's original purchase price can be financed through the dealership or another lender, but the cost of the modification is an additional several thousand dollars, usually payable in cash up front. This makes a big-ticket item even bigger-ticket.
Transporting your new car from the dealership to the supercar builder and having it returned is usually a hassle, involving private auto transporters at an additional cost, and sometimes the buyer even has to arrange this.
The gray area surrounding new-car warranties gets larger once your brand-new car is modified at a place other than the factory or the dealership. Understandably, the new-car dealer isn't very excited about selling you something that he can't (or won't) service under warranty.
These and a few other considerations have always kept buying a special-order car a little outside the reach of most of the car-buying public. Let's be honest: Buying a new car is enough of a hassle without introducing other headaches into the deal. Thankfully for us, though, SLP Engineering of Troy, Michigan, is doing something about this. SLP alone among the supercar manufacturers, has studied these little pitfalls and through a creative arrangement with General Motors, has made buying one of its supercars practically as easy as buying a car off the showroom floor. If you're buying, say, a Firehawk, it's no more complicated than choosing a color and remembering a special RPO code. If you can do those two things, and you have the address of the local Pontiac store, it's just about a done deal.
Here's how it works: The Firehawk is available through your local Pontiac dealer by merely picking out a Trans Am coupe (with or without the Formula option) or convertible and breathing into the salesperson's ear the magic code: WU-6. In one of the most clever and intelligent marketing moves in recent years, SLP has infiltrated Pontiac's order system and gotten itself assigned a General Motors Regular Production Order (RPO) code, which allows any dealership and any salesman, no matter ho hip (or not), to be able to sell you one of these with the same ease as selling a Montana minivan. All you need to do is pick a color from the short color chart and a new Trans Am is shipped direct from its St. Therese GM assembly plant to SLP's factory in Troy to undergo conversion into a Firehawk. In a few weeks, your new hot rod is delivered to your dealership, you get a phone call, and you come in and get the keys. Gm covers cars from SLP under the same 3/36 warranty as the off-the-shelf Pontiacs. The car's total cost, complete with the upcharge for the SLP treatment, even qualifies for GMAC financing! If hot rodding gets any simpler, it's not going to be any fun.
The process is only slightly more complicated with the GTX Grand Prix, since the list of cars that can be modified into GTX's is longer and there are more available colors from which to choose. In either case, you don't need to worry about what to do with the "takeoffs" - the stock parts replaced by SLP's special ones. These are retained by SLP and their value is credited to you in the price of the car as finally delivered. This is one reason the cost of the Firehawk and GTX is relatively low compared to many of the special-order supercars.
Reg Harris cites the experience he an many other SLP executives gained as execs at General Motors.
"What we were after was a completely transparent way to buy our cars," he says. "We needed to remove the pitfalls most commonly encountered by both the customer and the dealer and make the entire process as foolproof as we could.
"We recognized that when someone is ordering a limited-edition car for special modification, there are so many things that can go wrong. The customer could start with the wrong car. He could request the car be equipped from GM with totally wrong equipment, or equipment incompatible with our modifications, or in a color we couldn't support. And even if the customer had his act together and knew exactly what he wanted, things could go wrong at the dealership, in filling out the order forms and so on."
Due to SLP's experience and unique relationship with General Motors, it had a special understanding of GM's requirements and the needs of the car dealerships."By grouping together all the right factory options," Reg explains, "like the right engine and handling equipment, and our modifications, under a standard GM RPO code, any salesperson at any dealership could, by entering this code in his sales computer, get it right the first time. And thanks again to our relationship with GM, we're able to simplify the transportation element so the car is delivered to the dealership just as any car ordered from the factory would be."Harris is reluctant to say just how SLP managed to pull off the two biggest miracles, which are factory warranty coverage and GMAC financing. Obviously someone at SLP knows the back corridors at General Motors very well, and this results in just that kind of "transparency" to which Harris referred.This is a magazine about Pontiacs, so we'll not wax at length about SLP's Bowtieofferings, the Camaro SS and the all-new Chevy S-10 based supertruck (a GMC version is soon to be announced), but presumably SLP was able to work the same deal with the suits at Chevrolet as well.
So if you're shopping in that very small market niche where the special-order supercars live, chances are you're looking for something with a little extra in the way of workmanship and fine detail. It's nice to know that, at least at SLP, the workmanship and detail to the business side of the order form as well.