- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

PHILADELPHIA — Eric Savage floors the accelerator, and the light-blue Mini Cooper S quickly pushes 50. He jerks the wheel right, then left, and the car darts from one side of the street to the other.

He jams the brakes and the Mini stops abruptly.

"Don't worry. I've been a crazy driver so long, I'm good at it," Mr. Savage quips, then quickly adds: "I'm kidding."

Maybe about his driving, but when it comes to the new Mini, Mr. Savage doesn't joke. This one is modified with a carbon-filter intake, high-flow exhaust and high-energy spark plugs, all of which contribute to its peppy performance.

Mr. Savage, 35, an erstwhile musician and brewmaster, has opened Helix Minisports to develop parts for BMW's Mini brand.

The Mini whose retro styling evokes the 1960s British original, last sold in the United States in 1967 has attracted a lot of buzz among auto enthusiasts. Mr. Savage's goal is to improve the Mini's performance, from acceleration to braking to cornering.

His idea is not new. Once a car becomes "hot" think Volkswagen's new Beetle or Chrysler's PT Cruiser so, too, does the market for performance parts. Mr. Savage, who works out of a rented garage in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, already has several competitors, both established parts makers and new arrivals.

This is not a cottage industry. U.S. retail sales of what are called aftermarket parts hit $26 billion in 2001, growing 93 percent for light trucks and 83 percent for all other autos since 1994, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, an industry trade group.

"People have always loved their cars, but in the last several years they've had money to do things other than buy food and pay rent," said Rosemary Kitchin, the group's spokeswoman. So they have invested money in boosting the performance of their cars.

One of Mr. Savage's competitors, Minimotors of Santa Rosa, Calif., began selling parts for the old Mini about four years ago. Earlier this year, it added products for the new Mini.

"Sales are certainly not going to pay the rent yet, but there's so much interest in upgrading parts and trim pieces that it's definitely going to be good," owner Harvey Mendelson said.

The new Mini, produced in Oxford, England, debuted at the Paris Auto Show nearly two years ago and became available in the United States in late March. With a length of 11.9 feet, it is the shortest car sold in America. BMW expects to sell about 20,000 Minis this year, the entire U.S. allotment.

Mr. Savage hopes to generate business from people like Jason Livingood, 31, of Philadelphia. Mr. Livingood bought his Mini last month and planned to modify what he said was already a "very, very fun car."

"Everybody is going from Point A to Point B, but this makes getting from Point A to Point B a lot more fun," said Mr. Livingood, who sold his new Beetle to buy the Mini. "I'm just waiting to see what these tuning companies develop."

Helix sells 15 products, with more on the way. About one-quarter were developed by Mr. Savage and his business partner, Chris Kellett. Among them: an aluminum "stress bar" that stiffens the chassis and improves handling, a heavy-duty brake rotor, and spark plugs that improve fuel combustion and thus power.

Mr. Savage eventually wants all product development and manufacturing to be in-house, but for now he also is distributing other makers' parts. "A start-up company needs revenue," he said.

Helix has 15 customers, with 70 more on a waiting list for a computer chip that will make the Mini's engine more powerful.

Mr. Savage has no engineering degree, but he is a lifelong car tinkerer who used to work in a tuning shop. He is restoring a 1971 BMW race car and also plays around with a 1970 Porsche and a rare 1976 Lancia Scorpion.

He is confident he will make a go of it.

"People who like to tune their cars like to drive it around in stock form awhile, and after putting a few thousand miles on, they want to make it fun again," Mr. Savage said.

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