- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Ed Jones is patiently working on the contours of a strip of gleaming metal trim. The molding is for the roof of a 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis, a silver, four-door boat of a car that Mr. Jones is custom fitting with a vinyl roof.

Mr. Jones, 40, is shop manager and an installer for E&G; Classics, a Columbia, Md., firm that is one of the country’s big players in the auto aftermarket. The company designs, manufactures and installs custom-made grills, leather interiors and new tops for cars and trucks. And it installs flip-down televisions, sunroofs and other accessories for dealerships and individual customers.

Contouring the Mercury’s metal trim is one step in a seven-hour process that includes fitting a plastic mold to the car top, upholstering the plastic with vinyl material, drilling holes through the roof and door frames, globbing silicone onto the roof and ultimately fastening the new shell and its trim.

“If people knew how many holes we were drilling in their cars … they might not want the work done,” Mr. Jones says as he fits a screw into one of about 60 freshly made openings in the car top.

The top covers the back half of the vehicle roof and features one light per side on the post between the front and rear doors — a traditional look. The stately four-door Grand Marquis is on its way to Thompson Lincoln Mercury in Dundalk, Md.

Waiting in the wings are Cadillac SRXs, Escalades and other high-end vehicles heading for owners who demand a more personalized look.

Mr. Jones, wearing a green T-shirt and denim shorts, works on the Grand Marquis top inside E&G;’s sprawling shop. It’s about 90,000 square feet of noisy, high-tech metal-cutting equipment, old-fashioned grinders, welders, and workers who design, make or install products to customize cars.

Some 200 employees work in Columbia and a smaller plant in Hanover, Md.

Mr. Jones had E&G; install a sunroof in his car when he was 18 and returned when he heard the company was hiring. He doesn’t consider himself car crazy but appreciates a nice ride.

Today he owns a Toyota pickup, a Toyota Camry and an all original 1983 Camaro Z28 — a classic muscle car.

“I drive it on nice days,” he says.

He also has a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Now a 20-year veteran at E&G;, Mr. Jones installs and supervises about a half-dozen other workers who add customizing touches to 30 or 40 cars a week.

“I enjoy the company,” he says as he uses a tool resembling a pizza cutter to roll vinyl into a tight fit on the roof.

Mr. Jones moves quickly but carefully as he screws and glues the top in place. The metal trim needs a few special twists and turns to fit perfectly around each curve. He tackles the job with the efficiency that comes from 20 years’ experience.

“I like doing the tops,” he says. “It’s what I’ve always done, and it takes a little more skill than just a TV or some of the other work.”

Nationwide, the automotive specialty equipment industry was worth almost $29 billion in retail sales during 2003, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a Diamond Bar, Calif., trade group. Sales in 2003 jumped 7.7 percent from the previous year.

“Appearance” accessories — body kits, sunroofs and grills that E&G; designs or installs — make up about $17 billion of those sales, SEMA says.

“Analyzing the numbers … it’s apparent that automotive appearance products are becoming increasingly more mainstream,” says Christopher J. Kersting, SEMA’s president and chief executive.

E&G;, in business for 33 years, is a privately held company and would not release its sales figures. Jon Titman, E&G;’s national sales manager, says the company is the world’s largest manufacturer of custom grills — the bulk of which go to distributors, who attach them to autos heading to dealerships.

The company also ships to Canada, Asia and Europe.

Cadillac dealerships and drivers are among E&G;’s biggest customers, though a wide array of makes and models demand that personal touch. E&G; makes grills for 30 different vehicles, says Mr. Titman, but the Escalade is the top seller. He estimates that roughly 12 percent of the massive sport utility vehicles sold in the United States feature E&G; custom grillwork.

The custom look on the showroom floor helps move cars and boost profits. A specialty grill would add $595 to $895 at retail, while a specialty top would add about $1,695, Mr. Titman says.

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