At 24,737 different products and counting, Corvette America is a one-stop shop for parts and accessories for any generation of America’s sports car. More than just a retailer, they also develop and manufacture their own parts in Reedsville, Pennsylvania, and they are constantly expanding their catalog.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Corvette America vice president John Weaver and ask him a bit about the company’s past, present, and future. Here’s what he had to say.
Corvette Online: How did the company get started back in 1977?
John Weaver: “In the early 1970’s, the owner of the company had a 1965, 396/425 convertible and was involved in an accident. At the time, due to the scarcity of available parts, he realized the car was more valuable to part out and sell piece by piece then it was to repair and sell whole. The idea for the company was triggered by that event. Initially, the focus was on buying and selling used parts. That soon developed into offering a line of restored gauges, clocks and radios, and it has grown from there to be a manufacturer and full line distributor of original, reproduction and replacement parts and accessories.”
CO: What was the first product Corvette America manufactured?
JW: “The first items manufactured by Corvette America in the early 1980’s were door panel skins for 1970-76 Corvettes. At the time, some complete panels were still available from GM, but not in all colors or trim levels. By making the skins, we could re-cover a customer’s original panels if they were in good enough condition, or buy used panels to re-cover and sell. We still make the skins today, but the vast majority are used in producing complete panels rather than re-covering.”
CO: How many different part numbers do you make in-house today?
JW: “With all of the different patterns, colors, year range differences, materials, left and right sides, sub-assemblies and so forth, we currently make about 6,000 different items in our manufacturing facility.”
CO: The classic Corvette market is pretty picky - how hard is it to come up with materials and manufacturing techniques that are period-correct for restorers? What’s been the biggest challenge when it comes to authenticity?
JW: “Since we manufacture mainly interior items, most materials are still used and available or can be custom-ordered if the volume warrants. Some materials, we just can’t locate, like the original style and colors of cloth used on 79-82 seat covers and door panels, so we only offer them in vinyl or leather.”
“In other situations, the original type material may not be available, so we substitute. As an example, the original 68-77 door panels had a press board backing that was susceptible to water damage. We use a formed plastic back that is essentially impervious to moisture problems and we believe is an improvement. Once installed, the difference is virtually indistinguishable.”
“In regard to authenticity, one of our biggest challenges is to improve or at least maintain the function and appearance of a finished product when we might have to use a different manufacturing process than was used originally. Many parts were originally injection molded and the tooling for that process is traditionally quite high. We have been successful at replicating many items using a thermoforming process instead where we can make our own tooling at a more reasonable cost.”
CO: How do you decide what new products to add to the list? How much of it comes from customer feedback? Are there things that you’ve wanted to produce, but just couldn’t due to cost or other factors?
JW: “Many factors are evaluated when considering a new product - customer requests and feedback certainly being among them. We also look at application, i.e. will the item fit on one year or model only, or does it span a wider range? This helps us determine the market potential. Another factor is whether we have the materials already or will it require an investment in additional inventory?”
“We consider if we can manufacture the item with our current processes or does it require a procedure where we don’t currently have the technology? Could we outsource the work that we can’t do in-house and still make the item viable? What tooling will be required? Can we make that ourselves or will it need to be purchased? Do we have or can we get samples of original parts? We also have to consider whether we can make the item profitably.”
“There have been some things over the years where we decided the potential return was simply too low to justify the research and development costs. We encounter things like this most frequently during the model year changes, like 1968, when a part may be used only for a limited time and then a mid-year production change is done. You see this with factory parts as well when you can only get a part that is listed as a replacement.”
CO: How long does it take to get a new product to market? Obviously some things will take far longer than others - textiles are probably quicker than molded parts - but I’m curious as to what that time frame is.
JW: “Development times vary with the complexity of the part. If a finished part has multiple components, each component is essentially a new product. With a molded part, we need to create the forming tool, either by casting a composite mold or creating the CAD data and machining the tool. When we have formed parts, then we typically need a trimming fixture and programming for our equipment. Packaging of the final product is also determined.”
“Textile, cut-and-sew, soft-good type items are generally quicker, although a set of seats may have upwards of 70 separate pieces. Each piece needs to be patterned and then digitized for our cutting equipment. Assembly procedures are determined and test parts are run to verify the patterns and process. We have produced some new items in as little as a month and some large projects have taken several years.”
CO: I’m also curious as to how much it costs to tool up for some things; I don’t think the average customer completely appreciates the startup costs involved.
JW: “It’s not unusual that development and tooling costs for a simple product will be in the mid to high four-figure range. With a complex product or line, we could easily see six figures.”
CO: What are your biggest sellers, and conversely, are there part numbers you offer that don’t move that well, but stay in production because you’re filling a need that nobody else can cover?
JW: “We have had good success with our ’68-’77 dash pads, the three year ranges of upper mains, and the various styles of the two lower pads. We generally have those in various stages of production almost all the time. When we began manufacturing, we made the commitment that, if at all possible, we would offer a complete line in terms of colors and application for any product we developed, and we try to adhere to that still. There are a lot of individual part numbers where we might only sell a couple of units per year in a given color, but that same pattern or tool is used for other colors that are made in a larger quantity.”
CO: What can we expect in the future from Corvette America? Steady expansion of the existing lines/product segments, or moves into new areas?
JW: “Over the past several years, we have worked to improve the quality of our existing lines in addition to adding quite a few new products. We have gone to considerable lengths to completely re-tool some of our major product lines and it has worked out well. We have a few more similar projects underway now.”
“We still have a list of Corvette interior items we would like to develop and will be working on those. We are getting closer to introducing a line of C5 door panels, for example. We are always looking for opportunities, especially if they match well with our existing processes and materials. We wouldn’t rule out making similar products for other car lines if they were a good fit for us.”