Welcome to Desert Classic Parts!
Finding good trim parts for 40 year old cars is getting harder every day, and the cost of chrome plating old parts seems to be going through the roof. We started Desert Classic Parts because we couldn’t find the parts we wanted for our cars.
Desert Classic Parts develops and manufactures quality reproduction parts for American classic and collectable cars. Our first parts are being developed for Mercury Cougar and Ford Mustang vehicles produced between 1964 and 1973.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was talking to Don Rush at West Coast Classic Cougars about the relative scarcity of Cougar parts, and as I recall it, he suggested I either shut up or do something about it. I got to thinking about it and decided he was right. Fast forward through a few dozen endless conversations and I found myself opening up a box full of decrepit old air conditioning vents and other goodies that really needed to be reproduced.
In the spring of 2006, I had just parted company with Rockford Corp, my employer of the last 5 or so years, and I decided that developing reproduction Cougar parts would be a good part-time job for a newly semi-retired me. Don had identified several parts that seemed to be just begging to be reproduced: Air conditioning vents for ’67 and ’68, quarter window trim for ’67 through ’70, the trunk lock cover for ’67 and ’68, and one item that had been bugging me, the dash toggle switch knobs for the XR7.
It Will Pay for Itself…
For the past 20 or so years I had been involved in the development of car stereo stuff. Most of this was manufactured in our own plant in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but inevitably, that meant sourcing parts all over the world. Surely an air conditioning vent would be a lot simpler to develop than a speaker or an amplifier? The basic business plan called for locating a supplier that would be happy with small production runs. There were 10 Mustangs built for every Cougar, and only about 10% of the Cougars built had survived the past 40 years. My best estimate is that the worldwide market for a Cougar part that was used in the two highest production years–‘67 and ‘68–would be 5000 units. The plan called for the tooling investment to be divided by those 5000 units over a 5 year period. All we needed to do was to sell 1000 parts per year for 5 years. Heck, that’s only about 3 per day. I was to learn later that this was a hopelessly optimistic estimation. I am pretty sure we are on the 100 year plan now. Well, you can’t take it with you, right?
I should take a moment here to say that developing Cougar parts is a labor of love. The reason no one does these parts is that it just doesn’t make good economic sense, kind of like buying a garage full of project Cougars.
The basic rule of thumb for selecting a part for reproduction is simple. Can we make a new one for less than it costs to restore an original, and is there a big enough demand for the part? In the case of our chrome-plated parts, every part we have done is less expensive than the cost of re-plating originals. That is, if you can find an original that is good enough to re-plate.
Manufacturing: Not for the Faint of Heart
I have been in the manufacturing business in the USA for most of my adult life. I have personal experience of the good and the bad of domestic manufacturing. The simple truth is that most communities do not want manufacturing in their back yard. It is dirty, the jobs offer little hope of advancement, the work is mind-numbing, and in some cases dangerous. The rules and regulations are staggering. For a company with as few as fifty employees, the regulations are the same as they are for GM. For all of the hand wringing about jobs going overseas, these things are unlikely to change. The result is that manufacturing in the US is difficult and expensive. Fortunately, the developing countries are very happy to accommodate us. For Desert Classic Parts, that means China.
If you have ever studied a Ford part number you might be aware that the last letter in the part number indicates the revision level of the part. Over the life of production, parts are continually modified to make them better, to correctly match up with other parts, or to change the way the car is assembled. So when we set out to do a reproduction part, we need to find as many different versions of the part as possible so we can try to design a replacement part that actually works on every version of the car. One good example was the ’69 and ’70 quarter window trim. We had completed the first round of samples before we found that some of the cars required the installation of a rivet through the trim and into the lower drip rail. We had to go back and redesign the part to add this feature.
Some parts are just not very well designed from the beginning. The driver side A/C vent for 1968 is a perfect example. In an effort to make the register portion of the vent break away in an accident, Ford reduced the casting of the main part of the vent down to two very narrow and fragile strips that tied the top and bottom together. As it turns out, these are very easy to break, and it was hard to locate a vent that was not broken. The design was so bad that our Chinese vendor thought we were joking when informed that the part was intentionally made that way. The good news is that because of this original design flaw, we knew there would be a lot of demand for an improved version. We redesigned the vent to be a one piece casting. Although this is not exactly as original, we have not had any complaints.
Most of the design process is completed in the US, then the drawings are sent to China for tooling development. Because we were concerned about the complexity of the parts, we had solid models created from the design drawings. These are made from plastic, and are called Stereolithography samples (SLA). We used these parts to test fit and verify dimensions. The next step is cast parts that are not chrome plated. At that point, the part is very close to production and any further changes would be at great cost. Unfortunately, it was then that we discovered that the mounting points on the ’69 quarter trim needed to be slightly adjusted.
Final prototypes are then run, fully polished, chrome plated, and painted as needed. This is an important step because it is here that we find out whether the finish quality is up to standard. We recently went through nine different chrome plating houses to find one that could give us the finish we wanted. There is much said about the poor quality of Chinese parts. The truth is that the responsibility for the quality of the part belongs to the people that develop the part. If you want cheap junk, they can do that. If you want quality, they can provide that, too. Since most people go to China for cheap stuff, it is no wonder they get poor quality.
The big moment comes when the final prototypes arrive. At this point, you have spent many, many, dollars, and what you have to show for it is exactly one part. The moment shares much with the birth of a child: great joy and also the awareness that it’s just the beginning. If the prototype passes inspection, then the first production run is ordered, packaging and packing is developed, and the logistics side of things starts to roll. You bought yourself a dog, now you’ve got to feed it. You need to get a customs broker and get ready to receive the containerized product when it arrives. This sounds simple, but from the time the container arrives, you have two hours to unpack and inspect the entire container, or very expensive charges start to kick in.
The Best Laid Plans…
Nothing goes exactly as planned. I hear on the news that the security in the ports is lax. Obviously these people know nothing of the reality of the situation. When our container arrives, just like every other container, it passes through a high speed scan, kind of like your luggage at the airport. Our container is then selected for x-ray. This means delay and additional cost. We wait. Then we get selected for spot check. This involves customs agents opening the container, completely unpacking it, opening random boxes of products that they completely unwrap and examine. Once they are convinced the product is what we claim it to be, the container is repacked and finally released. You may be pleased to hear that your tax dollars are hard at work, but that would be incorrect. The owner of the product is billed by customs for this service. It cost almost $2,000 and took just under three weeks to clear customs.
Finally, the product arrives and the selling begins. With any luck, in 100 years or so, your investment pays off. Or so I have been told. We have now completed 11 different parts and have a second round of 16 more that are hopefully to be manufactured this summer.