Automakers once were the sole source of sheet-metal "crash parts," such as fenders and hoods. But the monopoly is gone, and competition has caused a collision of its own in the auto repair business.
Today, replacement sheet-metal parts might come from Taiwan, Italy or Brazil. Automakers don't like it. Neither do body shops. But the insurance companies love it.And the consumer, who assumes he's getting a fender from Ford or Chrysler or Toyota, might instead be getting one from a tiny overseas factory. The only way to know is to ask. If the customer prefers the automaker's part, his insurance company might require him or his auto shop to pay the difference in the bill.
Call it a fender bender war.
Insurance companies have embraced the cheaper overseas replacement parts, insisting that body shops use them to keep costs down. Body shops and carmakers complain about what they say is the poor quality of the cheaper parts.
About $4 billion worth of sheet-metal replacement parts are used annually, said Edward Molkenbuhr of ADP Collision Estimating Services, a computer service used by insurance adjusters. So the flap over parts has high stakes.
Consumers are largely unaware of the battle, but are caught in the middle.
Ford Motor Co. has been particularly aggressive in opposing the overseas parts. The company has run a series of advertisements and distributed 65,000 posters attacking the quality of the "imitations."
But G. Robert Mecherle of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., which led the insurance industry support of overseas parts, says the competition is driving the cost of replacement parts down, reducing insurance costs.
"We represent the insurance consumer," he said. "We're trying to hold down the cost of repairs. We've seen the prices come down almost a third. We've seen $300 bumper covers come down to slightly over $100.
But Allen Richey, executive director of the Independent Automotive Service Association, an association of repair shops, says consumers will never see lower costs.
"The insurance companies say they'll pass the savings on to the car owner. I don't see that happening. I think it's going to increase the profits of the insurance companies, pure and simple," he said.
And Mr. Richey says the quality of the cut-rate parts is awful.
"In too many instances, they've never been tested, or undercoated, or protected from corrosion or anything of that sort," he said.
Kenneth Myers, product and marketing manager of Ford's parts and service division, said Ford tested some of the cut-rate parts and found they didn't pass the company's 500-hour salt spray test, which simulates five years of weathering.
"The customer will find this fender will rust out after a relatively short period of time," he said. "They'll forget it was a Mr. Taiwan fender and they'll say it was a . . . Ford fender.
"And others will see the car on the street, a Ford, and say, 'there goes another one of those Tin Lizzies.' "
But Mr. Mecherle said the insurance industry is convinced that, on the whole, the quality is comparable to name-brand parts. He contended that the opposition comes from automakers who don't like competition and from body shops who make less money on the lower-priced parts.
"Sure, we're sorry to see that competition has arisen," said Ford's Mr. Myers. "But we thrive on it, we manage to exist. Our major point here . . . Is that our image is suffering."
Mr. Myers said Ford would like to see the imports halted. Short of that, Ford wants new rules to require insurers to tell customers they were getting the overseas parts.