DETROIT – With sunroofs fast assuming commodity status, ASC Inc. is staking out new territory within the auto industry.

The late Heinz Prechter created American Sunroof Co. in Southgate, MI, in 1965 and started cutting holes in roofs to let in more light for motorists.

The company helped usher in what has become an enormously popular optional-equipment sector, as about 28% of new U.S. vehicles come equipped with factory-installed sunroofs, according to Ward’s data.

The Chevy SSR is ASC’s most-extensive complete-vehicle program.

But ASC’s niche over the years has been limited primarily to aftermarket sunroofs, while high-volume players Webasto Roof Systems Inc., ArvinMeritor Inc. and Inalfa Roof Systems have dominated the bustling OEM market.

In a quiet transaction this past summer, ASC sold its aftermarket sunroof business to Inalfa. At one point, that business had several plants in the U.S.

The sale set the stage for ASC’s announcement at the first press day of the North American International Auto Show.

ASC CEO Paul Wilbur says the supplier’s moniker now will stand for American Specialty Cars to illustrate the company’s new emphasis on handling design, engineering and manufacturing of low-volume niche vehicles.

ASC hinted a name change was imminent at a media event in November at the company’s new engineering center in Oak Park, MI. (See related story: ASC Wants to Repeat SSR Success)

ASC shouldered about 70% of the design and engineering of General Motors Corp.’s Chevrolet SSR roadster pickup and ships 42 separate subassemblies to GM’s Lansing Craft Centre for final assembly.

The SSR is ASC’s most-extensive complete-vehicle program, and the company is in discussions with other auto makers to play the same role. Wilbur says ASC will announce at least one more specialty-vehicle program within four months.

“We want to be the design, engineering and manufacturing resource for North America,” he says. “No one comes closer to that mark as a U.S.-based company than ASC.”

In Europe, specialty design houses, such as Pininfarina SpA, are well known for their low-volume specialty-vehicle capabilities. Wilbur wants to replicate that model for the North American market and advance what he calls the “American automotive design aesthetic.”

From the 1950s tail fins to 1960s muscle cars to the mass individualization of the 1990s, Wilbur suggests there’s little room for American design to evolve outside of low-volume niches. “There’s nothing left but niches,” he says.

Wilbur notes the 65 new-vehicle introductions at this year’s NAIAS in Detroit. “There’s an explosion of new nameplates, and there is no longer one design aesthetic for the U.S.,” he says. “Some have said this is the golden era of automotive design, and I believe it.”

From a cost standpoint, says Wilburhe, ASC can make a convincing case to an auto maker about its ability to handle a major chunk of a vehicle’s development. “All OEMs struggle to be more flexible manufacturers and search for ways to have derivatives and use specialty vehicles to build strong brands.”

Illustrating the need for specialty vehicles is the growth in 3-vehicle households. Wilbur says 30% of U.S. households have three vehicles, a rise of 27% since 1999.

“Every brand will need a specialty vehicle to break through the clutter and capture the attention of consumers,” he says.