CORONA, Calif. — There's something about swinging your car door skyward like a jackknife blade that announces you've arrived.
At least arrived in the sense that you're making the latest cutting-edge auto fashion statement.
Along with big wheels and blaring stereos, car customizers are finding that upward-swinging doors are the latest must-have.
For those whose "ultimate accomplishment is to have a dream car," adding the door feature "definitely adds to the 'eye candy' of the vehicle," says Cory Nastazio, a BMX rider whose silver Mercedes S500 is equipped with the high-profile doors.
The new fad has spawned companies such as Vertical Doors, started by some buddies who say they saw the trend emerging. The founders say that the 3-year-old business, located in an industrial park here east of Los Angeles, is on track for sales of $6 million this year. Several competitors are vying for auto enthusiasts, as well.
All receive their inspiration from the front-hinged, upward-lifting doors of the Lamborghini sports car. They call them Lambo doors.
But making the doors swing upward in other brands of cars involves some tricky engineering.
In the case of Vertical Doors, the challenge started with Samir Rai's 1997 Acura Integra. He was looking for an edge at car shows and was inspired by upward doors.
"I said, 'If a Lamborghini can do it, I'm sure a regular car can do it,' " Rai says. He and two friends in the auto-customizing business, Rob Baum and Paul Anderegg, created a simple hinge that allows the door to be pushed out a few inches, then upward. With another customizer friend, Louis Connole, Vertical Doors was born.
Connole says the business, financed without bank debt, has been consistently profitable. It has 22 employees, including draftsmen who design the hinges and machinists who make them. The firm is shipping anywhere from 500 to 800 kits a month to car dealers, body shops and individuals.
The kits consist of the hinges and a gas-filled shock that acts like a spring to make heavy doors easy to open or close. The company now has them for more than 100 models. They retail from $1,399 to $6,500 -- the higher-priced units going to luxury cars, which can be more complicated -- and generally cost another $500 to $2,000 to have installed.
Because the units bolt on, cars can be reversed back to hinged standard side-swinging doors, Connole says. "You would never know the difference," he says.
Some installations are difficult, he says, such as those for recent-model Cadillac Escalade SUVs. Installers need to cut away the existing door hinge. He recommends against trying to install the doors in new-model Ford F-150 pickups.
At the same time, Connole says new applications are becoming available. For instance, he says the doors have caught the attention of limousine builders.
They are also proving popular in Hollywood. George Barris, the customizer who created the famous show cars for TV's Batman and The Munsters of the late 1960s, came to Vertical Doors when he was working on a new Pontiac GTO last year.
"Everyone gets a big kick out of it," says Barris, 80, about the upward-swinging doors.
Vertical Doors worked non-stop for nearly three days to design and install its hinges on a Lincoln Navigator owned by Shaquille O'Neal of the NBA's Miami Heat. Why the rush? Shaq wanted it done in time to be able to show off the SUV at a Friday night game.
"It looks really hot," says Albert Pineda, who owns Da Shop, a customizing business that claims O'Neal and other celebrities as clients. He came to Vertical Doors for the equipment. O'Neal liked the doors on the Navigator so much that he asked Pineda to have them installed on his Mercedes CLK 500, as well.
For now, Connole says Vertical Doors' challenge is to create as many applications for different vehicles as possible. It's also trying to fend off the competition with its patents. The company filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against five rivals last September. Vertical Doors' lawyer, Neal Cohen, says the defendants who have responded deny the allegations.
One of them is KW Automotive North America in Sanger, Calif., which is owned by a German parent. Business is booming. "We can't make applications fast enough," says managing director Glenn Cox, adding that he can't comment on the lawsuit.
Another competitor -- one not named in the lawsuit - is Wing Doors, a San Diego firm that says its door swings even higher, up to 90 degrees. It also offers a $1,300 automated power unit. "Business is doubling every two months," says general manager Nicole Ross.
KW's Cox says the doors passed German crash testing. Wing Doors and Vertical Doors haven't conducted the tests yet, but officials at both companies say they'll hold up.
There can be a downside to the tilting doors. BMXer Nastazio says his fianc?didn't like driving the Mercedes because it can be harder to get in or out of the car, and "she gets too much attention."
Customizer Pineda worries that some brands might sag or fall out of adjustment under heavy use.
Die-hard car enthusiasts, however, aren't put off. Dora Andrews, 24, a licensed vocational nurse from Loma Linda, Calif., says she needs Lambo doors to compete at shows in her new Honda Civic.
"It's noticeable when you do car shows," she says. "Not every car has them, so when you do, it's a plus."