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DRIVE TAB Vanity, thy name is#x2026;

By David Sharp

Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Maine -- Chrome was king on American cars in the 1950s and 1960s, but it went the way of the tail fins and big-block V-8s after becoming synonymous with gas guzzlers that struggled to compete with imports.

Times have changed and so have attitudes. Chrome wheels and shiny metal accents have enjoyed a resurgence on cars and trucks.

It's there on expensive chrome wheels on luxury cars, sport utility vehicles and trucks. It's there on retro cars like Ford's Thunderbird and BMW's Mini. Even a few mainstream models are sporting more chrome.

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The reason is as old as Americans' love affair with their cars and trucks: Dazzling chrome gets people's attention.

"You gotta go chrome," said Beau Bergeron, 20, of Pelham, N.H., who purchased 20-inch chrome wheels for his lowered 2002 Chevy Blazer. "It just looks good -- big, big chrome. Bigger is better."

Chrome never went away, of course, but it faded in the 1980s. Today, chrome, polished aluminum and other products with a shiny appearance are collectively called "brightwork" in the industry.

"It hasn't come roaring back, but it has been encroaching back into the market in a subtle way," said Chris Cedergren of the automotive marketing company Nextrend Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

It started in the early 1990s with aftermarket exhaust tips, wheels and trim used to add flash and to customize cars and trucks.

Chrome wheels, in particular, caught on long ago in California and Florida, but now they've reached all corners of the country.

"Chrome and other brightwork items help a person differentiate his or her vehicle by providing an element of luxury or prestige," said Rosemarie Kitchin, spokeswoman for the Specialty Equipment Market Association in California, the trade group for aftermarket manufacturers.

Chrysler, one of several manufacturers that now offers chrome wheels, has had to hustle to keep up demand. "Quite frankly, the demand has exceeded our ability to produce," said Chrysler's Bob Longstreth.

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Kuntz Electroplating Inc., which transforms ordinary wheels into chrome-plated wheels for General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and other manufacturers, is in the process of boosting capacity from 1.5 million to 2 million wheels a year. Demand has been growing 15 percent to 20 percent a year.

"It's like a little bit of jewelry for your car. If you have the right amount, it adds a touch of class," said Mike Kuntz, director of business development for the company, which is based outside Toronto.

Chrome is a must for retros. Chrysler is offering a chromed-up version of its PT Cruiser this fall, and VW is putting chrome on its New Beetle convertible. There's also chrome on the BMW Mini and Ford Thunderbird.

"Without the accent of chrome, it wouldn't be the same vehicle," Dave Gray of Hollis said of his black 2002 Thunderbird, which features chrome on the front grill, porthole windows and alloy wheels.

Some mainstream models, like the Volkswagen Passat and Hyundai's Sonata and XG350, also are sporting more chrome accents.

Inside the Passat there are chrome bezels surrounding gauges and chrome on the Tiptronic shifter. Outside, it's around the glass, on the grill, on the bumpers and on the body side molding.

"If subtle and used properly, it's a good way to make a car look more finished and more upscale," VW spokesman Tony Fouladpour said of the Passat, the top-rated family sedan by Consumer Reports.

In Portland, Northeast Auto Design began stocking chrome because of customer demand over the past couple of years.

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Owner Ryan Hansen receives inquiries about chrome wheels every day, and he sells three to four sets a week. The style doesn't come cheap. The typical package costs between $1,500 and $2,000, he said.

Kuntz sees chrome wheels continuing to grow over the next five to 10 years, and he sees a continued place for chrome accents, as well.

But the market will never return to the massive chrome Detroit offered on, for example, the bumpers and fins of a 1959 Cadillac.

"If you look at how bright trim chrome is built into the car, it's very subtle," Kuntz said. "But without those subtle accents the car is really plain Jane."

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On the Net:

SEMA http://www.enjoythedrive.com/

Northeast Auto Design http://www.forperformance.com/

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