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The resto market can be a good source of extra business or a solid specialization option

You might joke that the restoration engine marketplace is a “dependable” business niche. Trying to get a handle on its size, shape and character depends on with whom you talk and what they consider a vintage car to be. A number of companies rebuild engines for vintage cars while others rebuild vintage car engines. There is a definite difference between rebuilding a modern engine that’s going into a vintage car, and rebuilding a vintage engine that’s 40-100 years old.

Some rebuilders focus on muscle car motors and others only do horseless carriage engines. A few rebuild hundreds of older engines per year, while others do a half dozen. There are specialists like Jeep supplier Omix-ADA (www.omix-ada.com) that deal with one type of engine, and others like Fred Seydel of Fred’s Engine Service in Chester County, PA, who said, “My advantage is I’ve seen the insides of hundreds of different engines from Stutz to Nash to Whippet motors.”

There are companies that only supply parts for vintage engines, companies that only rebuild vintage engines and companies that do both. Some firms in this niche have facilities that span several thousand square feet, while semi-retired Mr. Seydel, who does national advertising, works in a garage behind his house.

Most rebuilders seem to be in the 50- to 85-year-old bracket, which is pretty much true of their customers, too. A lot of shops that work strictly on vintage engines have been around a long time. Harken Machine Shop of Watertown, SD, dates to 1906; Harts Machine in Cecil, OH, started in 1926.

After talking to dozens of businesses that do this type of work, one is left with the overall impression that the niche isn’t big, but that it is good. The small firms that have experience in this area are, for the most part, either thriving on the “old car” work or using it to fill in for other jobs that have gone away. At the same time, the big parts suppliers and shops are growing because the overall market is growing, and also because some of them are supplying the small shops.

Getting A Handle On Market Size

Promar Precision Engines (www.promarengine.com), of Paterson, NJ, is a big company that some years back detected a nationwide resurgence of classic car restorations. Promar was already serving customers worldwide with a complete line of rebuilt and remanufactured engines, cylinder heads, crankshafts, engine restoration services and components. So, the company decided to create a specialized business to rebuild older engines delivered to its New Jersey location. Promar sent representatives to classic car shows, provided car show trophies and placed ads in collector magazines to promote this program.

“We still rebuild vintage engines,” says company CEO and president Mark Fellanto. “We probably rebuild three to four classic car engines per week on average and sometimes more; they represent about 10 percent of our business.” Fellanto was one of relatively few people interviewed for this article willing to put numbers on the classic engine business, but almost all of them – whether huge like Promar or a tiny sole proprietorship – saw the restoration niche as a segment that’s generated additional business during the current economic downturn.

Rich Falluca’s Skokie, IL, company is called Antique Engine Building (www.antiqueenginerebuilding.com) and has been rebuilding Model A Ford engines for 35 years. He says that for most of that time he did about 100 engines a year, but lately the average number he’s rebuilding is hovering around 140.

“Even in this down economy, the Model A business is holding up very well,” says Falluca. “And it only seems to be growing.” Falluca’s offerings start with a Model A short block modified for insert bearings for $2,075, and range up to a long-block Touring engine with a 5.5:1 compression head for $4,295. Falluca sells parts to customers all over the world, but says the market for rebuilt engines is mainly in the US, ranging from California to the East Coast. “Our website tells people how to crate parts to save on domestic shipping,” Falluca points out.

Jim Ketchum and Steve Markley work for Egge Macine Co. (www.egge.com), which started in 1915 and moved to Los Angeles in 1923. Years ago, Egge rebuilt old engines and sold parts for them, but now it is totally a parts supplier. “Each day we quote out about 50 rebuild kits and most of them get billed,” they said. “Annual kit sales are in the thousands and many go to restoration shops. We ship some direct to machine shops that do engines for restorers, and some – but not as much as years ago – go directly to consumers.”

According to Jim and Steve, Egge deals in engine parts for 1900 to 1980 vehicles and sells a lot of Hemi and flathead Ford V8 parts. Egge manufactures valves and pistons for vintage engines and the other parts it sells are new old stock items. Most Egge products are for American cars, though the company has made some parts for Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce cars and vintage motorcycles. They said the vintage niche is “growing, but not tremendously,” and noted that they tend to add a few parts for newer collector cars as they go along.”

Bob Rovegno of Rebuilders Choice/Packard Industries, another big player in the field, says, “The antique engine market is still small from an engine rebuilding industry point of view, but it’s a niche that is thriving as the collector car market grows. A growing market is a great opportunity for shops to add additional income as parts once considered obsolete are now available.” Rovegno didn’t reveal the annual number of vintage engine rebuilds, but did say that 70 percent of Rebuilders Choice sales involve engine parts for 1920s-1970s cars.

The Shape Of The Market

Wegner Motorsports (wegnerautomotive2.com) is a nationally-known source for engines, components, machine work and dyno tuning. Carl Wegner says his 7,500 sq.ft., facility located on a farm in Markesan, WI, has 30 employees and builds around 500 engines per year. After years of specializing in NASCAR engines, in 2011 Wegner decided to expand into the muscle car niche.

Wegner sells three to five engine kits per week that amount to $1,200,000-$1,500,000 in annual sales. Most of Wegner’s kits are for GM LS series powerplants. Many of these engines wind up in Resto-Mods – vintage muscle cars that are restored with modern drivetrains. Wegner sells to shops, distributors and hobbyists and says that the market is starting to grow again.

Bob Rovegno of Packard Industries/Rebuilder’s Choice poses with a 1957 Chrysler 300 C Letter car that has a restored engine.Rich Falluca’s Antique Engine Building company has been rebuilding Model A Ford engines for 35 years and is up to about 140 rebuilds per year.

Ken Ligenfelter is a serious car collector himself and his Ligenfelter Engineering (www.lingenfelter.com) works on about 25 traditional small- and big-block engines annually. He says that some customers send their engine to him and others ship the complete car. At approximately two engines per month, this is about 5 percent of the company’s overall business and, according to Ligenfelter, covers traditional small block, traditional big block and LT5 (original Corvette ZR1) engines.

“We have customers from all over the world who select Lingenfelter Performance Engineering for their engine work,” says Ligenfelter. “Our sales numbers are holding pretty status quo, neither up nor down, and our traditional small-block and big-block engine work is holding stable.”

Ligenfelter says that his customers are “primarily involved” in the hot rod and restoration segments and only a very small percentage are racers. As many car enthusiasts know, when it comes to vintage engines, rodders and restorers have a lot in common.

Speedway Motors (speedwaymotors.com) supplies both niches with products ranging from stock rebuild components for flathead Ford V8s to electronic distributors for flathead Fords and Chevy sixes. Company owner “Speedy” Bill Smith is also one of the largest collectors of vintage engines.

While these big suppliers shape part of the restoration engine market, the restorer looking for help in rebuilding a Pontiac straight eight or a Buick “nailhead” V8 is probably going to go to a newsstand or surf the Web looking for advertisements from specialty shops that know how to fix old engines and where to find parts for them.

Some companies like the aforementioned Egge and Rebuilders Choice can help, but there are also businesses such as Northwestern Auto Supply (www.northwesternautosupply.com) and Terrill Machine Co. (www.terrillmotormachine.com) and others that, over the years, bought up the obsolete remainder parts that no one else wanted and started supplying them to both professional restoration shops and backyard restorers.

Another group that shapes the restoration engine market shows up in car collecting publications best known for printing thousands of classified word ads each month and distributing them to well over 325,000 serious old-car hobbyists. In these publications, the engine restoration ads break down into two categories: shops that do babbitting work and shops that rebuild old engines.

In a typical issue of one magazine, we found seven ads for babbitting services and 12 from engine rebuilders. The ads often emphasized that the shop had been in business since the early 1900s, or the ‘20s, or the ‘40s or the ‘60s, etc. When we called some of these businesses, we were told that the number of such ads appearing each month has probably doubled during the current recession.

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John Gunnell
John “Gunner” Gunnell is a freelance automotive writer and owns Gunner’s Great Garage, a restoration shop in Manawa, WI.

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