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Putting the 'Power' in Powersports
By Brendan Baker
Performing rebuilds and other machine services on ATVs, personal watercraft (PWC) and snowmobile engines may provide your shop with a little added boost during a down period without having to retool your entire shop. However, to make the most of the opportunity, you should know what type of market you can serve best - ATV, PWC or snowmobile.
The ATV market is probably the largest of the three markets and it has grown at an average of 13 percent a year since 1998. The last couple of years have seen sales figures in all three categories slow down, but for the most part sales are still healthy.
Two-stroke engines have traditionally powered ATVs, PWCs and snowmobiles, but noise and emissions regulations have forced most manufacturers away from these engines and into developing more environmentally friendly packages.
"There used to be only 2-stroke engines in this market," says Ray Corral, Factory Direct Performance, the powersports division of MSD Ignition. "But manufacturers are now going to 4-stroke engines. There are even some turbocharged engines available."
The shift toward 4-stroke packages is primarily because of emissions. "In 1996 PWC sales were about 296,000 and now sales are down to about 80,000 annually," said Greg Pickren, SBT Engines in Clearwater, FL. "That's about one-third of what it was at its peak."
There are several factors that Pickren believes have contributed to lower sales over the last several years. Environmental concerns and fewer places to run a PWC have stunted sales in recent years. Some lakes have banned PWCs because of noise and emission issues associated with 2-stroke engines.
To help counter environmental concerns, manufacturers have developed 4-cycle engines that run quieter and burn cleaner. So for example, engines like the Yamaha 1300, which is basically the R1 motorcycle engine, have been adapted to a Jet Ski. Factory Direct's Corral says that due to concerns for the environment, the snowmobile market looks to be headed the same way as the motocross/ATV and PWC markets, going with the 4-stroke engine on many new models.
For most automotive engine builders the move to 4-stroke technology can be an advantage because many automotive shops are equipped with tooling for late model engines, which typically have multi-valve OHC cylinder heads. Consequently, a single-cylinder OHC engine should present no real tooling issues. The ability to offer 5-angle valve jobs as well as porting and honing is a big plus for working on these engines.
One of the aspects that may present more of a challenge for automotive engine builders is rebuilding the crankshaft, according to experts we have spoken with. Most ATV/PWC/snowmobile cranks are press-fit, which means you have to install the rod while you're building the crank and press it all together as one piece, then true the crank in a special jig. This skill requires experience to know how to properly align and fit the pieces together. However, after a few builds and with the right jigs, most engine builders get the hang of it quickly.
Another aspect to consider in this market is performance upgrade work. There are many opportunities for shops to do specialty work such as installing big bore kits as well as custom cylinder head and port work.
"Many consumers want performance engines," says Corral. "It's not just the racers either: even recreational riders want more power for the bragging rights. In fact, many of these guys who aren't racing buy the most extreme engines they can because there are no rules governing what they can and cannot do. I'm amazed at what some of these guys will spend on their engines."
On average, says Corral, the recreational rider can spend up to $5,000 or $6,000. There are even some racing engines going for as much as $10,000-$15,000. "Snowmobile racers will spend more on their sleds than most will on their cars," Corral says.
Eric Gorr, Forward Motion, Streamwood, IL, says most of the work his shop does on ATVs is performance related - boring, sleeving, plating and performance valve jobs. Gorr says that many of the ATV engines he rebuilds are plated with a wear resistant coating called nickel silicon carbide (NSC), which he sends to US Chrome in Fon Du Lac, WI, to have replated.
"There's a lot of performance work going on in the smaller ATV engines, and there are many aftermarket parts available, too," says Gorr. "I think the customers in this market are very knowledgeable. They read magazines and know what they want when they come to us."
Gorr says even recreational ATV riders are passionate about performance. "The guys with the big 750 cc 4-wheel-drive ATVs are screaming for hopped up performance parts. In this case, though, there really aren't many parts available for them yet. Manufacturers thought that the 750 would be all that these riders could possibly want, but these guys still want more."
Gorr says that many 400 cc air-cooled ATV owners are clamoring for performance engine work because they're trying to keep up with the new 450 cc water-cooled engines, which are allowed to race in the same class due to a 1998 rule change in some sanctioning bodies. Racers have been taking current state-of-the-art 450 cc motocross engines and adapting them to the ATV. So now ATV manufacturers have started making their current models 450s. As a result, the new rules have virtually eliminated 2-stroke engines.
"They just rewrote the rules so that the biggest 2-stroke engine you can compete with is a 265 cc, which can't compare to the 450 cc 4-stroke," explains Gorr. "When you compare the BMEP (Brake Mean Effective Pressure) and displacement, it doesn't work out. You really need a 300 cc 2-stroke to be competitive. So the 2-stroke market is basically dead."
Most of the performance engines in this market use composite plated cylinders (the general term where you're plating NSC directly on to the aluminum). This process is more expensive than conventional sleeving, according to Gorr. "It's about five times the price of conventional cast iron sleeves - roughly $200 per cylinder," he says, acknowledging that they're spending the money because they feel it's worth it.
Big bore kits account for about half of the work Gorr's shop does. "My business isn't too much different than an average performance automotive rebuilder," says Gorr. "We're using alternate-sized name brand piston kits, gasket kits, valvetrain parts, and connecting rod kits. In fact, you could probably write an entire article on the trickledown from the automotive industry."
Four-cycle powersport engines can go much longer between maintenance and rebuild cycles, but Gorr says they're much more expensive to repair also. "The average 4-stroke engine service is double that of a 2-stroke engine, mainly because people wait too long to repair them," says Gorr. "So over the course of time, if you look at engine hours vs. cost, it's probably equal."
Because the 4-stroke guys often wait too long, everything tends to break at once. In addition, there are more parts to break in a 4-stroke engine, so when it does happen, there's usually catastrophic damage to the engine.
During the season most of Gorr's work is weekly breakage and maintenance repairs. If a customer blows an engine, Gorr's shop can rebuild it quickly because he's not as buried during the season. However, during the winter he does more complete rebuilds, which take longer because of the volume of people getting their engines done.
About 25 percent of Forward Motion's business comes from the ATV market according to Gorr, who says he only rebuilds motorcycle and ATV engines because he's too busy to do snowmobiles. "The two seasons kind of collide for us," he says. "People service their racing dirt bikes in the winter. It's a real strong season for us from about November all the way through April. The snowmobile community, on the other hand, tends to impulsively react. Guys will wait until the first snow falls before they work on their sleds because they don't always know what kind of winter it's going to be. The dirt bike and ATV guys are more predictable and it's an easier market - it's more stable."
The snowmobile market basically hinges on winter weather. If it's a good winter, it'll be a good season for rebuilders. If the weather is unseasonably warm, then many won't bother to break out their sleds.
"Our busiest time of the year for snowmobile work is at the beginning of the season," agrees Randy Orton, Northern Sports Machine, Lake of the Woods, MN, who rebuilds both snowmobiles and ATVs in addition to offering general automotive machine work.
"Prior to this year, we had four bad years with very little snow," says Orton. "Although ATV work has helped fill in some of the gaps caused by the poor snowmobile seasons, sales, service and everything suffered because of the weather."
Orton says that rebuilding snowmobile and ATV engines accounts for approximately 50 percent of his business. His shop is divided up into different departments. He says that in the mechanical part of his shop about 95 percent of the work is on snowmobiles.
One of the most common engine failures Orton sees at his shop are piston failures, mostly due to carburetors that have become plugged up. "In the fall, carburetors tend to gum up, which leans out the fuel mixture causing a piston to burn down," says Orton. He too says that most of the cylinders he sees are plated so he has to send them out to be replated.
The PWC market is another geographic and weather-dependent market. These engines are similar to ATV and snowmobile engines but they don't share any common parts. Companies like Bombardier, Kawasaki, Yamaha and others manufacture engines for all the powersport markets yet very few parts crossover from engine to engine.
One of the largest PWC engine remanufacturers anywhere is Pickren's SBT Engines in Clearwater, FL. Greg Pickren started the company in 1998 after a stint as owner of Fred's Axle Remanufacturing. Interestingly, Pickren attributes much of his current success in the PWC market to what he learned in the automotive remanufacturing industry.
"I took the same principles from axle remanufacturing and applied them to this industry. No one had done that before," says Pickren. "I set up my business by investing heavily in cores. We bought all the cores we could. That's how we were able to become the largest PWC remanufacturer in the world."
There are essentially two types of 2-stroke engines in the PWC market. The engines can be divided into either a reed-valve or a rotary-valve intake system. Bombardier is the only manufacturer to use the rotary valve intake system. Kawasaki, Yamaha and Polaris use the reed valve system on their 2-stroke engines.
According to Pickren the only similarities between automotive machining and his PWCs are the surfacing and honing steps. "We use CNC mills with specific programs that have been written for our engine types. We re-machine all the heads, so we can go in and re-cut the cylinder head domes with a CNC program that we wrote to do this. Often, when these engines fail, and a needle bearing comes apart or a piston ring breaks, the head is 'peppered' from debris in the cylinder crushing up against the head," he says.
"If the marks are only .020? or .030? deep, we'll take the whole head down and reshape the dome," continues Pickren. "But if there is a particularly deep gash or a very unique head, we TIG weld repair the damage before we machine it. The head will be fractionally thinner but the volume remains the same."
Pickren admits he has concerns about the new PWC models coming out and that the sales numbers for the last 5 years have been going down. "Two-stroke technology is dying," he says. "With manufacturers pushing new 4-stroke engines that last longer, we've become the equivalent of the carburetor guys. These 4-strokes run quieter and burn cleaner." They also last basically forever, says Pickren, which is not exactly helpful to his remanufacturing business. Pickren believes that the market will drop off for him when 4-cycle engines become the norm.
SBT is very much set up to handle 2-stroke engine builds, and in fact has two patents on jigs for rebuilding crankshafts for these engines. Pickren spent over a year developing his crankshaft technology, and he says it's critical that the crank is assembled correctly, without any lope. "It has to be perfectly straight, and the crank also has to be in phase," Pickren notes. "Obviously, when one side is at TDC the other has to be at the bottom. If you're at 181° then that engine isn't good. We've got the tooling and fixturing to put them precisely at 180°; if it's a 3-cylinder then we align it to 120°.
The rotary valve engines are a bit different and often require an extra machining step. There's a thin plate that sits between the cylinders on a shaft that protrudes out of the case. The plate spins, opening and closing the intake ports. Pickren says that when the engine grenades, pieces will back flush through the intake ports and be spun by the valve, which peppers the surface of the valve, so SBT then has to resurface that area.
Overheating is another typical PWC engine failure according to Pickren. "People drive them up on sandbars and plug up all the cooling passages with sand. They run them out of oil, they detonate, and many PWCs have three cylinders with three carburetors, but if one of the cylinders is plugged up, that's your source of lubrication, so you'll stick a cylinder as a result," Pickren continues.
"Often when you stick a cylinder, you'll break the rod and then the rod rips the case in half. So when these engines die, they die really ugly. Sometimes the cases are repairable. If it punches a hole in the bottom, we can TIG weld it. But if it's too bad we just charge the customer for a new case," explains Pickren.
In general, it's apparent that the service sector of the powersports market is under supplied. There are still a lot of 2-stroke engines out there but in the future they will be replaced by 4-stroke units. These engines will last longer but have more catastrophic and costly failures when they finally do let go.
Additionally, performance work on these engines seems to be a niche within a niche. Doing big bore conversions and custom porting offer some profitable opportunities for engine builders in these markets.
"There aren't enough performance rebuilders servicing this market," says Forward Motion's Eric Gorr. "And because most dealers' labor rates are too high, and many of them don't even offer machine work anymore."
If you're looking to get into this market, take a look around your area to see what is popular. If your shop is in the middle of a wheat field in Kansas, chances are that opening up shop to do Jet Ski repairs is going to be difficult. The same holds true for snowmobile service on South Beach.
ATVs, however, are popular just about everywhere, so there's a fairly large market for them.
And because the engines are small and shipping is affordable, having an Internet presence has helped some shops extend their reach.