Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size image
Making The Case For Introducing Old Iron to Your Shop
By Doc Frohmader
So who’s the new guy? Does he have anything to say that’s worth my time? Why should I believe him? Good questions – questions I’d be asking before I swallowed what anyone else said. Since they’re fair questions, and because I intend to grab my soap box and start making statements I want you to have some confidence in, introductions are in order.
I got my first car (a 1937 Ford slantback Tudor) when I was nine. I doubt if my fingernails have been completely clean since. I’ve worked on everything from Nash and Studebaker to Red Ram Hemi and Rocket Olds engines. I have and still do build what I write about in a number of popular magazines (from engines to complete cars and trucks). I’ve been writing a couple of stories a month for the last seven years about vintage engines and have published a book on Big Inch Cadillacs (and have three other books on other vintage engines in the works). In addition to this column, I write three others.
I have spent about a year-and-a-half each, researching history, parts, machining techniques, assembly issues, performance upgrades, and much more on early Chrysler Hemis, Big Inch Caddys, Nailhead Buicks, Y-Block Fords, Rocket Olds, FE Fords, Stovebolt Chevys and Dodge Hemis (with more to come). In the process, I’ve found and recorded a tremendous amount of information on each – the kind of information that can make the difference between quality/profit and failures/losses – which I intend to share with you. I’ve found sources, learned where to look and who to ask, and helped foster a serious trend toward vintage engines in street rods, customs and trucks.
So, when the people at Engine Builder called and asked if I’d be interested in writing a column about vintage engines, I couldn’t help but think how perfectly appropriate the idea was. Having spent a lot of time in recent years supplementing what I learned over the last half-century about these engines, I’ve had to accept the fact that some I recall as state-of-the-art are now nearly forgotten, that parts were getting harder to find, that specific knowledge of any given engine was disappearing, and that many engine builders were no longer particularly interested in working with them. I also understand how a shop policy of avoiding vintage engines can be foolish. There’s gold in them thar mills! (See! My first controversial statement!).
I have several reasons to believe this. First, there’s the throwaway engine issue. As you know, there is a trend in late model engines to make them all but unbuildable. Some have non-machinable parts. Others have outrageously expensive and/or impossible-to-find parts. Some have very little to work with, such as the Caddy Northstar engines which can be bored a maximum of just .015˝. The trend toward more and more factory-built crate engines is growing.
Second, we have the small block Chevy syndrome. Everybody and his brother builds them, claims special expertise in them, and has to live with marginal profits from them. This is an example of how success spoils things. Face it, SBC parts are dirt cheap with little markup possible if you want to remain competitive. Since everyone works on them, every shop in the known universe is doing hand-to-hand combat with all the others, trying to build the cheapest SBC engines and stay busy. Sure, promotions such as race sponsorship (building another SBC) help sell engines, but there’s a fair chunk of money spent on them just so you can sell a few more limited-profit builds. At some point, you have to wonder whether it’s paying off.
Then there’s the work smart versus work hard concept. I may be wrong, but it seems to me if you are simply banging away at full speed, putting in long hours doing what every builder in town does nearly the same way, you’re probably working way too hard. I suggest that working smart means being better educated and using that education to make money. When you go to the local sawbones, you expect a generalist, and expect to pay generalist prices. You know when the specialist comes into the picture it’s gonna cost ya. Why should doctors take advantage of specialization and not you? If you are the guy who knows a couple of older engines and word gets out, who do you think will get that specialist work?
Then there’s overhead. For all intents and purposes, building any given engine takes about the same amount of overhead to build. From cleaning to machining to assembly, if you’ve built one, you can build another for about the same cost. The lights don’t care whether you are building a Toyota or a Hupmobile. The boring center doesn’t know if it is cutting on a 4.3L V-6 or a Rocket Olds block. Neither should you.
Parts markup? The most popular engines (SBCs again) have the cheapest parts and the most competition to deal with. Everyone knows some parts are dirt cheap and others are not. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Because there’s a large market in SBC parts, a lot of manufacturers make them – and they have to cut profits to sell enough to make a profit.
Because of the competition, you have to contend with limited profit to stay competitive. Even if you have a 20 percent markup, if you sell your customer a $100 set of pistons, you’re making half the profit on the same kind of sale than if you sold a $200 set of pistons. Vintage engine parts cost more, are less common, and there is more potential for profit in them.
Granted, taking advantage of specialization requires you learn some new things — or perhaps re-learn some old forgotten things. For some, this will be the kiss of death, but there will always be a certain number of low-end shops where learning things is not exactly a common occurrence. For the others, for those who understand that a professional shop means a well-informed and well-trained staff and a willingness not only to keep learning but also to understand and analyze information as it comes to call, this should be like old home week. Getting into a new old engine should be no different than getting into a new new engine.
It also means you’ll have to expand your horizons a bit on parts. There are both the conventional suppliers to work with as well as the unconventional. You’ll get to know Egge Machine and Kanter and others. You’ll learn there’s very little that can’t be found and, because of the limited availability, there will be less arguing over parts prices. At the same time, you’ll spend a little more time finding and waiting for parts to arrive, but once you understand this, it becomes a non-issue (you add that cost into the estimate).
You’ll also probably learn there are more ways than one to get the job done. Perhaps you’ll keep a notebook on the oddities of any given engine. Maybe you’ll want to have an easy way to recall just what size the extra coolant holes should be in a Y-Block Ford before you start drilling. Maybe you’ll want a reminder of how you can get good replacement main bearings not in current production if you narrow an off-the shelf item by .005˝.
Maybe you’ll want to recall that a 1956 Olds 324 uses a different cam than the earlier engines before you have the wrong one ground. The thing is, if you do your homework on the first engine, all the ones to follow are that much easier, and now you have an edge on your competition.
With this overview of the subject behind us, you can probably see the way this column will work. First, I’ll do what I can to give you some good, solid direction as to how to deal with vintage engines profitably and successfully. I’ll try to cover the general stuff as well as the very specific.
I’ll pick my brains and those of my sources to give you a heads-up on what you’ll need to know to avoid confusion, wasted time, and other pitfalls we’ve identified and found solutions for. I’ll do what I can to make sure what I offer is practical, useable and reliable.
Next, I’ll invite you to communicate with me. Through Engine Builder, you can ask me anything. I’ll do my best to help. I’ll try to answer as quickly as possible because I know there’s a living to be made. On the other hand, if you know of an issue with vintage engines that would help others, or if you know a better way to solve a problem, I’d like to hear from you. I can always learn.
In the end, I hope you will see how specializing in vintage engines (or supplementing with them) can be a profitable and comfortable experience. Nobody said you can’t have fun making a living.
I work with shops regularly to build all my magazine projects and can assure you the more experienced and versatile shops – the ones that know how to adapt to changes and accept new challenges – are the ones in demand, the ones that stay busy, and the ones where variety makes the daily grind a whole lot more rewarding.
Doc Frohmader got his first car at the age of nine and has been an enthusiast ever since. firstname.lastname@example.org