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Fields of Green
Harvesting profits from engine restoration
By Brendan Baker
The secret to making money these days, in many cases, is to go where the aging baby boomers go. And today, boomers are spending big money on "recapturing the rapture" of the cars of their youth. Whether you’re looking for an alternative to the more mainstream OE market or just looking for another area to help fill in the gaps, there are a lot of opportunities in the restoration market, according to Doc Frohmader, a vintage engine guru from Mount Olive, IL, and restoration columnist for Engine Builder magazine. "You can’t just turn work away because it’s not a small block Chevy," he says.
Being willing to take on new stuff and do the necessary research to rebuild it is a big part of the challenge that restorations offer. "Someone who is really prepared to do machine work won’t care if it’s a 1902 Cadillac or a small block Chevy," says Frohmader. "If you’re set up properly, an engine is an engine. It shouldn’t matter what it is as long as you know what specs to build to."
Frohmader points out that there are definitely some differences between doing OE work and restoration work. A lot of mainstream rebuilders are satisfied with what he calls "taxi cab rebuilds," meaning it doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough for specs to get the thing back on the road again. In contrast, he says, "guys who are going to spend a lot of money on a restoration job want their cars to sing ‘yankee-doodle-dandy.’ Consequently, the mark-up is higher for these more demanding restoration jobs because the customers are willing to pay to have everything restored ‘just right.’ "
Shops looking to get involved in the engine restoration market should be aware, too, of the extra time involved with doing this type of work, and take extra care in price quoting these jobs. "Don’t lump-sum these specialty engines – say that what you’ll do is itemize," Frohmader explains. "Tell your customer what the price is up front and what you’ll do – make it clear. How you write it up is very important."
Frohmader also says that if you work on an itemized basis and the job takes more time, then you won’t be working those extra hours for free. Therefore, it’s a good idea to keep the customer involved with the process and get them to approve additional labor or parts expenses when they do come up.
How do you find restoration jobs anyway?
A good way to find customers is to join local vintage-car clubs. Talk to the Buick club, for example, recommends Frohmader. "There you’ll find guys who are looking for your services. Get involved with these groups and your reputation will get you business by word of mouth," he says.
"A lot of car clubs have Web sites that allow you to advertise your services for a nominal fee – that’s one way. Another way to get the word out is through niche publications," Frohmader explains. Car clubs and vintage magazines offer another avenue to promote your services. Many car collectors turn to Hemmings Motor News, which is like the industry Bible, not only to advertise in but also to find parts and do research as well. Also, letting parts suppliers know that you work on vintage engines will help bring in machine work too, says Frohmader.
It’s also a good idea to get familiar with the restoration industry’s parts suppliers – companies like Egge, Packard Industries, Kanter Auto Parts, King Engine Bearings and Durabond, to name a few. Get their catalogs and talk to their reps. They can be invaluable fountains of knowledge for hard to find parts and information.
However, just because a part is not listed or available doesn’t mean that there isn’t an alternative solution. "A lot of times you can use size charts, for instance, for piston selection," says Frohmader. This is where the creativity part comes in. "You can’t be totally stuck on putting things back the way they were in, let’s say, 1956. There has been quite a jump in automotive technology since then."
Industry experts agree that you should apply modern technology to vintage applications wherever possible. This doesn’t mean it won’t be authentic. It will just be an improvement on the existing design. In turn, the better quality parts will make the engine more reliable and longer lasting, which ultimately is what the customer wants.
Salesmanship is another ingredient to getting and keeping restoration work. "Having a professional looking organization makes a big difference," Frohmader says. "How you present your business to a customer is going to leave a lasting impression. A big pile of engines and parts in a corner isn’t going to give the customer a lot of confidence in your ability. Even if you’re the best machine shop around, if you don’t look the part people are going to go elsewhere."
Jay Steel is the owner of Taylor Engines in Whittier, CA, about 25 miles outside of Los Angeles. His shop has been in business since 1947, which means Taylor probably worked on many of today’s vintage vehicles when they were new. But what Taylor specializes in the most is cars older than 1940.
"We’ve been into a total niche market (older than ’40) since about 1987. That was the year of a big earthquake out here, and one of our biggest customers was Caterpillar, which we used to surface heads for. After the quake they stopped rebuilding their engines and went to a leased fleet – that cut off most of our business. I had always been into doing Model A’s, so we pursued that end of the business," explains Steel.
Using referrals and word of mouth is how Steel got started in the business. But it also helped that Taylor Engines is located virtually next door to Egge Machine Company, a supplier and manufacturer of restoration and hard-to-find parts. "That helped a lot in the beginning," says Steel. "They sent jobs to me regularly. And being so close, it was very convenient to get the parts I needed."
"My best advice to shops that want to get started in the restoration market is, don’t be shy about billing. And learn to be very creative," says Steel. Currently Taylor technicians are working on two 1902 vehicles. One is a 1902 Humber, built in England. The other is a 1902 Black, built in Indianapolis, IN. They were built about 15 years before SAE standards, which meant Taylor had to make a lot of its own fasteners and such. The Humber, for example, says Steel, uses 5/16˝ x 15 thread-per-inch fasteners (current SAE standard thread pitch for 5/16˝ bolts is 20 threads per inch). He says they do about 70 Model A’s (1928-’31) and about 10 Flathead Fords a year. They’ve also done some old fire engines as well.
Steel says, "One thing we always do when working on restoration projects is take plenty of pictures. We take about 10-15 pictures of each car/engine (all different angles). And on top of that, we make pretty detailed drawings too. You have to get pretty creative sometimes because a lot of times there isn’t much reference material available."
Steel says he likes to make drawings of things such as the firing order before "we take it all apart and forget which way things go. This way we can put things back together easily."
If you’re thinking that all this detailed work like photos, drawings and making fasteners sounds pretty time consuming – it is. And Steel charges appropriately for it too.
How do you do it? Simple, "Bill for what you do," says Steel echoing what others have said in the industry. "The way I base my prices is that I usually quote about $1,000 a cylinder for most restoration jobs, except for the ones I know are a bit easier like the ’50 Lincoln, which I only charge $800 a cylinder. And I’m not afraid to call a customer and say that there will be more labor charges to do it right." According to Steel, this is a fairly accurate gauge for his shop, but it is different for everyone. You have to take into account, overhead, labor, location, etc.
Normally Steel starts out a job by stripping the motor down, cleaning it and magnufluxing for cracks. "For that I’ll charge about $500," he says. "After that, we will come up with a quote that is plus or minus 5 percent of the job, which will include $200 in miscellaneous labor."
The bad thing is, you might still have to eat some time, according to Steel. "Like $400-500 labor you might have to throw away. I did it once – my fault – I did the math. I put the wrong bearings in and then had to tear it all apart and do it right," he says with a frustrated tone.
Over the years, one thing that Steel has found you need is a good align-boring operator and a good cast-iron welder. "Every time you heat those cast-iron parts past 500°F it shrinks and a good welder knows how to compensate for that," he says.
Fred Seidel, Fred’s Engine Service, is a one-man restoration operation in Rochester, NY. His shop is nestled on the same property as his home. That suits him just fine because it’s about a 200 foot commute to work every day. But he says that working from his home in this business doesn’t allow for much free time – he hasn’t had a vacation in 10 years, he claims.
He says he made a conscious decision a number of years ago to get into restorations exclusively. He used to do a lot of OE work, but saw that the market wasn’t growing in demand for rebuilt late model engines and decided to change his business.
"Anything to do with the collector car market is strong right now – it’s not a segment filled with people who don’t have a lot of money. It’s definitely not a poor man’s hobby," Seidel states. "The people who are into collector cars know they are going to spend thousands of dollars and probably put in more money than what they’ll get out"
"It’s not really an investment," Seidel explains. "The people who are into collector cars are in it for the love, not the money. Many times the collector has a sentimental connection to the automobile that is being restored, and money is not really an issue. Bringing the past back to life is what’s most important to them."
Seidel says he had an advantage in the beginning because many of the projects he restored were what he used to work on in his youth. He still remembers how to rebuild parts that today are simply just replaced, i.e., alternators and starters, etc.
"I’ve found that in order to do engines you have to take the whole car," Seidel explains. "It’s a high-risk market that isn’t for the weak-at-heart."
"Ten years ago I started to do restorations exclusively and did some advertising in Hemmings – I haven’t been caught up since," Seidel retorts. He says he has remained a one-man-show on purpose because it would be too difficult to pass along what he has learned over the years. "It would take 10-15 years," he claims, for him to train someone to do what he does.
With his shop being less than 2,000 sq.ft., Seidel is faced with a challenge – where to store everything. He says that he stores his projects in piles and never stores anything cleaned so as to preserve it in its own grease. And when he needs something, he simply retrieves it one item at a time – cleaning, repairing and painting as he goes.
Seidel says one thing you have to be prepared for in this business is long turnaround times. Typically, they are from 6-12 months. "You need the patience of a saint," he says. Some of the things that take the most time are babbit work and searching for and waiting on parts. But, according to him, that is why you have to have several projects going at once – to keep busy and moving things along.
For example, right now Seidel has a ’26 Continental fire engine in his shop with a bad engine block. Seidel says the owner has located a new block, but has been negotiating to buy it for the last two months. According to him, these types of scenarios are common in the restoration market.
Aging like a fine wine – Seidel says that something he has found comes with age is respect from vintage car owners. He says many collectors don’t want to give their 50-year-old engines to a 20-year-old kid. "Not that a 20-year-old can’t work on engines, it’s that old cars take a little different skill and experience," Seidel says.
Yes, there are many things to consider before jumping into the restoration market. But the opportunities are there for the right shop willing to try something different. You can be successful if you’re willing to be creative and willing to charge a good rate for the services you provide.
You don’t have to jump in all at once, either. If you’re looking just to fill in gaps in your work schedule, try smaller jobs at first just to get your feet wet. Join a local car club and talk to their members – they’ll surely tell you what they need – and maybe some of it is machine work!