Engine Installation - A Growing Opportunity?
By Ed Sunkin
Engine rebuilders who are looking to expand their share of the
market may want to consider engine installations. Although some
rebuilders may think installations are better left untouched,
others are finding installations provide a profitable niche in
a competitive market.
Terry O'Donnell, manager of RPM Engines and
Machines, Rohnert Park, CA, is just one of many rebuilders in
the industry who believes today's market is prime for the rebuilder
to provide installations. "There's a good demand for it right
now," said O'Donnell, adding his shop, located about 45 miles
north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is in a market that serves about
250,000 to 300,000 people.
O'Donnell said he began providing installations
about 18 months ago as a way to expand his profits and provide
his customers with more services. "Customers like the idea
that they can go to one place and have the engine rebuilt and
reinstalled in their car. It also helps that we do transmission
and rear-end work. Everything the customer needs is under one
roof here," O'Donnell said.
Steve Hekman, general manager
of Burlingame Engines, Grand Rapids, MI, said three years ago
he made the move to make installations a part of his business
as a way to reduce warranty returns and comebacks. In 1993, Hekman,
who for 13 years operated an 8,000-sq. ft. rebuilding operation
called Great Lakes Engine Rebuilders in Holland, MI, merged with
Burlingame Engines. Burlingame was located 30 miles away and specialized
in engine installations. Not only did the merger help reduce false
warranty claims, it also provided Hekman's business with continued
demand for rebuilt engines. Great Lakes contributed to the merger
by providing the installer a source of quality-built engines.
performing installations isn't for everyone, Hekman said it can
provide the small to medium-sized rebuilder an opportunity to
become more successful. Hekman said the rebuilder can do the installation
himself, or enter into a formal relationship with an installer.
A formal relationship should supply the installer with good, rebuilt
engines, and the installer will provide the rebuilder a place
to sell and properly install their engines. If there isn't that
formal agreement, problems can arise.
"What happens when
something does go wrong with the engine that Brand X PER provided?
Who will handle the warranty?" Hekman asked. "What often
happens is the installer blames the rebuilder when there's a problem.
The rebuilder says it's not his problem and says that the engine
was not installed correctly. Meanwhile, the customer is the one
"With the rebuild and installation both handled
at Burlingame Engines, we can give the customer peace of mind.
There is no finger-pointing here. We're one big happy family,"
Glenn Kral of Glenn's Engine Repair, Rhinelander,
WI, is a rebuilder who said he's learned early on the benefits
of doing installations himself. Kral, whose primary work is engine
repair and rebuilding, (about one-third of his business is installations)
said he provides installations himself because relying on an installer
sometimes causes differences of opinions. "I've learned you
just can't do the rebuilding without doing the installation too.
There's just too much, including your reputation, that's involved,"
Kral, who rebuilds about one automotive engine a week,
said most of the time he reinstalls the customer's rebuilt engine.
"The customer often wants some kind of special performance
anyway, like a special piston or performance heads, so I'll just
do the work," he said. But if the customer is in a hurry,
or when a production engine remanufactured engine is more affordable,
Kral will install a remanufactured engine that he's already purchased.
"Why rebuild a 350 when you can buy one cheaper than it would
cost to rebuild it," he said.
Located in northern Wisconsin's
agricultural area, Kral gets a lot of work for farm machinery
and tractor engines, including Ford and International Harvester.
"It's amazing. These tractors are from the 1940s and they're
still running today. These guys don't want to part with them,"
One problem area rebuilders who offer installations
do find is with on-board diagnostics and engine computerization
technology used in today's engines. Hekman said no longer are
two-gas analyzers enough to troubleshoot today's complex engines.
He recommends an engine analyzer with four-gas exhaust testing
capability, as well as other forms of electronic diagnostic equipment.
Although today's engine technology is designed to provide cleaner
air, better fuel economy and improve the vehicle's performance,
it can also give the installer a few problems.
what he refers to as the 'driveability factor.' After a rebuilt
engine is installed and the customer pays the $2,000 bill, the
customer expects the car to run properly. The engine itself may
run fine, but if there is a bad sensor, the vehicle's "check
engine" light will come on and the customer believes he has
been ripped-off by the installer.
By using the necessary diagnostic
equipment, the installer would be able to catch the sensor problem,
notify the customer and replace the bad sensor for a charge.
this way, we don't have to unnecessarily defend our installation,"
Of course, not every rebuilder/installer can afford
the diagnostic equipment or the well-trained diagnostic technicians
who can interpret the information. Instead, a rebuilder may seek
to contract the engine diagnostic work with a local shop that
has these capabilities.
Other tools the installer should consider
purchasing include basic hand-tools, leak testers, heavy-duty
compressors, pressure washers, jacks and jack stands, engine hoists
and lifts. Lifts should be purchased based on space limitations,
lifting capacity and the availability for upgrades.
But the best
tool is probably the shop manual.
"Our mechanics are knowledgeable,
but you definitely need the shop manuals," said RPM's O'Donnell.
"Between the hand-held scanners and scopes, it is rare that
we run into a problem we can't handle when we have the shop manual,"
O'Donnell said. O'Donnell said finding the right technician who
knows how to handle today's complicated diagnostic work is also
very important for installation work.
Dan Stewart, a field service
technician for Fuller/Stolle Manufacturing Co., a Falmouth, KY-production
engine remanufacturer, agrees. Stewart attributes installer error
to most rebuilt engine "failures." Stewart spends much
of his week on the road, visiting with installers who complain
of problems with engines purchased from his company. When a rebuilt
or remanufactured engine doesn't run correctly, Stewart said he
normally finds a simple solution.
"There's usually nothing
wrong with these engines," said Stewart. "The problem
is when things like electrical connections or vacuum lines aren't
hooked up correctly." Stewart said other errors occur when
installers don't know the proper fire-up procedures or they fail
to prime the engine correctly. "Some installers have fired-up
an engine and let it idle, only to hear what they describe as
odd noises. Of course they're going to hear noises if they're
not following the proper fire-up procedures," Stewart said.
said the biggest hurdle installers face is that engine technology
has changed. "It's still the same internal combustion engine
that Henry Ford was making back in 1908. What's changed is the
things they hang on it. The materials and components have changed,"
Stewart said. "Today's technicians are not keeping up with
this technology. Engines are different and need different fire-up
"Stewart used an example that during the initial
fire-up procedures of a rebuilt Chrysler 3.0L, it is recommended
to run the engine at 2800-3000 rpm. Stewart said some installers
may not be aware of that recommendation, or would be afraid to
run the engine at that high of an rpm right away.
said it is important to provide technicians updated technical
service bulletins, OEM factory bulletins, trade press information
and association bulletins such as the ones offered by the Automotive
Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA).
"AERA is a tremendous
source of information for a company that is going to do engine
installation work," said Stewart. "For any shop or anyone
that's considering installations, I suggest they become a member.
The technical bulletins, flyers and the tech line are just tremendous.
need these updates," Stewart said, and used the example that
if you go by the 1985-'86 manual to torque the heads of a 1986
2.5L Oldsmobile, you could be in trouble. Since the publication
of the 1986 manual, GM has updated those torque requirements.
"AERA is constantly updating this type of engine information,"
Besides equipment, another consideration for installers
is space. Since you will be dealing with the vehicle owner, a
customer service area, including a desk to take orders and a waiting
area will be required. Hekman said at his 18,000-sq.ft. facility
which has 21 installation bays, about 11,000 sq.ft. are used for
installation work, about 5,000 sq.ft. is for rebuilding operations,
and the remaining 2,000 sq.ft. houses the customer service area.
Just who are the customers for engine installations? Kral said
most of his customers are in their 50s and are looking for a little
more performance out of their vehicles - usually cars and pickup
trucks. Although a lot of younger drivers (older teens and those
in their early 20s) walk in his shop elated, they often walk out
dejected. "Most of the younger guys today can't afford the
work that they ask for," Kral said.
Lanny Lewis, who along with his wife Karen operate two Dr. Motorworx
remanufactured engine installation center franchises in the East,
said his typical customers are blue-collar workers between the
ages of 28 and 55 who earn about $28,000 to $32,000 a year. Lewis
said he also has a lot of multi-car family customers who have
the engine replaced on a late-model car that is driven by college-aged
Karen, who manages the West Chester, PA, shop which opened in
March of 1995, said a lot of their work is on four-wheel-drive
and utility vehicles like Blazers and Jeeps. "It's a lot
more cost efficient to replace the engine than the whole vehicle,"
she said, adding, they replace a lot of Japanese vehicle engines,
especially the Mitsubishis.
Lanny, who operates the Wilmington, DE, shop nearly 20 miles from
the West Chester location, said what makes their installation
business attractive to customers is the price. An engine installation
for the average domestic car is about $2,200. Imports run about
Lanny said remanufactured engines are purchased from name brand
as AutoTek, Jasper, AC Delco and Fuller/Stolle. Lewis said his
business also offers quick turnaround time. Normally a customer's
vehicle is ready in three days. "We get a lot of trucks from
service-type customers such as painters, plumbers and contractors.
Because they need their truck for their business, quick turn-around
time is especially important to them," he said.
Prior to buying the Dr. Motorworx franchises, both Lanny and Karen
were professionals in the medical field. But after studying various
markets, the couple decided engine installations offered the best
growth and stability.
"Engine installations are really a growing segment of the
automotive industry. That's why we're in this business,"
Karen said. "And there's plenty of installation work to go
around. We're not here to compete with the local shops. In fact,
we do a lot of referral work such as brakes and air conditioning
for them," she said.
For some rebuilders, adding engine installations to their businesses'
workload may not be worth the hassles. But for others, it improves
both customer satisfaction and profits.