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Most of the muscle car and restoration car crowd ...
Engine builders cannot "show" you the horsepower ...
The Cobras slithering around Gessford Machine are...
It may be a circle of simple chrome, stainless-st...
Engine Dress Up
It's the details that sell AND make an engine. Engine builders can profit from upselling chrome, stainless-steel, billet and high end, engraved one off parts.
By John Carollo
Engine dress up parts are like the proverbial chicken or the egg question. Did the shiny new pieces come about to enhance a stock engine? After all, pioneer hot rodders weren’t able to go to their local car part shop and pick up chrome goodies. Or did the parts evolve with the advent of modified engines, as if to show off the outside of an engine that was modified on the inside?
And then there’s a third question. Did the evolution of race engines spawn new pieces that have as much form as function? Pieces such as taller valve covers to fit over stud girdles. With such pieces, a race look was added to the growing list of styles.
We may never find a definitive answer to these questions but we know that dress up parts today do indeed help sell an engine. The breakdown is dress up parts are used in varying degrees and for varying reasons.
One way is to dress up a stock engine to look anything but. Another is to clearly showcase an engine that has been “worked on” to look the part. The third is to make an engine look like it has received extensive modifications by wearing the appropriate race-caliber or “serious” parts. Another alternative, however rare, is to take a complete U-turn and make a modified engine look bone stock - the engine version of the sleeper car. All in all, dress up parts comprise a kind of circle, encompassing the engine, its owner and builder.
Let’s break into this circle with the parts themselves and those who manufacture them by asking two simple but very loaded questions: “Why chrome and dress-up goodies? Do we really need them?”
According to Bill Pasco of Mr. Gasket, the answer is a definitive affirmative: “Yes! Or there would be no car shows. The Goodguys National car shows register thousands of members each year who bring their cars to shows all over the USA. They come to the events to display their version of ‘Beauty and Luster.’ Goodguys also brings in thousands of walk-in attendees in the form of car enthusiasts, engine builders, racers, performance people, restoration specialists and parts peddlers. They come to see that all that glitters is gold and/or chrome plated.”
So the demand is high, Pasco says, hitting another point. “Summit, JEGS, JC Whitney, Speedway Motors, Autozone, NAPA, Keystone, Advance Auto and many more sell an enormous amount of chrome parts and dress up kits. They sell them each and every year to all sorts of customers, both new and old. There is no shortage of fans.”
One look in the catalogs of the two biggest mail order and catalog sales giants seems to prove Pasco right. Summit and JEGS’ devotion to dress up parts account for well over ten solid catalog pages. Still more can be easily found in related categories such as air, cooling, fuel, hardware, ignition, plumbing and even transmissions.
Those are other prime areas to exploit as engine dress up pieces spread out from the engine to include hoses, pumps, brackets, radiators, remote assemblies, filters, transmission coolers and dipsticks and so much more. It clearly defies the lines between race cars and street cars and that’s a good thing.
Race cars use dress up parts to enhance an already modified motor. Pasco says it’s part of a drag racing tradition that has not escaped the attention of companies like his. “We find that most customers think looks are just as important as speed because after you beat a guy in a drag race, you pop the hood. You want to show him what just beat him and how good looking it is under there.”
Those cars and trucks that dance the line between race and show agree. Pasco says, “When you open the hood of a parked car, the looks are every bit as important as the engine’s performance. In fact, most people find the looks are even more important than the overall performance.”
But it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a race car or a restored muscle car, Pasco points out. “Most of the muscle car and restoration car crowd are interested in chrome because it accents all their hard work of degreasing, scrubbing, scraping, wire brushing and painting, to powder-coating and waxing. The chrome items are an important detail as they are the finishing touches for a restoration job well done.”
When it comes to a hard core racing engine, however, the line of thinking often changes. “It is important to note, “ says Pasco, “that there are engine builders out there building race engines on contracts for racers and race teams that do not care about looks. These guys will not be impressed by a cool dress up kits or even the sleek new billet aluminum dress up products. They are in it for one thing only: horsepower. To them anything else is just a waste of good money and extra weight. Nope, these guys are not your average chrome enthusiasts.”
But engines that may not be all-out competition versions have a sort of mistaken identity. Yes, they have been modified yet they have to present that appearance to stand out above the crowd. “Engine builders cannot show you the horsepower and torque of a motor sitting on an engine stand for sale,” points out Pasco. “So, they concentrate on the details they can show you: polished aluminum valve covers, chrome timing chain cover, air cleaner, water neck with chrome bolts, breathers and pulleys, among others. These great looking items convey the message that the engine must be great, too!”
And that introduces the opposite end of the scale for engine dress up parts. From production sheetmetal stampings that are chrome plated and sent out en mass, to custom made valve covers that sometimes cost as much as $7,000, dress-up parts (and the customers that love them) have virtually no limit in both imagination and cost.
A great example of a shop catering to what customers want is George Anderson and Hastings, NE’s Gessford Machine. It’s no coincidence that Gessford is cited the Gessford Gang was the Engine Builder magazine Machine Shop of the Year in 2004.
Gessford is involved with Shelby Cobras, special and marine engine building and in what may be a total understatement, machining. Working closely with Carrol Shelby and his new generation of Cobras, discerning owners can brainstorm with Anderson and come up with engine components that are truly distinctive even to the point of being high end or over the top. That’s because Anderson quickly and proudly says, “There’s nothing we can’t do.”
He says it often and he’s serious, as Gessford also builds engines for tractor pullers. And one more note from Anderson may be very encouraging with all the recent economic news. He says car sales may be down but engine sales are up.
One look at his Web site (www.gessford.com) and one can see why Anderson repeats his “do anything” mantra so often. If a photo is worth a thousand words, the Gessford site is packed to the rafters. There are literally more photos than words as Anderson says he’s always armed with his digital camera and crystal clear photography. It helps that Anderson maintains his own website, posting almost every day.
The site shows some of the custom -made valve covers for the custom-made Ford 427 FE engines he builds and buyers often put in the new Shelby Cobras. One popular version is machining the CSX number right into the valve covers and using one of the many versions of air cleaners Anderson designs and machines. Some have simple designs while others have elaborate Cobra snakes ready to strike anyone foolish enough to get too close.
This all brings up a solid selling point in engine appearance. Quite often, an owner will want his or her engine to be just as distinctive as their car or truck. The “wow” factor applies to both the vehicle and as many of its components as possible for some owners. In the case of Anderson’s Cobras, many owners take it further with one-off designs for their engine accessories. And, once again, much like the cars, cost may not be a factor. An owner may want to have something that literally no one else has. After all, that is the point to having a modified car, isn’t it?
But it doesn’t stop with the most popular dress up items for Gessford. There’s brackets for assemblies such as alternators, air conditioning compressors, (not usually found on Cobras but still seen occasionally) power steering pumps and even primary engine components such as injection ports. Weber-style fuel injection is one of the most popular induction systems for Cobras and making them more user-friendly by adding electronic fuel injection makes them more polite on the street. Dressing up the funnel-shaped intakes is a logical approach as those systems don’t have the air cleaners carbureted intakes require. The simple rule for some owners seems to be, if it can be seen, it should be seen as unique and one of a kind.
And don’t forget the hardware. Do the fasteners on the engine match those on the chassis near the engine? Like the inside of an engine, it’s all about the details.
Of course, getting the parts to shine and getting them to stay in place are two very separate challenges. Where engine builders may think they have to settle for plain vanilla under the hood, the truth is that fasteners are as much a dress-up opportunity as any other part. But when you look at those fancy fasteners do you wonder about their strength?
“There’s no reason for an engine builder to settle for standard fasteners and bolts,” says Doc Hammett of Totally Stainless. “They can easily get great looking parts in both low and high-strength steel. We provide low-strength fasteners for valve covers and intakes, as well as high-strength bolts for mounting the engine, head bolts, bellhousing bolts and harmonic balancer bolts.”
Hammett points out the range of fastener styles available today. “Some guys like allen-head bolts. Some guys like button allen-head bolts. We make them in six different styles, so you can do pretty much the entire exterior in stainless,” he said.
“If you’re restoring a muscle car and want it to look original, we offer original style bolts,” says Hammett. “As far as I know, no one else offers OEM-style engine fasteners in stainless.”
As it turns out, chrome plating works great on a lot of parts on a car and under the hood. On a fastener, however, it’s a different story. Hammett says. “Chrome has a tendency to thin out on the high points and doesn’t get into the crevices all that well. It just doesn’t work that well on a fastener.”
Stainless steel, on the other hand, offers the strength necessary to survive the intense engine environment.
“Standard stainless steel: 18/8 stainless, regular old 300-series stuff, works great and won’t corrode in an automotive environment. It’s durable, you can polish it up or just leave it alone,” Hammett says.
“You look at the street rod market,” Hammett concludes. “These guys are pretty sophisticated and have often done a number of cars. You’ll find almost all stainless. It doesn’t cost that much more but is much more durable.”
And that brings up another principle point. It’s the combination of air cleaner (one or more as per carb setup) and valve covers that make up the one-two punch in engine dress up parts. They are the shirt and pants of a complete engine and, as such, are the very first things the eyes are drawn to. Anderson seems to take that personally and says, “Valve covers and air cleaners talk to me.” This is where statements are made as to style, attention to detail, theme and even authenticity.
It is also where owners can make their bragging rights stating their beliefs and positions and even entertain. Gessford’s treatment of a simple oil filler cap on a 427 FE in a Cobra has the words, “Snake Oil” machined and painted into the top. It’s sure to create a smile for onlookers as well as the thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The obvious theme is the snake yet these pieces are not mass produced. If customers don’t exactly know what they may want, Anderson helps them with nudges, designs and will often create a one-off to their liking.
It harkens to the cars themselves with badges, logos, names and graphics playing a big part in making the car both recognizable and distinctive. That plays into the mindset of a car being the sum of the assemblies. For engine builders, taking a clue as to how the owner wants the engine built can open up the possibilities for how it should look. If it’s racey, maybe it should look racey. Sure, there’s not much a builder can do with a classic restoration except maybe restore. But when the parts list starts to stray from non-OEM parts, the gates are wide open.
Shops with their own CNC and milling capabilities are encouraged to think outside the boxes of the local speed shop. And those changes are not limited to billet or machining. One very popular look is the “fabrication” look of hard core racing. Valve covers made from pieces of sheet aluminum don’t require the use of anything other than shears and a TIG welder. That much is evidenced by the proliferation of fabricated intakes, radiator overflow cans, fluid reservoirs and other functioning but seen components.
It may be a circle of simple chrome, stainless-steel, billet and high end, engraved one off parts but there is room for builders to practice upselling and stake their claim. “Gentlemen, start dressing up your engines!”
Well I find it true. These dress up car parts really are on demand right now. Whether it be through local auto shops or online stores, these parts really are searched all over the place.
by: ndrewoods 10/4/2011