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Building Your Business With Performance Engine Kits

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As hard as it is to believe now, the concept of an “engine kit” hasn’t always been well understood. Thirty years ago or so, an engine builder who said he was buying an engine kit probably meant that he was headed to the hobby store to buy the “Visible V-8 Engine” plastic model for his son or daughter.

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But like so many other aspects of the automotive aftermarket, changing market realities have meant that the “old way” of ordering engine parts has, in many cases, been replaced by a more efficient, more accurate and more affordable method.

It was not that long ago that a custom engine rebuilder sourcing engine parts for a rebuild had to work with the local jobber store on a part-by-part basis. Typically, CERs didn’t buy from a warehouse. Some engine parts manufacturers came out with engine kits in the early ’80s but these were somewhat limited in the variety of parts offered within them. They were pre-packed with 11 components for a particular engine but with the exception of oversize pistons and rings or undersize bearings, changing components within the kit was not usually an option. If you wanted the kit, you bought what was in it.

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Soon, though, warehouses began to recognize the opportunity that kitting could provide. “When we started our engine kit program back in 1984 it was a novel concept at the time,” recalls Bob Christopher of Engine Parts Warehouse. “We had the same 11 components in our engine kits but we told customers if you don’t want one of our parts you can delete it or substitute a different part. I heard a lot of engine builders ask in disbelief, ‘You can do that?'”

Today, the concept of an engine kit is embraced by manufacturers and WDs alike, and engine builders recognize that one-stop shopping is the norm. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to learn about engine kits. Sourcing, selecting and shipping have continued to evolve over the years, and today engine kits offer performance engine rebuilders many advantages, including the three Cs: convenience, cost effectiveness and customizability.

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“We got into the engine kit side of the business almost immediately when our company was founded,” explains Liberty Engine Parts’ Scott Creighton. “We recognized the importance of packaging the parts together rather than forcing a machine shop to order the individual parts.”

Creighton explains that by using an engine kit, the machine shop personnel don’t have to spend their time individually looking up the different catalog part numbers for each of the many different parts needed to rebuild a specific engine. With an engine kit, a single part number for a particular engine includes all of the different parts typically needed.

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Paul Van Woensel, president of Engine & Performance Warehouse, Inc. (EPWI), says, “Our engine kit program started many years ago as a convenience item for our customers. They could just order one part number, get everything they needed to rebuild an engine. It has evolved over the years from that, to where it has become a situation where they get a better price buying it as a kit than if they were to purchase all of the parts one piece at a time.”

The key word there is “evolved,” suppliers agree. Although the concept is still the same – easy one-stop shopping for everything you’re likely to need, the customization mentioned by Christopher is the rule, rather than the exception. To a man, suppliers say their engine kits are all assembled when they receive the order and they are assembled to a customers’ particular specifications. None has a “stock” engine kit, although they may have a base kit for a particular engine year/model.

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“We don’t have any stock engine kits: all of our kits are put together on a custom basis,” says Enginetech’s Hunter Betts. “We don’t know, for example, what size pistons he’s going to need, we don’t know what size bearings he’s going to need. We could put a kit on the shelf that’s .30″ over pistons, .10″ under rods and .10″ under mains and the guy calls in and needs 40/20/30, so we still have to put a kit together for him.”

EPWI’s Van Woensel says, “Our engine kits are built on the fly; it’s impossible to maintain an inventory of complete kits – there are just too many variables with literally millions of combinations. However, out of the hundreds of engines that we catalog, we can assemble any of the millions of combinations in about five minutes.”

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Liberty’s Creighton agrees. “There are certain customers who will look in the catalog and order the kit for the 4.3L Chevy for a particular year and want it packaged exactly how we have laid it out in the catalog, but the majority of our kits are modified or upgraded in some way. Our catalog is set up in such a way that each kit has a basic part number, with individual customization. We take what the customer wants and then package it.”

A Kit Is A Kit Is A…

As they originally were intended, engine kits were supposed to be convenient ways for engine builders to get just what they needed with one quick phone call. The variety of kits available today seems virtually unlimited. Available from many suppliers are:

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Master Kits – which is basically everything that you need to rebuild the engine, including rings, rod bearings, main bearings, pistons, cam bearings, oil pump, freeze plugs, camshaft, lifters, timing set and gasket set;

Engine Kits or Overhaul Kits – which would include those parts in the master kit, except for the timing set and cam kit;

Re-ring Kits – which include just rod bearings, rings and gaskets for someone who is just re-ringing an engine (a practice that is not as common today, according to suppliers); and

Cam Kits – which include the cam and lifters.

Each of these versions allows loads of variation depending how deep the customer is going into the engine. Most suppliers will allow you to add or subtract from each kit as needed. For instance, you could add a crank kit, valves, valve springs, valve guides, push rods, etc., as needed for each particular job.

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Van Woensel says, “You can easily add and subtract things from a kit. Our kits are almost infinitely variable, not only from what you buy or don’t buy in the kit, but also you can mix and match brand names. If you have a particular preference for rings, you can specify that and get that brand in your engine kit.”

With all of the customization going on, some critics might question whether convenience is still a benefit or whether engine builders are doing just as much work as before.

Not so, counter suppliers. Although it’s true that engine builders can select a variety of cams, pistons, gaskets, rings and other parts for nearly every engine kit, look at the reality of the business: the first engine kits were for stock engine rebuilds. There wasn’t as great a need for variety as there is today. Hence, the evolution into more performance-oriented kits.

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In the performance end of the engine kit market many suppliers say they have specially branded kits focused on performance needs. These kits will find use at many levels such as weekend bracket racers, Saturday night Street Stock racers, the Cruisers or the Street Rod crowd. Increasingly, with the customizability available, kits can be used to build engines used in some levels of drag racing, late model racing and sprint car racing.

Federal-Mogul offers “Speed Pro Horsepower Kits.” According to Jeff Richardson, Federal-Mogul’s product manager of internal engine parts, these are “dyno proven” kits, made up of two individual kits, a Short Block Kit, and a Cylinder Head Kit. These Short Block kits contain all the same pieces that a standard “Master Engine Kit” would include, but are tailored for performance with the individual parts chosen for their performance characteristics.

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Christopher, too, expresses how important meeting the customers’ needs are: “Using a dyno we can build an engine, change the camshafts and determine the power band offered for each. Now we can make a really informed bill of materials for our customers – this is the list of parts, this is the horsepower it makes, this is the torque and this is the price.

“The customer tells us what HE wants, which also cuts down on returns,” continues Christopher. “Plus, we think it actually helps their businesses. A lot of our customers say their business has changed and the OE replacement has gone away. To help replace that, we’ve taken our original stock engine kits and given them flexibility to put together performance engine kits with stroker cranks, different pistons with different compression heights and different cylinder head packages. Our kit program has evolved, helping more of our customers get into niche markets – restoration, street rods, hard core race engines – we’ve picked up a lot of those guys.”

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Steve Markley of Egge Machine Company knows a thing or two about helping niche customers source engine parts – and the key to success is that ability to change a kit’s content to meet the customer’s needs. Egge is making an entry into performance parts with a new cam kit program for the street rod enthusiast. They are also adding a line of speed equipment and hope to have a supplemental catalogue available in time for the Hot Rod & Restoration Trade Show.

“We have kits from 1910 up to 1980, although we may have a few kits a little later than that. Right now our biggest growth has been in kits for the ’50s and ’60s model years, particularly in the 1960’s Street Roddable models,” Markley says. “Our kits are customizable and you can pretty much get as much or as little as you need from a kit.”

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Markley is quick to point out that for restoration engines in particular, customers’ expectations are somewhat different than for most performance engine kits. Egge’s engine kits may include “new old stock,” modern aftermarket parts or custom manufactured parts, immediate availability can be an issue. Oversize pistons and rings, or undersize bearings are usually available, but certain sizes for particular models can be in short supply at times.”

Simply put, some parts are just not available new. On the older stuff, Markley tells his customers not to expect it overnight. “Antique parts and overnight availability just don’t mix,” he says.

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Delivery Status

While some customers seem content to wait for their parts (engine builders tell stories of antique engine restorations that take DECADES to complete) the reality is that today’s custom engine builder is faced with increasingly tight deadlines.

Most suppliers, and you can find nearly two dozen advertising in Engine Builder alone, have a program to deliver a kit to you in 24-hours in most cases. You no longer need to stock, or order individual pieces, a huge timesavings. You can order the kit you need and while you wait for delivery, you can be completing all the machining operations on that engine and its parts.

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Federal-Mogul has been manufacturing engine parts for more than 100 years and is one of just two manufacturers offering an engine kit program. Although kits are not available direct to the end user, they are readily available from retailers, specialty distributors, and warehouse distributors.

Federal-Mogul has recently launched its “Engine Express” program which Richardson says will be a huge benefit to WDs. “We looked at the engine kit segment and saw a need for warehouse distributors to get engine kits in an overnight fashion. We used to have different programs out there, and we consolidated the programs and came out with one standardized program. Any engine kit ordered before 8 pm Eastern time, we will ship it out the next day for guaranteed arrival from our central distribution center.”

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Richardson says the new service will be extremely beneficial to WDs who don’t want to or can’t stock a full warehouse. “A customer may come into his local warehouse needing parts for a certain application. In most cases when you’re overhauling an engine, you don’t need the parts that day; you have a lot of machining work to do. That’s the biggest factor that drives our engine kit program: the warehouse distributor doesn’t have to stock the parts. They can simply mix and match parts, and make one phone call and have the parts the next day.”

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While Federal-Mogul distributes its engine kits through retailers and WDs, many suppliers have online catalogs and/or ordering systems. And some prefer to stock their parts in-house, feeling that the immediate service they provide is worth the significant investment. In effect, they have taken over something shops used to do.

“In the past, most shops would keep a certain amount of product on the shelf,” explains Liberty’s Creighton. “Now they are looking for ways to keep fewer products on the shelf. There are very few that will keep an inventory of parts.”

With a broad range of brand name products to choose from, engine kit suppliers have made using performance engine kits easier than ever. The timesavings that a shop will find with an engine kit carries over into the ordering as well. Detailed catalogs allow you to look up the kit for your particular engine make/year/model, decide the changes you need, then call and order that one part number customized as needed. The Internet has made the process even easier as nearly all suppliers have a presence online where you can examine product offerings, learn about the company’s history and even place orders.

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Yet some suppliers acknowledge that as great as technology is, a live salesman is a valuable resource as well. They’ll occasionally get a customer who will unknowingly order the wrong parts for his application. Working with an experienced sales person, those mistakes can be remedied before the parts are shipped, installed and possibly damaged.

“We’re finding more and more frequently, especially with customers who are just getting into performance, our expertise is needed,” says Christopher. “We can tell them, ‘no, that won’t work.’ We can guide them into a certain combination that we know will work based on what they want to achieve. A lot of these guys take pride in knowing what combinations work, but there is a large population who don’t.”

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As Christopher points out, service is paramount these days. From overnight delivery to product recommendations, the financial and timesavings benefits offered by engine kits are obvious. Take advantage of the expertise offered by your supplier to be sure you’re getting the most from your performance engine kit purchases.

For more information on suppliers of engine kits, we encourage you to use Engine Builder’s exclusive on-line Buyers Guide.

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