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Performance Notes, How To Compete With The Crate Motor Business

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If you are a regular reader of the performance automotive consumer magazines you may have spotted a trend – many of the feature cars and tech articles are focused on crate motors.

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To an engine builder specializing in custom high performance engines, and for engine builders looking to get into the performance arena, this could be an alarming trend. Crate motors are flooding the market from several sources, spearheaded by the large OEMs and the aftermarket has responded too with engines from mild 350 small-blocks to race-ready 632 cid big-blocks. What’s fueling this insatiable appetite for crate motors, and how can a small local engine builder successfully compete with this trend?

In my opinion, several factors have contributed to making the crate motor phenomenon possible. First, the baby-boomers have a lot of discretionary income, and the time has come to spend it on their fantasy project vehicle. (And if this year’s Barrett Jackson Collector Car Auction is any indication, it could be money well spent.) Secondly, this is the era of instant gratification – wait three months for a custom shop to screw an engine together? No way! And finally, the security of knowing that you’re getting a proven engine combination that provides a specific power output is a comforting feeling as you’re maxing out your VISA card.

If you read slightly between the lines you’ll find that engine builders themselves are partially responsible, by dragging out engine builds longer than they should, and in some cases, not delivering the performance they promised.

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What we need to realize at the outset is that crate motor sales have been good for the hobby in general. It has involved people who would have been intimidated at the thought of going to an engine shop and spec’ing out his own engine. As these people grow in the hobby they will outgrow their crate motors and want to “build” an engine that has their stamp on it and the attending bragging rights.

Okay, so you’re losing potential engine sales to crate motor programs – what do you do? There are several strategies that you can use to combat crate motors, one (or a combination) of which might work for your shop and your area.

#1 – Go With the Flow

There are several ways to make the crate motor craze work for you, the first is to provide “added value.” A great example is a friend who ordered a pair of 454 H.O. engines from GM Performance Parts for his boat. These engines come rated at 430 hp and the power is pretty much over by 5,500 rpm. A local engine builder simply swapped the cams and picked the power up more than 100 hp and extended the useable rpm range by 1,000 rpm. With this simple upgrade the engine builder added a potential 10-12 mph in top speed – incredible added value for the customer.

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Another way to make a crate engine program a viable addition to your business is to shop around and find an existing crate motor program you can build on. Schafiroff Race Engines & Components offers its huge big-block Chevy crate motors (454-632 cid) as short blocks unassembled. Some of these “mountain” motors require specialty “tall deck” aftermarket blocks and exotic custom billet crankshafts and rotating assemblies. It would be hard to source and buy these parts individually as cheaply as you can in “kit form” from Schafiroff. When you purchase one of these “kits” the machine work is finished and you get to charge the customer for the assembly, plus you can custom tailor the engine for your customer’s specific application (compression, camshaft, powerband, etc.).

#2 – Buck the Trend!

As a custom engine builder, selling against crate engines may not be as difficult as you may think. At the core of the performance market is a powerful dynamic – ego! The entire premise of hot rodding is self-expression. Nobody wants to have the same car or engine as the next guy. Also, a well-designed custom engine package will be much more satisfying to your customer. Take one of the hottest new trends, called G-Machines – basically road-race style, road-going street machines. Equipped with the new high-tech 5- and 6-speed transmissions, the thrill of driving a G-Machine is a high-revving engine that pulls strong past 7,500 rpm. A 5,500 rpm crate motor just won’t cut it – however, a high-revving small-block with a good flowing set of cylinder heads and high rpm valvetrain will.

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You have so many weapons in your arsenal, it is hard to imagine that you would have a hard time selling a custom engine versus a crate engine. Let’s briefly look at some of them:

  • Engine simulation software – these programs are inexpensive and so good they take the guesswork out of putting a winning engine combination together. Check them out at Performance Trends.com and ProRacingSim.com.

  • New technology – special ring packages, protective and friction reducing coatings and cylinder heads of all sizes and configurations give the engine builder many advantages you won’t find in “mass-assembled” engines.

#3 – Specialize!

There’s no better way to combat lost sales to crate motors than to have your shop specialize in a specific make or type of engine. To meet the volume of business you need to exist may require some national promotion, but with the Internet, national publicity is easier and more cost-effective than ever.

There are several companies specializing in non-traditional engines such as 401 AMCs. How big could the AMC market be? Indy Cylinder Head and Edelbrock, both have released aftermarket aluminum cylinder heads and sales are brisk. TA Performance also sells aluminum heads and custom intake manifolds for 400-455 Buicks, and one of the best-known shops specializing in big-block Pontiacs is Butler Performance. Many small shops are thriving on the resurgent musclecar market fueled by “boomers.”

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  • Fill the feverish demand for factory-correct musclecar engines.

  • Create your own specialty crate motor program. Joe Sherman Racing created its own using a GM Goodwrench shortblock and a host of aftermarket components. The result – turnkey 420 hp for around $5,000.

#4 – Don’t Forget the Cosmetics

Probably the most overlooked service a custom engine builder can provide is a cosmetic upgrade (and I’m not talking about slapping on a set of chrome valve covers and calling it a day). Think about it…these engines are going into vehicles with typical owner investments of $30,000 – $150,000. A rattle can paint job and some zinc-plated bolts from your bolt cabinet just won’t cut it. On the other hand, grinding the block and head castings smooth and painting them with a good bulletproof epoxy (even to match the car’s exterior) will. Selecting the proper bolts, black oxide 12-points or polished stainless, is just as important. The right pulley package and accessory mounting brackets can make or break the “look” of a good cosmetic engine buildup.

As an engine builder you have many options available to combat lost revenue to crate motor programs. The best way to protect your profits is to come up with a solid strategy to be competitive. In order to do that in the performance business you must stay abreast of the latest trends, because like fashion, they are constantly evolving.

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Len Emanuelson has spent the last 35 years in the performance magazine business, notably as technical editor, editor and publisher of such titles as Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Rod, Car Craft, Circle Track, and Motor Trend magazines. In 1989 he was inducted into the Bonneville 200-MPH Club with a 221 mph average in a Feuling Engineering Quad-4 Olds Cutlass. When he has time, he races 125cc Shifter Karts. [email protected]

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