Although some automotive machine shop owners believe that – with engine life measured in six figures – the good days are over, the shops that continuously seek out new markets that parallel their talents and abilities will continue to survive. Those shops willing to invest the time and effort to find those markets will find that the opportunities today are every bit as plentiful as those in the so called “heydays” of this business. But the shops that sit back hoping for a return to those days will not survive.
Although there are always new opportunities in the automotive market, it is the “Show and Go” market that will dwarf anything we have seen in the past. This market includes pretty much anything that is modified in any way, or has been purpose-built for motorsport competition or show competition. The list is virtually endless: just fire up the TV and check out the variety of automotive related programming on dozens of channels.
Along with the huge variety of actual racing, there are also programs like American Hot Rod and American Chopper. Then there are programs like Street Tuner, Pinks, Motorweek, Car Crazy, American Muscle, Classic Cars, TRUCKS! and Trick My Truck, as well as dozens of others.
Remember your first car? You know, that 1957 Chevrolet Belair Hardtop that you bought for $250 and later sold for $175 so you could buy the ’65 Pontiac LeMans 326 with the 4-speed? If you have watched another popular automotive show, The Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction on SPEED, you might know that restored, that ’57 Chevrolet would fetch well over $100,000 today.
The popularity of these shows has breathed new life into consumer interest in owning, building, collecting, racing or restoring just about anything automotive. This popularity has created tremendous opportunities for the automotive machine shop industry.
As an engine rebuilder, you’ll find plenty of opportunity in the performance and restoration markets. As a machine shop with some production capabilities, particularly if you own CNC equipment, you could be producing replica or custom parts for many of these markets.
To give you an idea of the unlimited opportunities out there, I will tell you what one particular shop has been doing for nearly 20 years. Mark Staab of Staab Machine in Marshfield, WI, started out building racing engines and small parts in his spare time in the garage behind his home. A decade ago, he built a brand new shop, taking his growing business to the next level.
Over the years, Staab has continued to be innovative, always quick to grab onto new technology and ideas. He has stayed ahead of most shops in his use of the Internet to promote the company, its capabilities and its products.
While his staff does some industrial work, most of their efforts are in the motorsport market. While they have been involved in kart racing and circle track racing, their biggest passion has been in the tractor pulling market. Currently, they can do a complete turnkey pulling tractor, from construction of the chassis, to the building of the engine, intake system, fuel system, driveline and exhaust system. The pulling tractors of today are as technologically advanced as any Champ Car or NASCAR stock car – in some respects, maybe even more so.
About ten years ago, Staab designed a cylinder head for diesel-powered pulling tractors in an effort to help keep up with the alcohol-powered tractors that were taking over the division. His unique innovation was to remove the row of head bolts on the intake side of the head. These bolts were located partially in the runners, which limited airflow. By moving the bolts away from the runners, he was able to increase airflow dramatically.
These days, the design and manufacture of pulling heads for diesel-powered tractors continues to be a big part of Staab’s business. And in addition to him, there are several manufacturers that design and build custom heads for the pulling market as well. The cost for these heads range from $12,000 to more than $16,000.
About six years ago, a big problem began to pop up with the blocks used in high performance pulling competition. Competitors were pushing them so hard that the blocks began to come apart on a regular basis. Because the rules prevent the use of aftermarket blocks, another solution had to be found to keep these blocks together.
Girdle plates had been used on the bottom of the blocks for years to keep them together horizontally, but now they were coming apart vertically. Staab designed a tie-bar system that utilized a newly designed girdle plate, another design that was highly successful.
Staab has designed and manufactured some of the finest piping systems for the exhaust systems, intake systems, and turbo systems for pulling tractors. These systems are all a critical part of the performance of a pulling tractor, particularly those tractors that are allowed multiple turbos.
Staab even manufactures valve covers, cam covers, shifter levers, rocker arms, rods, and nearly any part used on a competition vehicle that they can utilize their CAD/CAM to design and then manufacture on their CNC machines. Staab’s son Eric is the CAD/CAM designer and CNC programmer.
A new market Staab has begun working with is the highly popular custom motorcycle building market. They have been designing and manufacturing custom billet aluminum parts for several builders.
Staab isn’t afraid to try just about anything to keep is business growing. Of course, not all the things he has tried have been successful, but he contends that if you never try anything new because you’re afraid of failure, you will never grow.
Staab’s newest venture is building component chassis for the pulling market. In the past, tractor pullers would modify a stock tractor chassis for use as a pulling machine. However, because of the tremendous increase in the performance and horsepower of these machines, the stock, cast chassis are no longer safe. The rules now allow for tube-frame chassis, just like those used in NASCAR or the NHRA.
While Staab Machine may be somewhat unique in its approach, at least some of these ideas should plant at least one seed of an idea in all of you. For the most part, I don’t recommend shops to be as diversified as Staab Machine is, but it does show that the opportunities out there are as unlimited as they have ever been. It’s up to you to find those niche markets that will keep your business successful now and into the future.