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Restoration Engine Builds: Finding The Niche That’s Right For You

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If you’re trying to determine if you can make money raising engines from the ashes, take the following test to see if you’re likely to, not just survive but, flourish as an engine restorer:

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• Are you an information sponge capable of soaking up the last 100 or so years of automotive technology?

• Do you know the difference between a Motometer and a magneto?

• Do you wake up every morning hoping somebody walks into your shop with something you’ve never seen before?

• Is there a comfortable niche that fits your abilities and for which there is a real and extended demand?

If you answered “yes” to even a couple of these questions, there’s a potential revenue stream for your shop to get into restoring older engines. Probably the easiest and possibly most obvious question to tackle is the niche issue. Yet that requires addressing a related issue of knowing where the restoration engine business is going in general. The answer is cleverly hidden in plain view: It’s going in the direction of the most coveted cars of the generation that now has spendable money. Like that quip from John Dillinger when asked why he robs banks – “Because that’s where the money is.”

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Here’s one example of somebody who’s tracked the trail of dollars. According to Robin Berson of Classic Car Database.com, collectors once went after 1930s-era cars. The website, which provides specs on vehicles from 1910 to 1975, as well as a list of vendors and services that cater to the classic restoration enthusiast, notes a sea change. Today, the trend has shifted to the 1950s and muscle-car era of the 1960s and early 1970s.

“It’s what they remember,” Berson points out. “It’s a moving target that’s getting later and later. You have to look at a 40-year timespan from the origin of the vehicle to the time when the enthusiast has enough money to find and restore one.”

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That moving target can be a killer for long-term business plans. According to Berson, trends change every five to ten years, and vendors and restorers have to be able to adapt. A clue from Berson and some of the other successful restorers we contacted is to check out the big classic car auctions or Antique Auto Club of America meets to determine where the money is going.

The only reservation is that your target market might not be looking for engine restorers to enhance the investment potential of their classic. They might have a 1936 Plymouth they want restored because that’s the car they drove on the first date with their wife. Those are some of the customers who have walked into John Debates’ Auto Machine, Inc. shop in St. Charles, IL.

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Which brings us to one of the common themes among restorers: most have been in the business for quite a while. Debates goes back nearly 40 years. He restores anything and everything. That’s his niche – tackling all sorts of powerplants, ranging from a $300,000 1931 dual-cowl Cadillac engine to a 1959 Good Humor truck.

“It’s a mental challenge,” Debates admits, “to figure out how to duplicate the parts. You have to engineer in reverse, there’s no manual out there for a Tatra (an obscure Czech car from the 1940s powered by an aircraft engine). You’re flying by the seat of your pants.” Debates’ business philosophy is that nothing goes out the door as long as the client can afford it.

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Debates says he wakes up every morning excited at the possibility of something different coming into his shop. “We get a new engine in the shop and I’m like a kid at Christmas.”

If Debates can’t find the parts he needs, he has to make them. The Internet has made his job easier, as has the technique of an archivist from the Museum of Science and Industry loaned out for a project Debates was working on. The odder the project, the more research and footwork is involved and that all has to be billed.

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Debates really doesn’t have to promote his business. He’s acquired a large clientele over the last 30 to 40 years, and they provide all the word-of-mouth marketing he needs. But, it took him a couple of decades to get to that stage. His clientele falls into one of three categories: those who want to restore the engine back to original; those who want more performance out of the engine; and street rodders who come in with an extra Flathead to be souped up, but still intend to hang onto the original so it can be dropped back in for resale.

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Even so, more and more clients come in wanting something different. Anticipating what direction “different” is going is the real trick. “You have to keep your finger on the pulse of these trends and then keep it there,” says Debates.

That pulse may include business opportunities to supplement the restoration work. Six years ago, Debates bought Gray Marine, a manufacturer of inboard boat motors from 1914 through the 1960s. There are a lot of Gray Marine engines out there and they all need replacement parts.

Another guy who’s an expert in reverse engineering is Bob Rovegno of Packard Industries who has also been in the business for over 30 years. Packard specializes in antique and obsolete auto parts. They either make them, with improvements like tightened clearances or Teflon-like coating on their pistons, or find them.

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A couple of things have contributed to Packard’s success. First, American manufacturers start discontinuing parts earlier and earlier, opening up a nice market for producing them. Next, the availability of brand-new “wrapper” parts for classics has dried up. They’ve all been sold through eBay, it seems. Rovegno also relies on what he calls a brain trust; guys like himself who have been in the business for years and some of whom have been Packard competitors.

How does Rovegno know where the market demand will be? “You just get a gut feeling something will work,” he says. Citing one example, there’s a high-compression Jeep model that AMC produced for only one year, while the rest of the models were driven by low-compression pistons. His gut told him the high-compression parts were where the market would be. He was right. Those Packard parts far outsell parts for the engine that was in production for six years.

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About five or so years away from retirement, Rovegno is now faced with training a “young kid” to fill his shoes. “How do you cram 31 years of experience into somebody’s head in just five years?” he asks, which brings us to the whole sponge concept mentioned at the outset.

Keeping with that point, Noel Coulantes, of Noel’s in Orlando, FL, offers this piece of advice for anyone considering expanding into restoration work: “Locate the best teacher out there. You have to find somebody who’s suffered through the process,” he notes. “To become a master builder, you need to learn from the best of the best.”

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Like Debates, Coulantes has operated other businesses that were relatively recession proof, businesses that subsidize Noel’s through those times when even the uber-rich are hanging onto their cash and forgoing restoration work on their toys.

In terms of niches, Coulantes’ seems to service the very old or the very new. One of his claims to fame was restoring a 1947 Ferrari 166 Spyder Corsa, the smallest V12 production engine. He also rebuilds big-block Chevy engines and Hemis, but his real specialty is Mercedes Benz engines. He bought his first ’Benz at the age of 19 in Germany, a 1957 2.2L 6-cylinder that cruised the Autobahn at 122 mph.

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Coulantes began building engines as a teenager in his parents’ machine shop. He went on to get a degree in electrical engineering from Cornell. His obsession is to not just restore engines to their original performance level but to make them even better. He eliminates the fit issues in older engines in order to generate more horsepower by using equipment that measures down to tolerances of a half of 1/10,000 of an inch. He prides himself on the fact he can find errors in Mercedes’ repair manuals. And, yes, he’s a self-confessed mechanical nerd who loves the muscle cars that were the king of the roads when he was a kid.

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“This is a dinosaur business,” he admits. “It’s one of extremes.” He rattles off the engines he’s built: an engine for the Mercedes Gullwing, an S65 twin turbo V12, a McLaren supercharged V8. You get the impression he rebuilds engines because he feels driven to do so, much like an eccentric artist. So, add a little crazy to that list of attributes of a potentially successful engine restorer.

Jim Ketchum of Egge Machine Company is another 40-year veteran with some practical suggestions. “Find your parts, then do the pricing – and do it in that order (otherwise you might be in for a rude awakening on the costs of components for some engines).” To keep from getting gouged, Egge Machine Company makes components and parts for domestic vehicles from 1900 to 1980, in some cases, using the original molds. Like Noel’s, Egge’s pistons incorporate modern technology for more precise tolerances, but are still true to the original equipment.

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“Restorers used to find whole truckloads of old parts,” Ketchum recalls. “That source has dried up. You go on the Internet and what you’ll find are companies making parts for restored engines. You don’t find them from people parting out their old projects.” All that speaks well for companies manufacturing restoration parts.

What about finding a specific niche in the restoration business? Ketchum just laughs.

“The companies we deal with don’t turn anything down,” he points out. “If you try to specialize in something like small-block engines today, you can’t be competitive.”

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Ketchum mentions a Cobra SRT8 (a 6.1L HEMI engine people are dropping into Cobras) as, perhaps, the next “big” thing. “They didn’t sell a lot with six-speeds,” he says. “The best bet is something high end, something that’s not generic. You don’t see a lot of high-end Camaros flooding the market for instance.”

Norm Brandes of Westech Automotive has found a successful niche – being more of an engine designer than a restorer. He starts with the base engine and adapts it to new technology and 21st-century needs. He doesn’t just bring back engines to OE standards, as his clientele generally wants the engine to perform beyond spec or basically do things the original wasn’t designed to do. So, he has to come up with a way to meet customer’s expectations.

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“We do a broad range,” he points out. “We can stroke them or take them back to stock. We’re like an orphanage. We work on engines that aren’t being made any more. You have to be careful when you say ‘restoration.’”

A big demand, at least for now, is on a couple Mopar mills, such as enhancing the Prowler’s 3.5L V6; or  convert a 440 to a 510, but make it streetable. He builds engines that generate performance in the range of 600 hp and run on 93 octane. He took a 1960 Dodge half-ton and gave it a 400 cid engine because that’s what the customer wanted.

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“People want the toy they couldn’t afford when they were 18,” he notes. “But they want to be able to cruise around in it and impress their friends.”

His advice: get the customer involved in the process and, very important, know your craft. “If some guy comes in and wants 700 hp out of an engine that will also idle at a stoplight, you have to know if that package is doable.”

Basically, what Brandes does is walk that narrow line between restoration and “restification” or “restomods” –  those made-up words that describe putting modern components into a classic. That’s also the line walked by Jack McInnis of Dart Machinery, perhaps the largest U.S. manufacturer of engine blocks and cylinder heads outside the Big Three.

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“There are two schools of thought on engine restoration,” McInnis says. “You can have a very rare, sought-after vehicle that should be restored to its original condition. Or, you’ve got an older car that needs to be just fixed up and driven.” The latter is the market Dart caters to, either directly to the consumer or to engine restorers. “We make components that are not OE, not for numbers-matching restorations, but for restorations where the car owner isn’t afraid to make some modifications. It’s unlikely anyone short of a concourse judge would notice the difference.”

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What McInnis has noticed is that if the end user of the restoration wants to drive the car a lot, they want more performance and that’s what Dart’s components deliver. He compares the finished restoration to the hot rods of the 1950s – high-performance components dropped into cool, old 1930s sedans. “Relatively speaking,” he points out, “there’s greater demand in this type of mainstream restoration.”

Jim Inglese of Inglese Induction echoes those sentiments to some degree, but insists on period-correct technical accuracy, such as on the small-block Chevy 48IDA system that has been around since the mid 1960s. Originally developed by Moon Equipment, it was used for all forms of racing. Many versions of these manifolds exist today, and it is still a prime carburetion system for a small-block Chevy. On the other hand, custom finishes are very popular, so he gives buyers the look they want, be it a gleaming gold dichromate coating or an early-style neoprene fuel harness.

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Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula to success in the restoration market. There are prerequisites, however, such as learning at the knee of a master, enjoying the challenge of extraordinarily odd restoration projects, having an open mind and great customer skills. But the one thing that our crew of engine restorers all have in common, aside from age, is the simple, the pure joy and passion for the work.
Restoration experts say you have to walk that narrow line between restoration and 
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