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Foreign Exchange – Profiting From Import Engine Rebuilds

Today, vintage European cars are once again becoming popular, and often for the very same reasons that made them take off almost 60 years ago. Happily, along with increasing interest in such cars comes a rise in demand for engine rebuilding services.

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Import Engines Streetworks Volvo P1800 DSC_0280

The latest trend of turning imports into resto-mods is characterized by this Volvo P1800 that Streetworks Hot Rod Shop is building up with a Ford V8.

The rich and diverse history of automobiles imported into the United States started before World War II with European-built luxury cars and sports cars that wealthy Americans brought here. After World War II, European automakers looked to the U.S. market as way to help rebuild their war-torn economies with American dollars that came back to Europe. Cars from England, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden were sold in the U.S. in increasing numbers.

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During 1957 the U.S. economy suffered a recession that made sales of imported cars a force to be reckoned with. America’s “Big Three” brought out compact cars with the first wave hitting in 1960 and more arriving in 1961. In addition to “foreign cars” that were luxurious and sporty, importers brought in economical coupes, sedans and wagons with tiny, high-revving engines embodying technology unlike anything Americans had seen before.

Japanese automakers waited in the wings until the late 1950s. The first Asian imports had a tiny impact on the market, but reliability and efficiency would come to the forefront in the 1970s, while U.S. and European automakers struggled with the emissions issues, downsizing and declining sales of “low-tech” cars in an age when “high-tech” became an important marketing tool.

Today, vintage European cars are once again becoming popular, and often for the very same reasons that made them take off almost 60 years ago:  they use less gas driving to a car show and get more attention when they arrive. Spectators ask import car owners to open their hoods so they can peek at engines that look far more interesting than typical American sixes and V8s of the same vintage. Older Japanese cars – led by the Datsun Z cars – are also becoming collectible.

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Happily, along with increasing interest in such cars comes a rise in demand for engine rebuilding services. The shops that ordinarily do this type of work want to know if they can fill this specialized need and make money doing it. They also need to know if differences in specifications and machining techniques will have an effect on the difficulty of the work and affect the profitability. Suppliers also want to know whether handling parts for vintage import engines can be profitable.

Money To Be Made?

“That’s a $7,000 job!” said John Twist of University Motors Ltd., Grand Rapids, MI (www.UniversityMotorsLtd.com). “That’s a big job for us.” Twist specializes in the repair of older British cars, particularly MGs. He even does seminars and workshops on how to rebuild MG engines.

The $7,000 engine rebuild he references is for a man from Texas who is sending him a rare MGA Twin-Cam engine that needs to be overhauled. Twist obviously thinks at that price, the job will be profitable for him.

The fact that one shop can make a profit rebuilding an unusual imported car engine doesn’t mean every shop in the trade can do or wants to do the same thing. According to Jim Wagner of Classic Mechanical LLC (www.classicmechanicsgarage.com) in Neenah, WI, many import customers believe that engine rebuilders focus on doing small-block Chevy engines and the occasional Ford. “If you want something out of the ordinary you have to find a shop you trust,” said Wagner. “We are working on a British built Bristol engine and I certainly wouldn’t send something like that to a shop unless I know they have the desire to do something out of the ordinary.”

Steve Yott conducted a workshop about sealing oil leaks in Triumph engines during the Vintage Triumph registry’s meet in Lake Geneva, WI.

Steve Yott conducted a workshop about sealing oil leaks in Triumph engines during the Vintage Triumph registry’s meet in Lake Geneva, WI.

Doing something like a Bristol engine – a derivative of the BMW M328 2-liter six – requires extra time to track down parts and information and not all machine shops or engine shops want to do that. According to Steve Yott of Silver Lake Triumph Centre, LLC ([email protected]), Silver Lake, WI, “It really depends on whether it’s a shop with older technical people in it who understand older cast iron engines better. The new guys are all about aluminum engines and tiny valves and they don’t know a lot about the wet liner engines I work on or things like protrusion.”

Yott said he takes his engines to Don’s Auto Parts & Machine (www.dons-auto.com) in Kenosha, a shop that we associated with the Mopar racing engines they displayed at the Milwaukee “World of Wheels.” We asked Randy Poltz of Don’s about the Triumph engines. “If it wasn’t profitable, we wouldn’t be doing them,” he said. “We can do good on those because everything is pretty straight forward – just the lifters take a little more work and don’t go as quick so we charge a little more. It’s not a huge difference; cleaning a block costs the same, but when you get into the head it’s 10-15 percent more due to the way it’s configured.”

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Poltz said that Don’s also works on more exotic imports and charges accordingly. “Let’s just say we don’t have set prices for working on a Ferrari engine,” Holz said. “And even a Triumph Stag V8 is more involved and costs way more money. With that engine, setting the valve lash takes longer because they have pucks in them. It’s about 25 percent more for the extra work involved.”

Jim Wagner also uses a race engine shop to build some of his motors. “We’ve got a good relationship with them and they can handle the more exotic stuff that regular shops can’t deal with,” he said. “Whoever you use, the shops that do a nicer job are hard to get an engine into because they’re so busy.”

Similarities and Differences

You hear people say, “An engine is an engine,” but sometimes that just doesn’t hold true. Delbert Hanson of Del’s Auto Repair in Rice Lake, WI, has handled the mechanical restorations of both domestic classics and imports and reasons that sometimes, you need to say no.

“You’ve got to know a little more than just bolting stuff together,” he pointed out. “Someone wanted us to do a Daimler sleeve-valve V12 and I told them you have to know a lot a lot more about the sleeve clearances than I did; it went to another shop and they had the motor apart three times before they got it just right.”

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Yott explained that crank grinding and setting bearings for Triumph motors should all pretty normal stuff for a shop. “But I like to set bearings a little tighter than the books say,” he stressed. “And I use three options for crankshaft main seals that most shops don’t know exist.” Yott also noted later TR6 engines had a recess around the firing ring. “If a shop resurfaces a block and doesn’t recreate the recess, it can result in big problems.”

Yott says shops that think a Triumph TR-3 engine is weird always amaze him. “That engine is about as bare bones as you can get,” he said. “Basically, it’s a Ferguson tractor engine so it’s nothing exotic; it has cast iron heads, but I always go to bronze valve guides and hardened exhaust valves. Getting the valve geometry set up right is a little different than normal because you have to change pushrod lengths to compensate for valve geometry changes.”

Jim Wagner said that he is typically hesitant to stray too much from the norm with an engine. “Everyone has their own idea of what’s best,” he said. “But, I always think that what the manufacturer originally built usually worked well unless it was something that routinely failed.”

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According to John Twist, he takes his engines to a machine shop with a crew “that really knows what they’re doing.” He pointed out that MG engines have no lip seal on the end of the crankshaft. “The mail order places sell sealing kits, but one time it took five tries to properly fit a kit to a T Series MG engine,” said Twist. “Instead of that, we use a shop that really gets the crank aligned well.”

Twist added, “The machine shop data is there. It used to be published in bearing catalogs. They don’t do that anymore, but the info is still out there if you look for it. Grinding a crank is grinding a crank; it’s just an engine except for a few little things. Getting it done right just depends on the guy behind the lathe.”

John Twist rebuilds MG engines at his University Motors Ltd. shop in Grand Rapids, MI, and also presents at engine building seminars.

John Twist rebuilds MG engines at his University Motors Ltd. shop in Grand Rapids, MI, and also presents at engine building seminars.

Parts Availability and Issues

There’s no doubt that supplying parts for vintage imported engines is a profitable business or large catalog houses such as Moss Motors, Victoria British, Engel Imports, Mid America Motorworks, International Auto, Black Dragon, Pelican Parts and others wouldn’t exist. These companies sell parts for MGs, Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, Jaguars, Volkswagens, Fiats, Alfa Romeos, Fiats, Datsuns, and Porsches and Mercedes-Benz has its own Classic Center to supply vintage parts. A second tier of companies such as The Roadster Factory, Spit Bits, Scarborough Faire and New England Automotive Restorations focus on providing parts for specific models. Kip Motors has parts for British sedans.

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The parts themselves can be new factory parts, NOS (new old stock) factory parts, NORS (new old replacement stock) aftermarket parts, custom manufactured parts or reproduction parts. According to the shops that install them, the quality of parts available today can vary widely.

“Unless these are NOS parts, we check the quality of any parts we use,” said Wagner. “We find that we cannot use about 50 percent of them. We were restoring a tiny Austin Nippy roadster for a customer and needed pistons. Using Google, we found a shop in England that had a set and sent the money. They didn’t ship them right away to the point where I was calling them daily. After the pistons shipped, they spent six weeks in customs. To make matters worse, when they finally arrived, they were the wrong size and had to be re-machined.”

In contrast to that experience, Wagner used the Internet to find a small shop willing to grind the Nippy’s crankshaft. “It came out gorgeous,” he said. “We also found a one-man operation in Minnesota to regrind the valve lifters. His work was reasonably priced and turned out extremely well. Google can be your friend, but when you use it you have to actually interview the person selling the parts.”

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For his MG engines, John Twist says he has found that the pistons and bearings available from mail order catalogs are typically okay, but not the rings. “They bend and you shouldn’t be able to bend a piston ring before it breaks,” said Twist. “So, we buy pistons, throw away the rings they come with and buy a set of high quality aftermarket rings.” Twist agrees with Wagner that every part has to be checked before using it.

Wayne R. Dempsey is the owner of Pelican Parts (www.pelicanparts.com) and supplies Audi, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Mini, Saab, Volvo, and Volkswagen parts. He says that the availability of parts for early Porsche 911 engines is great, and the knowledge to rebuild them is in a book he offers. “With the book and the parts suppliers in the aftermarket (like Pelican), anyone can rebuild an early 911 engine,” says Dempsey. “BMW and Mercedes-Benz Z engines are much easier to do and parts availability is pretty good, although there aren’t any rebuilding manuals for any of the early BMW/MBZ cars.”

Current and Future Trends

Market watchers see several trends starting or building in the vintage import niche and all of them affect those who rebuild engines for these cars. First, there is a “graying” of the hobby that is slowly, but surely, influencing how the cars are being reconditioned. Second, there is a move toward restoring imported models that were previously considered oddball cars. Last but not least, there are caches of parts turning up as the cars climb in interest and value.

This engine belongs to a British Austin Healy.

This engine belongs to a British Austin Healy.

Steve Yott said he grew up with the Triumphs he is rebuilding today in his retirement business. He appreciates the idiosyncrasies of the cars and the classic, although archaic, technology. However, he finds that his customers don’t look at Triumphs with the same affection and understanding. “Today the owners don’t want to work on their cars, they just want to turn the key and drive them,” he says. “They want them to run at 6,000 rpm – they weren’t designed to do that so a balanced crank is a must.”

Yott builds upgraded engines and racing engines with performance modifications to the stock engines. However, he says the real trend is towards “resto-modding” vintage imports with V8 engines and Tremec transmissions and other high-tech improvements to make them start, run, drive and perform like modern muscle cars. Streetworks (www.streetworkshotrods.com) – a Milwaukee hot rod shop – is building a resto-mod Volvo P1800 with a hot Ford V8 stuffed into it.

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Trend number 2 seems to be driven by the desire to stand out in a crowd and have something the other guy doesn’t. So instead of being one of 30 owners at a car show driving a restored Triumph TR6, you show up in a Triumph Sport Six convertible – a car that practically no one ever heard of. Or a Vespa coupe from Italy, a Volvo P444 from Sweden, a Renault Dauphine from France and a DKW Cabriolet from Germany all fit into the same pigeon hole. If you need parts for that three-cylinder, two-stroke DKW engine you can get them from Argentina or South Africa. That makes them a bit pricey, but it costs to be a rugged individual.

As for collections of rare imported parts coming out of the woodwork, blame it on the aging of the Baby Boomers. These folks are reaching retirement age and selling off their cars and associated “stuff” one after the other. For instance, D.K. Kenmonth showed up at the 2013 SEMA Show with a horde of old parts that he had saved during his decades-long career in the engine building industry.

Kenmonth sold Motor Warehouse and Commercial Warehouse Center (his factory warehouse) to National Performance Warehouse (NPW) of Miami, but kept his Dana Motors corporate identity. He now runs Kenmonth Engine Co. and California Obsolete Engine Parts (CAOEP). “We supply NPW locations with machine work and discontinued, hard to find, internal engine parts,” he said.

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Kenmonth also found another niche selling NOS import parts for vintage Datsuns, Toyotas, Mitsubishsi and so on. “I started buying lots of NOS import parts and, with the help of our computer we were able to catalog them,” he said. “We have designed and built a website to present them to the industry.”

So, as you can see, if you’re rebuilding vintage imported car engines you’re not alone. Shops can make money doing this and all the information and parts they need are out there someplace. Be a little fussy choosing your parts and things will be OK. The computer is the tool that’s needed to find them. And if you’re in the market for the long haul, stay abreast of the latest trends: build engines that will perform easily and last long; be ready to work on some oddball engines and keep your eyes peeled for parts sources coming out of the woodwork. They’re sure to show up on the World Wide Web one of these days.

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