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How You Can Increase Your Payoff by Including a Transmission With Your Engine Builds

Bundling two or more products into a single package simplifies the buying process for a consumer, saving both time and money. This isn’t limited to household goods and groceries. An engine builder can increase his bottom line by selling more than one product, such as a transmission. And additional accessories and services also can be added.

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Bundling is a common practice in marketing, be it software, insurance, cable TV, or healthcare – and especially at warehouse stores. Combining two or more products into a single package simplifies the buying process for a consumer, saving both time and money.

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This isn’t limited to household goods and groceries. An engine builder can increase his bottom line by selling more than one product, such as a transmission. And additional accessories and services also can be added, as we’ll see.

Even though you may not have thought about the possibilities, there are various ways engine builders can include a transmission with an engine, and we’re going to talk about some elements to facilitate this marketing approach.

There’s an old saying about “searching the world for the best –and ‘stealing’ the rest” that applies here. In other words, let’s take a look at how the Big Three companies in Detroit handle bundling, and see if their approach can apply to your business. Knowing how your competition operates can showcase opportunities for yourself!

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Chevrolet, for instance, offers “Connect & Cruise” powertrain systems. While the 16 different engines combined with a transmission are mostly standard factory models – not the custom setups that engine builders offer – it’s the packaging we’re concerned with here. With these systems, you get the engine, an automatic or manual transmission, electronic controllers and all the necessary wire harnesses. Chevy engineers match the engines and transmissions for optimal performance and durability, while specially calibrated controllers are designed for retrofit installations in older vehicles, for easier and quicker installation.

Ford and Mopar have similar setups as well, many of which are  resold through various retailers. Since these packages benefit from the economy of scale, retailers can offer discount pricing.

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All of which begs the question: how can the independent engine builder compete?

To answer that, we spoke with a number of shops to get some insider perspectives on how they corner their share of the custom engine market with a transmission add-on.

Smeding Performance is a good case in point. This shop offers a range of high-performance Chevy and Ford engines, from stroked small blocks to blown big blocks. Its 450hp 383 Chevy is its top seller, since it has big-block power in a small-block, and is still tractable on the street. The firm’s bundling approach not only includes an optional polish package, billet belt-drive system and/or dual-quad carbs, but also a custom-built drivetrain from Phoenix Transmission Products.

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This company has two separate facilities, one for rebuilding and repair customers, the other for tailor-made automatic transmissions for hot rods, customs, muscle cars, 4x4s and other high-performance vehicles. Phoenix works with Smeding and other independent engine builders by gathering as much detailed information as possible on the end user’s car or truck, such as weight, gear ratio, tire size, camshaft specs, engine displacement and output, and so forth.

“Every application is different,” points out Scott Jackson of Phoenix. “We design each unit for the application, and keep a careful record of dyno testing, both for calibration purposes and for future changes made by the customer.”

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Given the dominance of Chevy engines in the aftermarket, it comes as no surprise that the two most popular transmissions built by Phoenix are the TH-700R4 (for its economy) and the 4L60-E. Jackson favors the latter for its “plug and play” simplicity, but he always prefers to talk to customers to get a feel for what they’re trying to do.

“Sometimes I will even talk them out of a particular application, such as with an engine with low torque in a heavy car,” Jackson says. He notes that it’s an education process, and he’d rather make a customer happy than sell them something they don’t need. To that end, the company’s website has a detailed FAQ section to help potential customers understand transmission terms and items needed (or not) for their specific situation.

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On the other hand, when Jose Camacho of Camacho Transmission works directly with the end user (rather than custom engine builders), he finds that his high-performance customers are already well informed, and will supply the transmission and all the parts needed. Camacho then handles assembly and install of a chip kit, and simply does what it takes to keep the customer happy. So there’s obviously no hard rule about how a transaction takes place, and lots of variations within these two extremes.

Somewhere in between them is Jasper Engines and Transmissions, known for its high volume of remanufactured drivetrain components, mostly for production cars and trucks. A separate division, however, called Authentic Custom Engines (and Transmissions), provides custom units for either classic or performance vehicles. While the standard production offerings typically follow manufacturer recommendations, “The Authentic division requires more information from the customer about their vehicle in order to make recommendations,” says Jasper’s Mike Pfau, “and to ensure that all the components work together.”

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Another bundling option involves more than combining an engine and transmission. BluePrint Engines, for instance, now offers a complete drivetrain to customers of Factory Five Racing (FFR), one of the largest replica manufacturers. These two firms have come up with an innovative program to make things simpler for DIY car builders. BluePrint can drop-ship a turnkey powerplant and transmission of the customer’s choice in conjunction with a Factory Five replica.

Since most replicas don’t come with an engine, and FFR doesn’t sell engines, this business arrangement is a natural fit and highly beneficial to all concerned. Which also means that customers don’t have to hassle with rebuilding a used engine from a donor car or salvage yard. BluePrint provides a full warranty (30 months/50,000 miles) on its dyno-tested performance mills.

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Since FFR offers both Ford- and Chevy-powered component vehicles (Cobra or ’33 Ford replicas), the full line of BluePrint’s engines are potential powerplants, ranging from 306 to a stroked 408 Ford, and from a Chevy 350 to a big-block 454, along with Mopar engines as well.

The engine is already broken in beforehand, and comes with a dyno sheet to verify the output, all that’s required for installation is hooking up the battery, fuel line and radiator hose. Induction choices are either a Holley car or EFI system, and a Tremec TKO 600 (or other transmission, depending on the engine) can be included as well.

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Roush and Superformance are another example of two companies working hand-in-hand to help customers complete their project vehicle. These two firms will display at car shows together for promotional purposes through a co-op arrangement. About 20 different engine and transmission packages are offered for various Superformance replicas, notes Superformance’s Lance Stander. Once a customer makes a choice, he or she will buy the drivetrain separately from Roush and contract with a shop for installation.

What other services can an engine builder provide to enhance the bottom line? Phil Rickard (formerly the owner of DTE Powertrains who now works as an Automotive Technology Instructor), points to his time overseeing Corvette race cars, and how he helped them survive the rigors of competition.

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“We addressed the durability of the driveline,” he says, after seeing racers blowing parts all over of the place. He came up with a differential strut to relieve stress in a weak point between the transmission and differential. So it helps for an engine builder to think downstream to the rear end when offering additional products to customers.

That includes offering various services as well, such as micropublishing and cryogenics, especially for high-performance applications. Micropolishing gears, Rickard has found, can drop temps by 18 degrees, and result in a 4hp gain at the tires due to reduced friction. And cryogenics is one of the worst kept secrets among racers. “It aligns the grain structure of the metal for less wear and more durability,” Rickard explains.

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All of the approaches mentioned above can expand the portfolio of a shop. They not only enhance performance and improve the quality and longevity of many drivetrain components, but also capture additional revenue for the engine builder. ν

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