Street Rod/Hot Rod engines? Yeah, right! Defining this particular engine market has been likened to trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. There is an almost endless number of factors that cross engine “styles”’ usage and applications.
It’s no different with hot rods. One hot rodder may want a stock unit just to keep him going while another wants a bullet for her cruising. Still, hot rodders have a semi-defined market, clearly separated from stock, fleet, race and other motor usages.
Any good engine shop needs to be aware of the hot rod market as it is a viable one, capable of good business and profit. We’ll save you the computer search time and talk about the state of the market, trends and yes, even how to combat those dreaded crate engines.
Trying to stay abreast of the hot rod market is also clouded because hot rods themselves are being even more diluted with influences from other performance and hobbyist styles. An example might be wheels, where some of today’s state of the art hot rods are using bigger wheels than they ever have in the past. Under the hood, the use of six and even four cylinder engines, topped with one or more radical turbos is seeing more and more use. In the “traditional” hot rod world, where rust reigns, inline diesels sporting massive turbos are not uncommon. In short, the rules are constantly changing and so are hot rod customers’ tastes.
Another area in which engine builders are competing is the customer’s hot rod itself. Sure, the body and paint are among the essential elements that make up the ‘look’ of any hot rod. But there are customers who want the engine to be up there on the same level as the body and paint; particularly if the ride is one with an exposed engine where it can distract the attention from the bodywork, custom paint, wheels and tires. Speaking of competing for project dollars, we cannot ignore the hot rodder that is on the fence about using a crate motor. There are reasons there that need to be addressed with the customer about just what EXACTLY is being sought and the benefits and disadvantages of both sides.
These are the leading factors facing engine builders serving the hot rod market today. But there is one more; the market itself. With more and more parts being offered through ever expanding directions including the Internet, the selection and awareness are growing and, for the most part, prices are still attractive to buyers.
This holds true in both drop-in engines and engine parts. And that plays into the hands of engine builders as they are needed for the two intangible parts of what they offer – knowledge and experience. That avalanche of parts on the Internet needs sorting out. Someone needs to know what goes where and, just as importantly, what won’t work and in what applications. Knowledge and experience are the two most important tools for an engine builder in any market, but maybe a little more so in hot rods where performance is so varied.
“There seems to be people focusing on performance more than ever, and we are in a very exciting time for Hot Rods,” says Trevor Wiggins, Sales Manager for COMP Performance Group in Memphis, TN. “At one time, people would spend the majority of their money on paint jobs and wheels. But, take a look at the Rat Rods that are out there; people are not spending their money on paint jobs and wheels, but are instead focusing on functionality and performance. This drives people to our performance brands. As performance continues to thrive in the marketplace, we see great opportunities to continue for many years to come.”
Jim Beyer, of Dakota Engine Builders in Jamestown, ND agrees, “The market is good. People are building hot rods and old rat rods.” Dakota Engine builds for both markets, hot rod and race cars, so they see the crossover, comparisons and contrasting of what customers want. And that puts them in a great position to see any trends as they develop, grow or die off. Just as an aside, Beyer sees something coming out of left field as a trend this year. It’s a genre that also works its way into hot rods. “I see drag racing making a good come back and garnering a lot of interest. That market is getting stronger.”
Wiggins watches the market, too, “Yes, we see all kinds of trends — and chase them. One trend is the amount of power adders in the performance segment. Ford has its Eco-Boost, GM and Chrysler are supercharging, and many other car manufacturers are making power adders the normal. Another trend seems to be toward more horsepower that is able to be run on the street. It’s not unusual to hear about someone having 1,500 or 2,000 horsepower and driving to the track with air conditioning and power windows. That was just not heard of five years ago.”
Another key element to watch is the market and how it is playing out against last year. Wiggins gave us his perspective that included a non-automotive factor. “This performance aftermarket is strong this year. We are starting to see the annual slowing of the season, but another difference to the market only happens every four years, and that is the presidential election. In an election year, many folks seem to hold onto their money a little more than normal. They will still buy the parts they need, they just may wait to buy the big ticket items until after the election or even into the new year. Another addition to the market status this year was the RPM Act that has many of our customers wondering what will happen to our industry. SEMA has done a great job so far in securing our industry and protecting the automotive performance industry from such legislation.” Again, a factor that cannot be ignored as it adds to the number and diversity of styles and parts.
With that much variety and resulting traffic, that brings up a good question. Who is buying more parts – professional builders or owners? Wiggins told us, “I feel that would be a toss-up. Of course, the builders are the folks we talk with most of the time, but our relationships with the owners is very important. We must build parts the owners want on their vehicles, whether it be performance or aesthetics.”
Back in the engine building trenches, we asked the always-tough question about competing against crate engines. We all know the big factor is service and being invaluable to the customer. But just exactly how can a shop do that? Beyer says Dakota sells the service. “Custom built engines are made one at a time. They can be built to customer’s needs, blue printed, not mass produced.” That certainly fits the hot rod tradition of individualism as a profile. Hot rodders want their car to be THEIR car and different from all others.
Another method of being an asset to the customer is being their altogether “go to” place for whatever engine suits their fancy, be it solid engine building or a trend they see on OEM engines. OEM adders are usually duplicated in the aftermarket – or sometimes, vice versa. And they leave the door open. Wiggins points out, “Aftermarket turbochargers have also been coming on strong the past few years, and car owners are needing a cam swap to address the additional power.” A cam swap maximizes the investment for the owner, bolsters that “go-to” value and leaves the door open for future business when that owner wants ‘a little more.’
From there, Beyer has a list of what he calls, “details” he develops with the customer about their engine. “Compression ratio, cam timing, clearances, parts quality, dyno service, making sure everything is performing right, so when a customer installs his new engine, they are ready for cruising or the race track.” Every factor on that complex list needs to be discussed and implemented. Then, Beyer truly goes the extra mile, “We give our customers my cell number so if questions or problems come up they can call me day or night.”
We grilled Beyer more about how he competes with crates and his theories on how they fit into the racing market and roll over into hot rods. First off, like most engine builders, he’s not a fan. “Crate motors in the racing world are not good for the engine builders,” says Beyer. “We cannot build an engine with the same type of parts, aluminum heads or roller cams.” He went on to explain one big complaint that any gearhead would find maddening. “In racing, where you have to run sealed engines, you can’t work on them yourself.” However, Beyer does see some good news happening. “We are getting closer to building an engine to duplicate the crate and more and more open engines are starting to win in the circle track world.”
He cites a local example involving one of the biggest genres of circle track racing. “A couple of weeks ago at Boone, the biggest IMCA race had an open engine win.” That was huge in a class that is laser focused to keep costs down. Beyer added, “We have one of our own who has won several features this season with an open engine. I do think the open engine will make a comeback.” And, as every victory in racing highlights custom builds over crates, hot rodders are watching.
Many hot rodders are former racers. Most have friends that race and almost all know somebody that does some kind of racing. The lines between hot rodders and racers are virtually nonexistent. So hot rodders are like any other auto enthusiast; looking for a better mousetrap. If they know that Dakota Engine Builders’ products are winning races, they are likely to want them to build that better bullet.
Word of track becomes word of mouth and at the very least, they will have questions for Dakota and other engine shops. Service, attention to detail and being “the source” are the things that keep hot rodders coming back to engine shops. Well, that and looking for “a little more.” ν
EDITOR’S NOTE: For suppliers of performance engine components and machining equipment, use the exclusive interactive online Buyers Guide resources at www.enginebuildermag.com.