Is It Worth the Investment?
When it comes to high performance work, there’s a lot involved beyond the point of just a finished engine. Some engine builders focus solely on the engine build itself, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However, when leaving the rest of a project up to the customer, it doesn’t take much for something to go wrong in a hurry.
When the customer is left to do the engine install, fabrication and other aspects of finishing the project in the car, you might have an engine coming back to your shop if something wasn’t done right. For those reasons, many engine shops are opting to control their projects and builds from point A to point B, leaving the customer with a ready-to-run package.
In order to do this, shops have to add capabilities such as installation work, fabrication work, transmission work, and even suspension and chassis work, in some cases. The question is – is it worth the big investment to add people, the proper tools or even acquire another business to do this additional work under one roof?
The answer depends on how much you want to grow your business and how much you want to take things out of your customers’ hands. Usually, investing in your business pays off and can expand your customer base.
“That’s kind of why we’re doing an expansion,” says Pro Car Associates owner Chris Wright. “We want to be able to control the quality of what’s going on with all aspects of a car build. The fabrication is one piece of it. Suspension is another piece of it. The braking system, the drive line, the wiring, the fuel system, the fuel – the whole entire car is really a system. At the end of the day, you want to provide the customer a whole solution.”
Many people consider the car as just a machine, which it is, but today it’s harder and harder to separate between electrical systems, mechanical systems, drive lines, suspension, brakes, fuel, wiring, etc. You’re having to know more and more and more about everything.
“The reality is one person can’t know everything,” Wright says. “There’s just so much information to know. Having people who are very specialized is a good thing. It’s really hard to get good at doing a lot of different things.”
If you intend to add capabilities such as installation and fabrication work to your shop, you have to spend the time to research and figure out how to do that work, or you need to attract the right talent to your shop. The investment can be well-worth it in added value to your business.
“Most people start in business because they were good at something or they did something they liked, so they started a business around it,” he says. “As your business grows, you see opportunities to get into things such as suspension work, roll cages, exhaust systems, and turbo systems, and you yourself can only do so much. You’ll want to attract talent, and it’s hard to attract talent today when you are a small business. If you don’t have health insurance, a retirement package and some sort of bonus package, all those kinds of things are things people want out of a job.
“To attract talented people, you have to have all these carrots to dangle for them to want to come work for you. Putting those things in place is really expensive, so you have to do it slowly. You don’t want to do things too fast. It becomes a step-by-step process. You slowly evolve, but it may not necessarily be you doing it all. It may be that you’re now starting to attract people who are talented in those other areas, or you find a company that does that work and has all these people who are great at it and you buy them if you can.”
Outside of the talent required, adding capabilities to your shop requires additional tooling in order to do those other jobs the right way.
“Hopefully you’ve got some engine equipment in-house, but you’re going to spend $150,000 on tooling, or at least $50,000-$60,000 to get going,” Wright admits. “You’re going to need a mill, a lathe, a bandsaw, horizontal and vertical saws, and grinders. If you want to do real fab work, you’re going to need benders and notchers and things of that nature too. You’re going to drop a couple hundred grand easily into the business.”
If engine installations are something you’re contemplating adding to your workflow, you might also want to consider adding tuning capabilities to coincide with those installation jobs.
“You could partner with a place that does the tuning,” Wright says. “A lot of businesses work that way and they work just fine. However, if you really truly want to make another revenue stream, then I would suggest getting into tuning yourself and learning it yourself. But, then you require a chassis dyno. If you’re an engine shop, you should have an engine dyno. If you’re doing a lot of performance work on vehicles, you need a chassis dyno. If you’re doing it all, you need both.”
Did we mention investing in the business? It’s obviously worth repeating as this is something business owners are never done doing if they’re going about growing their business the right way.
“As a business owner, you have to be willing to invest money constantly in your business for it to be successful,” he says. “If you’re not willing to do that and if you’re more concerned about the money you take home every day, then you shouldn’t be in business for yourself. You’ve got to put money into your business. The money you take home is the last resort. It’s what’s left. It’s always about your employees and your business first and you’re the last one to worry about yourself.”
If you haven’t been scared away from adding additional work to your shop, you’ll then need to understand what those additional jobs entail. When it comes to engine and transmission installation, nothing is as easy as it seems.
“First things first, engine location in the car becomes critical,” Wright says. “Whether the engine is forward or set back matters. The height of the engine is important. The pinion angle is too. For the ride height of the vehicle, you need to know your pinion angle, so you know just how the engine needs to be positioned. Usually, we’re playing around with a three-degree angle. Those kinds of things become key.
“Today, with LS swaps, everybody makes a mounting kit for the LS to go into something like a ‘69 Camaro. You just buy it and it goes in no problem. However, there are several different header packages out there that say they fit, but it depends on a few factors. Are you still doing the old steering gearbox or are you doing a rack and pinion? Are you turbocharged? What front dress are you using? Where is the alternator, power steering and AC in relation and will fit in that chassis? All those kinds of things become a key factor.”
It’s often fairly easy to mount an engine all by itself, but when start to add on things around it, the job becomes much more involved.
“I wonder how people can do some of this stuff at home, because quite frankly, every kit we buy usually requires some modification,” he says. “That’s when I get really frustrated with manufacturers – they say it’s a drop-in, but it’s not. For example, let’s say you’re doing a transmission and you want to go to a 4L80E. You might have to split your tunnel in the factory floor of the car and give yourself room. You may have to cut around it to do it right, and then, if you want the original look, how you do it is going to matter.
“People always forget about those facts when they want to change their transmission in their ‘69 Camaro that was a stick, or an ‘87 Monte Carlo. Well, guess what? The tunnel is different. That requires modification and that’s where the expertise comes in.”
Wright admits there is a learning curve involved when first beginning to do new kinds of work and you often end up having to figure it out as you go.
“The sucky part is, you don’t always get paid for that kind of stuff because it’s a learning curve for you,” he says. “There’s always those little gotchas that you didn’t anticipate.”
Those small headaches aside, adding to the capabilities of your business is a good thing and a great way to grow your shop’s in-house talent and customer base.
“What’s kept us in business so long is all the different types of work we’re able to do,” Wright says. “That’s the reality of it, and that’s why people start coming here in the first place, because we could do so many different things – whether it be fabrication, service a vehicle, build an engine, build a transmission, build a rear end, whatever – we’ll do it.”
The question is, can your shop do it? EB