The rise of the sport compact car, and its powerplant as the subject of choice for the performance enthusiast, has bred many a horror story about rebuilds gone wrong, and customers from hell.
The reasons for both of these situations to arise are as plentiful as the shattered parts populating the scrap bin, but that doesn’t mean that the engine shop should stay away, nor does it mean they have to be left holding the bag if things go wrong.
At the recent AERA-Engine Rebuilders Association conference, the panel discussion on the sport compact performance market seemed almost like a replay of a similar forum held last year: a good market for those who know; there is a lot to learn; engine builders would do well to investigate this market thoroughly.
With so many questions running the gamut from technical to customer relations, it seemed appropriate that Jobber News would pay an old friend and former columnist a visit: John Solecki, owner of Scarborough Engine & Machine.
Solecki has been building and rebuilding Japanese four cylinder engines for as long as anybody has, and longer than many. He has also been exposed to the finer tolerances that are required by these engines as a result of a series of agreements with various manufacturers, not to mention more than a few performance engine builds. In short, there are few who can offer as many insights into this market as he can.
Restrictions on the engine manufacturers in terms of emissions and fuel economy have forced them to put the technology and finish quality levels at those only seen in the finest racing engines, says Solecki.
“The technology is so sophisticated that the chances of an unsophisticated person going in there and modifying these things and getting significant amounts of power out of these things is virtually zero.”
He says that there area lot of engines that run worse and cars that are slower than before the machinist got to it.
“By virtue of the fact that they have destroyed some of the bottom end torque, when the engine finally comes into its power band, it feels like it is faster. But if you actually graphed it, or looked at the quarter mile time, the car is slower.”
He says that the pressure on television stations to include automotive programming has bred some good, and a whole lot of bad programming. It affects what customers expect and thereby affects what a shop has to do when faced with these expectations.
“A lot of it depends on how much time they spend on the Internet. One advantage of the Internet is that there is a large amount of information available to a large amount of people.” He says that this has helped boost the superficial knowledge of the customer.
Customers can come in with reams of information and a plan of what they want to do with their engine. “You have to careful,” says Solecki. “If you actually do what he says, you are going to get yourself in trouble. It might work, but it might not. When the car isn’t running the way he wants it to, he doesn’t remember that he was the one who came in a said to do this, this, and this. All he knows is he has handed you a cheque for $3,000 and he doesn’t have the 9-second car the magazine said he would.” Accordingly, he insists on having detailed discussions and making notes on the work order.
The technology that the aftermarket has developed to hack into engine computers, and provide reprogrammable units, is among his current favourites. Another is the simulation software that allows him to get a better idea of what might work in a given application before he ever lays cutter to metal.
This, he says, can save shops time and money. “The ability to do desktop simulations is extremely important. It is accurate in some ways, but not in others.” You need to know a large amount of data about cams, airflow, etc., but once you have that, it can provide a good guideline.
Tools, new age ones and more commonly accepted ones, are all critical. With the tighter tolerances and finer surface finishes required by new technology engines, it is important for shops to make sure they have up-to-date equipment. You need to have the technical know-how, but no amount of learning will produce a good result with poor equipment.
“We went from a crank polishing machine that you can purchase for $1,500 to one that is 30 times that price to address one small, specific operation. We needed to do that,” says Solecki.
His advice? “The first thing I would do is get back to basics. People get so tired of me harping on this, but you have to be capable of doing a valve job that doesn’t leak. Are you capable of holding a cylinder so that the thing is round and straight and the surface finish is correct? Most shops are not and aren’t even sophisticated enough to know that they aren’t.”
Measuring all these parameters to ensure that you’re putting out good machine work is critical. “It’s not absolutely necessary to have all the complex measuring equipment, but you need to have enough access to it to know that the work you’re turning out is okay,” says Solecki. “You really need to be able to handle the basic things perfectly before you get into the performance market.”
If you’re comfortable with your capabilities, then go for it, but don’t experiment on customer’s cars without their knowledge. Research and development should be a separate part of your business. “Pick whatever there is a lot of in your area. In Toronto there are a lot of Hondas. In parts of Quebec it is impossible to go wrong doing a Subaru. Buy one and start playing with it, or ally yourself with someone who has one and work out some sort of arrangement.
“That’s how we all started, by playing with them.”
He says that there are benefits beyond commerce for the technically minded. It can provide a satisfying outlet for creative thought and ideas. He says that, in a lot of ways, this reminds him of the old days.
“It is interesting that some things are so different in this industry and some haven’t changed a bit.”