Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2014   by Steve Pawlett

Engine Rebuilding: Retooling To Stay Ahead Of The Curve

The landscape of the domestic engine rebuilding market has been changing over the last two decades, as OEMs continue to use more advanced engine designs in vehicles to improve fuel economy and emissions.
These advanced engine design changes include the use of aluminum cylinder heads and blocks, overhead cams, and multi-valve cylinder heads to make the engines lighter and with a smaller displacement to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.
These changes have led to the growth of large engine rebuilders and a decline in small engine rebuilders. According to a Frost & Sullivan report, large rebuilders have the investment funds required for the additional machinery and training that is required for remanufacturing long blocks, Japanese engines, and advanced domestic engines. Large rebuilders also have the money that is required for mass engine remanufacturing.
Smaller rebuilders are often family-owned and do not have the investment funding available to keep up with the changes, but the ones that are successful know the importance of keeping up with change.
For many independent engine rebuilders, determining whether or not an engine is worth rebuilding can often come down to determining what parts are available for the job.
“When evaluating an engine job, I first check on the availability of the parts needed, then I check with other rebuilders to see if anyone has rebuilt one and find out what glitches I should be aware of,” explains Glen Miller, general manager and vice-president of Competition Engine Machine Inc. in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “With some engines, tolerances are very tight, and if you are not paying attention you can get yourself in more trouble than not.”
Machine shop manager Laurie Noske of Coquitlam Automotive echoes Miller’s sentiments on parts availability. “I find that in the aftermarket world a lot of parts aren’t always made as well as the OE parts, even though they may claim they are.”
While Miller and Noske no longer see many build-quality-related engine failures that used to keep many shops busy, timing belt failure-related damage is continuing to grow, and there are always those trouble engines that tend to crop up. Noske points out the Mercedes Smart Car as one that has problems with the cylinder heads.
“They usually run into a coolant issue. All the coolant connections are plastic, so they can toss a hose or start to leak, and if you don’t catch it you get into other issues,” explains Noske. “We’ve had quite a few here where we’ve had to straighten the head because the cam rocks. And, like a lot of import models, they are equipped with non-serviceable guides, so we have to go into the U.S. and order replacement guides from a guide-making shop.
“We also find the same guide issue with BMWs. When the guides get too much clearance you can’t buy a serviceable guide, so rather than throw away the cylinder head we go to the aftermarket world and get them custom made,” he adds.
Timing belt repairs are still on the rise, even though many OEs are moving to chain drives. “Belt drives generally have a life expectancy of 110,000 km, and the newer chain drives are designed with the same life expectancy so work in this category will continue to grow. The move to chain drives is more for cost saving rather than providing a longer life,” explains Miller.
According to Miller, cylinder head repairs are the best jobs to get now. “They often have several valves in each cylinder. Whether it be a V6 or an inline four, if there is a gasket failure the head has to be checked over and the valve seals changed,” adds Miller.
Noske points out how the Internet has changed the view many people have of the rebuilt engine market. “Many people have the impression that a crate engine they purchase south of the border is different from the rebuilt engine they can get from a local rebuilder,” he explains. “At the end of the day, I guess we need to say that we aren’t selling rebuilt engines; we are selling crate engines. It seems the terminology for rebuilt motors makes a difference to customers.”
When it comes to the tighter tolerances of newer engines, Noske says it really doesn’t make any difference in the job. “An engine is an engine. We’ve had engines with tight tolerances before, so it really is no different now. It really comes down to fitting them properly and making sure everything is going to work. We get parts from dealers and the aftermarket and you just have to make sure all those parts fit properly.”
Keeping up with technology is also key. “We have different seal installers, and our cylinder head equipment is constantly getting upgraded because we get different size valve stems, so we need pilots and valve heads that are different. Now, we often get cylinder heads in with four or five valves in one cylinder,” explains Miller.
“My dad started in the industry back in 1965 and, if not every year then every other year, we always updated something to make our job better or more accurate,” explains Louis Musgrov of Crosstown Engine Rebuilders in Toronto, Ontario. “If you’re not upgrading your stuff, what you will find is after many years you will start to fall behind, then you realize you can’t produce an engine as fast or as good as someone else can.”
For Musgrov, parts procurement is a challenge, but is not necessarily a big issue. “I inventory a fair amount of parts, so if a customer orders something I sell a lot of, I replenish it. I am constantly using my own inventory.”
Musgrov says he stocks a lot of components for the more popular engines he sells. “The 4.7s, the 3.0 litres are the most common engines we do sell, so I carry most of the parts in stock and when we do sell, I restock though my monthly order. We do a wide arrangement of engines in our shop, from performance engine rebuilding to diesel trucks, to marine engines and passenger cars and light trucks. The more popular repairs include Volkswagen, the Mazda 6, the 3.0 and the 2.3 Mazda engines. We also do a large amount of the 5.4 engines out of the F150 Fords, the 4.7 Dodges, and the 4.8, 5.3, and 6.3 GM motors.”
“Because we work on so many different styles of engines here, we carry the small tooling for the Volkswagens that have five valves per cylinder, and we have the tooling for the large diesel engines. We have to have the equipment to do that type of work. It I don’t have it I buy it,” adds Musgrov.
With tolerances so different with each engine that comes in the door, when it comes to resurfacing heads or boring a block, machine shops are quite often faced with very different specs from engine to engine. “It’s always a good idea to make those phone calls to some of the bigger rebuilder shops and check with those guys to see if they have done them or not. They are always very helpful,” adds Miller.
“The engines are becoming more difficult to build now, with the timing chains, balancing shafts and tensioners, so the rebuilding process has gotten more complex, and some are more challenging than others and the costs will reflect that,” adds Musgrov.
“We are in a buying group and we stock some parts, but when you have to order parts, freight costs are high. Even if it’s just a set of gaskets, because of the shape of the box the cost is higher,” adds Miller. “Before, when you could get parts locally, you could rebuild a small block Chevy in a couple of days. Now, unless you are stocking those parts, you are going to take the better part of a week.”
Competition Engine Machine’s main business is domestic, with industrial equipment repairs running a close second. “We could be doing a 5.3 or 6.8 for a Chevy Silverado, then the next job could be a forklift with a Mitsubishi V6. The parts are si
milar but the industrial equipment tends to be more heavy-duty; even the gaskets are heavy-duty,” says Miller.
Coquitlam Automotive has a very strong antique auto collector market that keeps the shop busy. “It seems we have developed a pretty good following in the classic car market, so we have a pretty good hit on that. Plus we get a lot of cylinder head work from the local dealerships we serve. In cylinder head work we pretty much see everything,” adds Noske.
Despite the larger trends affecting this market, savvy engine rebuilding shops that maintain a focus on the needs of their core customer base will continue to thrive.JN

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