Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2005   by Andrew Ross

New Potential From Old Friends

A resurgence in traditional performance is being driven by surprising factors.

One of the most persistent aspects of the performance market is how it continues to be driven by some traditional factors, despite the rise in new four-wheeled subjects of enthusiasts’ passions.

Even in the face of rapidly rising interest in the sport compact market, Detroit muscle cars seem to have lost none of their lustre.

“It’s the most important staple of my business,” says Venice Perno, owner of Performance Cellar in Stoney Creek, Ont. “It is actually making a comeback in my opinion.”

The reasons why he sees this occurring may be a surprise to those who don’t stay glued to the Speed Channel.

“The price of muscle cars on Barrett-Jackson [auctions]” is behind it, says Perno. “All of a sudden everyone feels they are sitting on gold mines, so they don’t mind spending some money to build an engine.”

In addition, the realization that a car built to be cheap and fast in the late 1960s or early 1970s might command the equivalent of $100,000 Canadian has meant an added emphasis on stock appearance.

“We’re not destroying cars like we maybe would have been doing in the 1970s to make them go fast, but the customers still want 500 to 700 horsepower under the hood. It is doable and for them to rationalize spending $10- to $20,000 on a car that is worth $70,000 is a lot more feasible than on a car that is worth $5,000.

“I have good faith in the industry right now.”

That faith is supported not just by a belief in the market, but by a belief in many of the products that have continued to cater to the consumer who prefers carburetors to computers.

Randall Perks, general manager of Karbelt Speed & Custom Distribution Centre in Ajax, Ont., says that the trend in traditional performance parts has stayed, well, traditional.

“The big majority of our business is still the small block Chevy guy,” says Perks. “It’s a combination of the same things we have sold for a long long time, and some things we haven’t sold for a long time.”

Engine components have continued to be a strong area for Karbelt, but this isn’t to say that technology has been standing still. Suppliers have continued to apply new design knowledge even to old standby engines, such as the venerable small block Chevy and Ford, as well as their larger brethren.

“There are new intakes, there are new coatings. Last year there was a black chrome. It coats the intake and makes it easier to clean. It’s like a polishing, but it’s a coating.

“I would think it’s easier to clean up. You get a raw aluminum intake and get greasy fingerprints, they are going to be there for a long time.

“With camshafts there is different technology all the time,” he adds. It all results in more horsepower for the customer, who views that as the ultimate goal. Perks agrees with Perno that the prices that good muscle car examples are getting at auction are heating up the market.

“Muscle cars overall are hot. The prices they are getting are ridiculous. I heard of a clone Hemi Cuda getting $150K U.S. For a clone car! Yes, it was an immaculate restoration, but it’s not even an original Hemi Cuda.”

Another point that both Perno and Perks agree on is that technology has both increased the amount of horsepower you can get out of what amount to decades-old engine designs, and to do it with more driveability and for fewer cubic dollars than would have been required only a decade ago.

“With cylinder heads, strides in technology have made them more accessible. You don’t have to spend $4,000 on a casting. And they work right out of the box. All you need is a good block.

“If it’s just for a muscle car, you can take the 350 or 302 and get rid of everything on the block, put a rotating assembly kit in it, put some heads and get a Holley carb or a fuel injection kit and the price is not unreasonable.”

Now, considering that the last of the classic muscle cars bowed out of production 30 years ago, you might think that every car that is surviving would have already had just about everything done to it; once you get a car with 500-plus horsepower, where do you go from there?

Back to the beginning, apparently.

“What is happening is that people are restoring them back to stock. So, everything that was done to them they are removing. And then they are coming back saying they need to rebuild the engine. With what we know now and the parts that are available now, we can build engines to make more horsepower than 20 years ago, way cheaper.

“And they can still actually look like the OEM engine, which is something that we weren’t able to do 20 years ago. If it isn’t a perfect numbers-matching car, the customer has no problem putting a traditional hot rod engine in it.”

“There are several things that are keeping it going,” says Vic Edelbrock, owner of performance parts supplier Edelbrock, and generally considered the pioneer of the modern hot rodding industry.

“One of them is at the top of the pile: the love of the automobile. In the U.S. and Canada and places all over the world, it is at the top of the list. It will keep going for a long, long time. In the U.S., if we go back to the older cars, the street rods are growing. They are making bodies for Camaros and ’40 Fords now.

“That is a tremendous deal that people want to work on older engines. They don’t want to worry about sophisticated stuff. That is going to be with us a long, long time.

“And of course we are now into engines like the LS-1. We now have racing parts for that, and street parts.

“The main thing is that now we can put together a Power Package,” says Edelbrock, zeroing in on their entree into a general trend toward engine kits. The kits include the carburetor, the manifold, cylinder head, camshaft, etc. and are designed to deliver a specified horsepower gain.

“It’s a package that the customer can put together. That has been a very important part of our growth for the past 15 or 20 years.”

He says that the objects of people’s affections can sometimes be surprising. “The 440 Chrysler. Somebody will go buy that in the junkyard for low dollars, take it apart, fix it up, put heads on it, a manifold on it, a camshaft in it, a little compression, 9.5 to 1, still run 91 octane, and have a helluva engine at a very low cost.

“Now they’re doing it with the LS-1 that was in the Camaro. We make a carburetor manifold for the LS-1, for the guy who wants to put it in the street rod and doesn’t want to fool with fuel injection.” An electronic box still allows the ignition to operate, but the message is clear.

“Probably the oldest saying in the performance market is keep it simple stupid,” says Perno. “As soon as you start getting it too high tech, too advanced, too exotic, you quickly eliminate as much as 80% of your customer base.”

Common ground for the performance industry has been significant developments for the light truck market, but it is useful to remember that the light truck accessories market was the hot trend of two decades ago. In the interim, it has turned into an integrated part of the total vehicle personalization market.

However, it too has evolved, though in some cases this is through new designs for old needs.

“Hood shields, window vents, tonneaus, floor coverings, and running boards, to name a few” continue to be growth areas, says Jay Lusignan, marketing communications specialist, Lund International.

And the primary target of these continues to be the larger pickup, though a significant part of the roots of the truck accessory market were in compact pickups some 15 years ago.

“Full-size pickups are generally thought of as the staples of the market, due to the original emphasis placed on them,” says Lusignan. “Trucks were the market that witnessed all-new categories and took accessorizing to the next level in terms of both style and protection.”

He sees little sign of a major shift, though there has been some expansion in the type of vehicles being accessorized.

“Sales of full-size trucks are still strong, but we’ve seen an increase in SUVs. However, we continue to see development on existing pickups, and even new manufacturers, like Honda, are placing a bigger emphasis on trucks. So I think it’s going to be awhile before we truly see a shift.”

It seems clear that what is generally thought of as the traditional performance and accessories market has not suffered as a result of the increased interest in sport compact cars.

Thinking back a couple of decades, it is likely you would have been hard-pressed to suggest that the muscle car would still be around today. And it would have seemed even less likely a decade ago, as mid-’90s technology overshadowed the carb and cam set.

Against these odds, however, the muscle car–old and new–is seeing a resurgence that should serve notice that the traditional performance market may have changed, but it still has the potential to pull new money from some very old places.


While personal knowledge will continue to be an important part of the performance products seller’s success, this is not to suggest that it is the only tool available.

In the light truck accessories market, many suppliers have worked hard to ensure that inventory commitments are in line with the investment capabilities of a jobber/retailer, while still providing good tools to attract the customer.

How-to tips, product video segments, ad slicks, radio scripts, and POP materials that feature miniaturized versions of accessories can all help to promote products while minimizing inventory and space demands.

Along this same theme, a computer package featured at the recent Keystone Automotive “Big Show” in New Jersey allows a counterperson to perform all the usual ordering and pricing functions, with some added tools.

“It uses up-to-date data for what a part fits, reference parts, all at the touch of a stylus,” says Keystone’s Joe Panarello. “It also has photos of the product and what’s in stock, and what’s in stock at Keystone.”

The inclusion of photos of products in applications is a key to closing a sale for a customer who may not be comfortable with ordering a product without a very good idea of what it will look like when installed.

Panarello says that the wireless Fujitsu tablet setup that he was demonstrating also fits well into the new model of retailing that is gradually doing away with the counter and moving to a more kiosk-based approach for counter staff.

Sales data is exportable to accounting packages.

While this is just one system, it does provide an example of the strides being made to make selling performance just a bit easier, and just a bit more profitable.