According To The Specialty Equipment Market Association (www.sema.org), the automotive aftermarket is a $34 billion per year industry. Racing, hot rodding, customizing and restoring classic and vintage automobiles are strong revenue sources for thousands of machine shops all over the United States, but money is not the only payoff. For many, being able to work on some of the best autos and bikes ever created is more satisfying to them than their paychecks. Building a top fuel dragster, restoring a 1920-something luxury car and painting a mural on the side of the family van require different skill sets, but one thing most of the people doing this work have in common is a passion for the work.
"We make parts for drag bikes because we enjoyed racing drag bikes," said Jim Whipple, owner of Phinney Bay Machine Works in Bremerton, Wash. (www.pbmwgroup.com), one of American Machinist's 2006 Best Shops. "I got into racing seriously, and the machine shop became a vehicle to support my racing. We got pretty good at it, but it really tears you up. A fuel bike has maybe 1,500 hp and weighs about 900 pounds. I enjoyed the horsepower rushes, but it got to the point where I'd have back problems for a week or two after every race so I quit racing. We still make a lot of parts for other racers. There is nothing stock about those bikes. Everything has to be fabricated, and it all pays well," added Whipple. Phinney Bay does general machining and part fabrication for other industries as well. The shop has two manually operated lathes, a manual milling machine and three CNC milling machines.
Ron Greene, owner of Greenie's Auto World in Otego, N.Y. (www.greeniesautoworld.com), is another man who has turned his passion for automobiles into a profitable business. "I've been a car collector for years," said Greene. "I've got maybe 30 cars, so when we sold our lumber business, I decided to open a one-stop, do-everything automotive center." Greenie's sells used cars and trucks, has six service bays, a large body shop, paint shop, upholstery shop, machine shop and even a state-of-the-art four-bay car wash. The shop also fabricates and sells kit and replica cars and does restorations on classic muscle cars. "We're restoring a 1929 Studebaker, a 1970 "Judge", a ‘Cuda, a 1963 Tbird, and a 1967 GTO and putting a new convertible top on a 1954 MG and a supercharger into a 2005 Corvette. We also do front end alignments on anything that rolls in the front door including those 1950 cars that nobody wants to do because they don't have the specs or don't want to mess with them," Greene added.
Greenie's opened for business in August of 2006, has 25 employees and already has more work than it can handle. The machine shop has an extensive collection of manually operated machines but no CNC equipment. At a time when everyone complains about finding enough qualified employees, Greenie's is able to attract some of the best in the area. "I just put some ads in the local papers telling people what I was planning to do, and when they saw what we were doing, it they wanted in. Almost everyone who works for me has more than 20 years experience at their jobs, and this place has become like their family." Such is the power of attraction that working on cool cars has.
"I used to race vintage cars and started making parts for them. That turned into the business of full-scale restorations," said David Cooper of Cooper Technica, Inc. in Chicago, Ill. (www.coopertechnica.com). "I do a lot of machining of custom parts myself using manual and Mazak CNC machines (www.mazakusa.com). I also do re-fabrication of worn or damaged parts that are no longer available. I've been doing this for 18 years, but there is still a lot I can learn. I take on the whole restoration project, do all the mechanical, disassembly and reassembly work, but I subcontract for the painting and complicated sheet metal fabrication and repair. My goal is to make the cars work right, not just look good." Cooper has an eloquent explanation of why he, and others, are so passionate about restoring old cars:
"It is not nostalgia or a mistrust of new technology that leads me back to vintage cars, machinery and design. Rather, it allows me to look through a window into a time when everything was still possible, when cars were new and unusual, and it was still not clear what purpose they would serve. It is easy to imagine the excitement and satisfaction, but hard to remember the difficulties and nuisances of owning and driving a luxury car in the twenties or thirties. At that time cars were not universal appliances. Instead, they were, at best, the finest work inspired mechanical designers could devise when they turned their attention to the automobile."
The desire to restore and cherish old cars, trucks and motorcycles has turned into a strong and growing industry. McPherson College (www.mcpherson.edu), a liberal arts college in McPherson, Kan., has gotten out in front of the trend by being the only college to offer a Bachelor's degree in Automotive Restoration. "The program was started in 1976," said Jonathan Klinger, director of automotive restoration development. "When I came in as a student in 2000, it was a two-year program with less than 30 students. Seven years later it is a four-year program with 108 students and a waiting list of people who want to get into the program." Part of McPherson's success is due to recognition and support from Jay Leno, the late-night TV talk-show host and car collector. Leno is a member of the program's advisory board and has helped the college get important resources such as a CNC machining center from Fadal Machining Centers (www.fadal.com).
This passion to restore is not limited to just restoring existing vehicles. In the case of Marcus Karalash and Michael Schacht it has led to the resurrection of a respected name in classic motorcycles. In 2001, Karalash and Schacht began a six-year effort to reverse engineer and eventually reproduce the defunct Crocker motorcycle (www.crockermotorcycleco.com). The first Crocker VTwins rolled out in 1936, and the last one in 1942. During those 6 years Crocker became a serious competitor to Harley Davidson and Indian with cruising speeds of 90 to 100 mph and a host of outstanding mechanical innovations. In 1942, Crocker began making parts for the aircraft industry and discontinued motorcycle production. Sixty years later Karalash and Schacht are about to correct that mistake. "We've recreated these Crockers, and they are identical to the original. We made our own patterns and tooling, do our own machining and assembly. The parts are interchangeable with the originals, so our bikes are more a continuation of original production than a replica or reproduction," said Schacht. "There is a lot of passion involved in doing this. You can't go to work for six years without a lot of passion in your pocket. If you don't have money in your pocket then you need that passion." That pocket full of passion is about to have some money added to it. The team is taking orders for the new Crockers. Prices range from $53,000 to $56,000, a bargain considering an original Crocker costs between $220,000 and $300,000. The new Crocker Motorcycle company is located in Ontario, Canada, but is considering relocation to Las Vegas, Nev. It has a well-equipped machine shop with Mazak vertical mills and a Haas Automation (www.haascnc.com) lathe.
People who race, modify and restore autos, trucks and motorcycles need machined parts and machining services. For shop owners with a passion for things automotive, the automotive specialty market can provide a revenue stream that can make the difference between just getting by and making serious profits.