Fun and profitability combined? Yes, but there are shoals in these glamorous waters. We hope this helps you navigate safely.
There’s money to be made in performance parts sales and installation — lots of it — but installer beware. Before you take the plunge make sure you understand how deep you can go before you risk incurring big regulatory agency fines and legal liability. Unfortunately, there’s no way any single magazine article can give you the specific information you’ll need to make an informed decision about entering the tuner business because each state has its own laws that may or may not adhere to the guidelines laid down by the EPA in accordance with the Clean Air Act. In fact, some state or even local laws attempt to override EPA regulations.
The obvious first step, then, is to talk to specialists and speed shops in your area who are involved in high-performance work. As fellow car guys, most of them will be glad to share the basics with you in an informal conversation, and to warn you of any particular dangers. It’s sort of like mariners sharing what they call “local knowledge.”
While you don’t want to sound like you’re interviewing them, there are some points you should try to cover:
- Liability — who’s responsible should the modification be deemed illegal by someone in authority?
- If a vehicle equipped with high-performance engine parts comes to your shop for a state-mandated inspection and performs to given specifications, is it legal? In other words, is just the presence of non-O.E. parts enough to make the car an outlaw even if its emissions levels are fine?
- What happens in the case of a performance-enhanced vehicle and an accident with personal and/or property damage?
- If a part says “Off-Highway Only,” are you supposed to determine exactly what use the customer intends for the car? Do you have to get something in writing from the owner? Will you be violating federal laws if you install the part in the first place?
- What about “Hold Harmless” agreements? In your state, can the customer sign away his rights if the part says “Off-Highway Only?”
- Is legal liability borne by the high-performance parts manufacturer, or do you share in it as the professional installer?
All good questions, and all have answers — and many depend upon the location of your business. Beyond your initial conversations, where should you go for answers?
Well, there are several places to turn to for answers and before deciding to take the tuner plunge you should first consult them. The Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) has an arm that specifically watches, advocates, lobbies and informs consumers, professionals and government officials on the topic of aftermarket parts. The SEMA Action Network (SAN) has a comprehensive website www.semasan.com that is chock full of information for you to wade through that is also specific to your state.
SAN has even developed something similar to a Patient’s Bill of Rights called a Consumer Bill of Rights, reproduced here directly from the website.
Another good resource is the Automotive Service Association (ASA) www.asashop.org. We’ve included a screen shot of the legislation tab, which contains a trove of information that directly affects your business.
If this article is starting to sound a bit like a surgeon’s general warning, so be it. But as daunting as all this might seem, the opportunities are terrific for both profits and career satisfaction, and demand is ever-increasing in direct proportion to today’s horsepower ratings. Or, would it be more apt to call them horsepower wars? If you remember the days of rejetting carburetors, installing reground cams and cherry bombs (the mufflers, not the firecrackers), then you might also recall the excitement generated by leafing through the Isky Cam and J.C. Whitney catalogs (to name just two), perusing the pages for the latest high performance offerings.
Guess what, bunky? Those days are back in spades. Today’s gear heads are just as interested in performance as Baby Boomers were when they were young, and their means of getting performance are, paradoxically, both similar and quite different. Similar because the basics of how to hot rod an engine or tune a chassis still apply; different in that today’s engines include overhead camshafts, multiple valves per cylinder, fuel injection, turbochargers, and on and on, and are controlled by that all-important PCM.
Further, they’re similar because the same principles of geometry still apply to tuning a chassis, but today’s suspension systems are MacPherson struts, multilink, and perhaps multiple shock, with disc brakes and low profile tires thrown into the bargain. And today’s advanced polymers and light-alloy metals open up a wide array of sophisticated bolt-on handling.
Arguably, the tuning phenomenon is fairly recent, only coming to a frenetic boil in the last five years or so. American muscle was what tuning was all about in its previous horsepower heydays of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But today imports rule, thanks in large part in the formative years to Honda and, later, Nissan and Toyota. The industry got its next power boost when Subaru introduced the WRX to the U.S. market in 2001 along with international rallying (the World Rally Championship). Another whole level of interest came along with the movie The Fast and the Furious in 2001, which shortly thereafter brought the relatively new motorsport from Japan called “drifting.”
Put Me In, Coach!
Subaru offers a full array of performance parts from cat-back exhaust systems to rugged clutches, and from short-throw shifters to suspension spring and shock kits through their SPT (Subaru Performance Tuning) program. Depending upon the part, it may have a limited warranty the same as any other Subaru part; or a special warranty for select performance parts, which also can only lawfully be installed by the end user; and parts that are sold “as is” because they are intended for “Off Highway” use.
Looking at one of the most popular cars from Subaru, the 2005 Impreza WRX, this means that out of the 78 part numbers listed, 34 (nearly 44%) of the parts offered are covered under the normal limited genuine Subaru replacement parts and accessories warranty and can legally be installed by a repair facility. Not bad. “Yeah,” you might interject, “but I bet the money to be made off those parts is not all that great when compared to the ‘hard’ performance parts.”
If you said that you would be sorely mistaken. When added together the 78 performance parts numbers available for the 2005 Impreza WRX amount to $29,955.44. The 34 parts that anyone can install add up to $14,133.03, or 56.6% of the whole. There are a lot of popular items in those 34 part numbers, and many of them are high-ticket.
The Subaru SPT website (www.spt.subaru.com) is chockfull of information including part numbers by model along with detailed instructions for how to install the part on the vehicle. Talk about “one stop shopping.” Included are not only SPT branded performance parts, but also quite an extensive list of the highly-sought-after STI items.
Along with the array of performance parts there is also performance merchandise to consider. That list covers an eclectic assortment from ballpoint pens to travel mugs and valve stem caps to key fobs. Dig deeper within the Subaru system and you’ll discover T-shirts, hats, jackets and more to round out the merchandising selection.
The performance market has found another heyday and even with rising gas prices there seems to be nothing but strong growth ahead. Like any business venture,
it’s important to do extensive upfront research to make sure you are aware of federal and state laws. But even in the most restrictive states opportunity abounds; Subaru and its performance products offer, perhaps, the best opportunity out there for a chance to catch the wave of this ever-growing segment.
It’s interesting to note that even hybrids are being tuned by some of their owners to get more performance from them for additional gas mileage without sacrificing performance. And already we have seen applications where electric motors are being used to provide low-end performance with tuned gasoline engines giving stellar 0-60 mph times. The shade-tree mechanic is alive and well, but more than likely hunched over a laptop writing code and hacking into on-board computers to explore, perhaps, a different definition of performance.
“Where there’s a will there’s way,” and it seems there will always be a strong desire among “gear heads” to eke more performance out of their vehicles, and that is conspicuously the case with Subaru owners. The tuner market is back (well, it never really left) and its opportunities are just now being explored.
Suppose — just suppose — you could stop doing ordinary service and maintenance work and switch to the glamorous world of high-performance modifications and customization? To a solidly-experienced and successful general automotive shop owner or technician, this might be just a day dream. Maybe you wouldn’t want to give up the challenges of modern diagnostics and excellence in repair altogether, anyway — you should rightfully be proud of the skills you’ve developed. On the other hand, who says you have to plunge in all the way?