Tech Stuff

What to look for in outside contractors

Your shop may service just about anything under the sun, or you may specialize in specific types of service or certain vehicle makes. Regardless of your shop’s capabilities, there may be times when you need to farm out work to an outside vendor. A good example is engine repair or rebuilding.

I’ll use my own screw-up as a perfect example of what can happen when an outside shop is selected when no extensive “background check” has been performed.

Years ago, when my endurance road-race team was preparing for a new season, our traditional and trusted engine builder was backed up with work and couldn’t schedule our engines to meet our deadline.

In a panic (being in a rush is always a recipe for disaster), we sent two Ford 5.0L (302) engines to a “performance builder” based on a single referral. Big mistake. The shop talked a big line, and assured us that they would provide us with the specific work that met our needs and that the engines would be finished well ahead of the deadline for our first race, providing us with ample time for pre-race testing. This was a gut-wrenching mistake that I regret to this day.

To make a horrible story as short as possible, the engines were finally ready for pick-up the day before we had to leave for a race at the Watkins Glen race course in upstate New York. Our crew only had time to install the engines in the cars, pack the rig and get on the road. Needless to say, we were not happy at this point.

Once at the track, we had only one practice session to try out the engines, in addition to using this brief period to dial-in our suspension settings for that particular track. The engines were anemic to say the least. Severely down on power, we were able to barely squeak by in order to qualify for the field.

This was a 24-hour endurance race, so in addition to needing adequate power in order to compete, the engines had to be durable enough to finish the event. In this case, sadly, neither requirement was met.

A scant nine hours into the race, both engines blew, with connecting rods ripping loose from the cranks and tearing through the engine blocks.

We were devastated on a level that’s hard to describe. This marked the first (and only) time that our team had not finished a race. Upon returning to our shop, a teardown revealed the causes. The “builder” had installed the wrong camshafts (not the cam specs that we had ordered), in addition to incorrect-length pushrods. The clearances were all over the board (cylinder bores too loose and some too tight), incorrect bearing clearances, etc. The list is too long to detail here.

One of the most notable boners involved connecting rod bolt tightening... all rod bolts had either been under-tightened or severely over-tightened, which was the root cause for our rod separations and block destruction. In short, this was a butcher job of the highest order.

Naturally, I had “words” with this shop, and subsequently was forced to chalk this up to experience and a hard lesson learned.

I know, and have the highest respect for, many engine builders throughout this country. Had I sent our work to any of these shops, we would have never had these problems.

High-quality engine builders exist in all parts of this country, but it only takes one bad experience to make you wary. The same goes for any potentially farmed-out work (alignments, welding, bodywork, transmission work, etc.).

When you need to send out a customer’s vehicle or component for work that your shop isn’t equipped to handle, do your homework. Just because the shop has a building and a sign does not guarantee that they offer quality work. Visit each shop that you’re considering and get an idea of how they operate, in terms of work ethic, cleanliness and attention to detail. Then talk to as many other shops as possible that have used their services, to gain from their experiences, whether positive or negative.

Butchers belong in deli stores, not in the automotive world. Perform as much research as possible before entrusting your customers’ possessions to “just anybody.” If things go awry, you’re the one that the customer is going to blame.   ●

To read more of Mike Mavrigian's editorials, see:

The value of photos

Never assume anything: (i.e., you get what your pay for)

The beauty of tools


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