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Timing is everything

There was a time, before the turn of the century, when domestic car manufacturers and the specialty aftermarket parts industry appeared materially different than they do today.  For example, car makers had found that sufficient engineering and manufacturing clout resided outside the hallowed halls of Detroit that they allowed non-OEM, high performance parts providers to build value-adding parts and systems.  Generally, this meant farming out isolated projects directed to comparatively low volume parts designed to fit specific OEM needs or projects.

On the one hand, design and prototyping of specialty parts could be accomplished at a fraction of what the OEMs would face to do the same thing.  At the time, it was called the “green dollars” vs. “brown dollars” ratio where the aftermarket charged lower (or “brown dollar”) fees for their services than costs the OEM faced, again all for the same work.  It made economic sense, because at that point in time, the ratio was on the order of ten dollars to three dollars; green to brown, OEM to aftermarket.  Go figure.

Then again, there was an historical mood among many specialty aftermarket parts manufacturers that “doing contract work for an OEM” ranked among the plums of accomplishments when compared to their run-of-the-mill product lines…or so the belief appeared to be.  As a case in point, those of us with a few strands of grey around our temples might recall the so-called “Six-Pack” MoPar aluminum intake manifolds that emerged from Edelbrock in the mid-70s, sporting three 2V carburetors and the company’s name blended into the casting, factory installed on new vehicles.  And there were plenty of comparable examples sprinkled around the specialty automotive aftermarket, some of which continue today…but precious fewer.  I know because I was there, then and now.

Amidst all this, a small but highly-talented and experienced band of performance people that included design, engineering, testing and product development skills decided the timing might be right to carve out a niche in what appeared to be an opportunity-rich environment with selected OEMs.  Early on, they concluded that in order to be competitive against far larger and more established aftermarket companies, they needed to offer something slightly different from the norm…an approach that not only provided additional benefits to their clients but moved in a direction of technological leadership, certainly in the specialty automotive aftermarket.  Mind you, this wasn’t to be a ploy behind which some pseudo parts development service was to hide.  Rather, from the beginning objectives included giving their clients something not available (or cost-effective) elsewhere.  By design, it was a skunkworks in the making.

In order to establish and sustain a business model, the plan called for separating the R&D side of the equation from the manufacturing and marketing efforts.  Specifically, since the skunkworks team wanted to avoid any responsibility for building and selling potential product offshoots from its core OEM work, an outside source with a proven history of manufacturing and marketing specialty aftermarket products was linked to the plan.  By so doing, the team freed themselves from this particular burden and could bear down on pure R&D, using proven skills that had been the basis for their joining the team in the first place.  So that step was taken and concluded.

Based on this “business model,” the team attracted some significant attention, right from the start.  For example, once the appropriate Chevrolet engineering staff visited the new facility, which included an engine dyno test cell far ahead of any other such aftermarket cells (with an early version of then-advanced, real-time, in-cylinder combustion analysis capability), this division of GM decided to assign a special engineer as resident to the operation…three weeks out of every month on what began as a one-year development contract.  Ford also came to the party, as did various automotive aftermarket product developers and manufacturers.

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