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Tour of an Engine Rebuild Shop

Part 1: Introduction

By Jeremy Wilson

Portland Engine Rebuilders (PER) has been in business nearly four decades. Owners Ted King and Ron Larson take pride in the company’s longevity and reputation for quality workmanship at reasonable prices. In addition to rebuilding engines for daily commute vehicles, PER specializes in performance, custom, marine, and antique engine rebuilding. Recently Ted and Ron hosted a shop tour for members of the Classic Car Club of America.

“I’ve been working here 32 years and my partner, Ron Larson, founded the place back in 1972, so the company has been here 38 years,” said Ted. We built this place from nothing. We didn’t have any money or any equipment. But what we did have is a lot of ambition and a clear mechanical knowledge about all kinds of things. I have a college education in automotive engineering, whereas a lot of my men don’t. I don’t know that you need one, personally. If you have a natural talent, that’s probably more important than anything because common sense goes a long ways.”

“We do military and non-military rebuilds. I probably have 2500, maybe 3000 engines in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ted.

“We probably do 600-700 non-military engines a year. We used to do 1100-1200 but found out that it was not profitable. There’s a bell curve to making money: If you have 2, 3, or 4 guys working you can make a good living. If you have 7 or 8 men, and you’re not big enough to be compartmentalized; then you lose your efficiencies and you lose money. You lose money big and you don’t even know it. The next bell curve where it’s profitable again is around 15 to 19 men, which is right where we are. The next bell curve for making money is on the order of 150 guys. If you try something in the middle, you’re going to be in trouble. I found out the hard way in 1985.”

PER uses a computerized ordering system that streamlines the rebuild process and helps keep costs down.

“We offer 2700 part numbers of engines and each part number fits a vehicle’s year and make,” said Ted. ”The part number determines the computer-generated work orders and the parts kit for the engine. Our ordering system prints the work orders and a series of cards with exacting detail for the tear-down department. When I get a new engine family, it takes us a while to do the computer work, maybe a week or two. But once that’s done we cut the work orders. The first one’s usually difficult to do, but the second one’s a cake walk.”

Strictly following a set of procedures, PER moves each engine through their facility, from the back to the front, until the rebuild is complete.

“An engine comes into the building from the front and everything is tagged and a bin is assigned to each component. We then create the work order and ship it to the back room (the “Dungeon”). Then we dismantle it and it works its way forward. The more forward in the shop the engine is, the closer it is to completion.”

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