With The Demise Of Speed Shops, Where Do Gear Heads Find Information

Once upon a time, speed shops were the only way to make your car go faster. There was no online shopping. In the beginning, all there was, were places like Holley Performance Products, which started out simply as two brothers (George and Earl Holley), who wanted to build a faster vehicle in 1896. Speed came from car and parts makers that were dedicated to helping gearheads go faster, this was the typical story of how speed shops got their start. Holley, Edelbrock, and Speedway Motors are companies that all started as speed shops, and refined their business models into becoming manufacturers or large aftermarket automotive parts stores.

The original Holley Carburetor factory in 1895, 24-34 Davis St. Bradford, Pennsylvania. Photo from www.smethporthistory.org

Other speed shops like Honest Charley Speed Shop continue to operate as merchants of speed, but differently than they did in the heyday of the speed shop. These speed shops were the places where hot rodders came to get their tech and buy parts.

We see less of what we likely think of as the traditional speed shop for a variety of reasons.  – Honest Mike, Honest Charley Speed Shop

In the modern landscape of automotive parts, speed shops have almost disappeared, leaving us to ask “where do gearheads go to get their information in today’s automotive world.”

This has become a critical interest for major automotive companies as well. “Every year we have promotions on key product lines,” explained Edelbrock’s Eric Blakely. “In the past few years, we’ve added a [section] on the form where we ask consumers how they heard about this promotion and our products. I personally review a majority of the forms as we receive them, so I can get an idea of where our consumers are getting their info.”

What Happened?

Speed shops in the 1960s were a place where car fanatics could hang out, have a few barley pops, and do some serious bench racing. Personal experience was shared among friends, and it didn’t take long for the word to get out when there was a new part on the market to make your car faster. Speed shops are where you went to find out what the best combination was. “Most were single-owner shops, founded on the enthusiasm, interest, and knowledge of a single individual,” said Honest Charley’s Mike Goodman. Keeping the shop’s tradition alive, Goodman simply goes by Honest Mike.

Honest Charley Speed Shop survives today on Chestnut St.
Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo: Honest Charley Speed Shop.

As speed shops started to boom in the 1960s, some of the speed shops stared to offer mail order service to expand their reach. If you take a look at how some of the part’s manufacturers operated in the 1970s and 1980s, it becomes clear what happened to the shops that sold speed equipment. A typical warehouse distributor (WD) would work with a manufacturer that had a suggested list price for their parts. The manufacturer had a jobber price for speed shops, and a wholesale price for WDs, which was almost always tied to a volume discount.  The discount that the WD received, averaged 16 to 18 percent lower than the WD selling price.

Generally speaking, the larger parts store “chains” could sell the parts at “10-percent over cost”, because they were working with volume purchasing. This sale price was typically less expensive than the WD price, and much cheaper than the speed shop price. Gearheads would get advice and tech from the shops, and then go home and buy products from the less expensive volume sellers. The speed shops began to disappear, because they couldn’t keep the doors open without selling products. Then, the WDs disappeared, because there were no shops to purchase parts. “Low profits as the result of a weak business model, combined with the knowledge needed to run a successful shop, resulted in a difficult or impossible succession strategy,” added Honest Mike.

He also explained that lack of diversity may have played a part in some speed shop failures. “Many speed shops and performance outlets simply ran their course with the trend and market that they set out to serve,” he stated. For example, when the conversion van trend was hot, or the 4X4 or sport compact market came to life, the shops that catered to these trends were solely dependent on that specific market. Their success or failure was tied to the trend.

Speedway Motors made the change from local speed shop to regional mail-order speed shop to worldwide Internet speed shop. Photo courtesy of Speedway Motors.

Speedway Motors’ Damon Lee agreed that the successful speed shops stayed relevant by expanding their market. “Speedway Motors started as a local speed shop, and even in the 1950s, the local market was barely enough to keep Speedway afloat. One of the things where Speedy Bill and his wife Joyce had a lot of foresight, was that they realized that in order to grow their business, they needed to reach beyond those customers that could walk in the door.” Speedy Bill decided to become a regional distributor of performance products, which led Speedway Motors in a new direction that eventually became a national, and then worldwide, distributor of parts.

By the 1980s, speed shops had changed. Many were now staffed by people that were simply cashiers that could look up parts in a catalog. These counter workers were long on cockiness, and short on actual knowledge. As time marched on, most of the speed shops became full-blown parts stores, and these former speed shops had very little added value for the real gearhead. These parts stores basically became a place where they could eyeball the parts in person.

Edelbrock started as a small repair facility and speed shop, but rapidly transitioned into a manufacturer when Vic Edelbrock began casting and selling his own intakes. Photo from www.jalopyjournal.com

“We see less of what we likely think of as the traditional speed shop for a variety of reasons,” said Honest Mike. “Fundamentally, its a sheer fact that it’s a tough business to run profitably. From the onset, slim profit margins present a challenge. Price competition from competing mail order, online, and manufactures not supporting their price structure, and in many cases competing with their dealers for the end consumer, only complicates the problem. Specialty outlets like Honest Charley are a good business, but they have to be run like a business.”

The New Trend

Holley’s Bill Tichenor began working for the performance giant (Holley), in the early 1990s. “What I have seen in my 21 years at Holley, is a shift away from the traditional speed shop that has a counter and bunch of parts in stock, to tuning shops that build engines, install parts, and dyno cars,” Tichenor said. “Although there are fewer of them than there were speed shops, they are actually more hands on than the speed shops of yesteryear, and probably provide better advice.”

The true performance shop and true specialty shop is still there and in many cases thriving, claims Honest Mike. “But, not in the traditional speed shop model. Technology, and the expense required for successful installations and diagnosis, is simply beyond the capability of many dedicated enthusiasts. The specialty shop is there.”

When it comes to merchants of speed like Speedway Motors, the issue became servicing the instant gratification of the customer. The consumer adopted an “I want it now” mentality, and Speedway Motors worked hard to set themselves apart from other speed shops to fill the public’s demand for high performance parts now. “Good speed shops evolved, and the less successful ones didn’t evolve and became less relevant to the consumer,” added Lee.

Shops like Edelbrock turned to manufacturing performance-enhancing parts early on. Vic Edelbrock’s small repair shop became his engineering laboratory when he bought a 1932 Ford Roadster and began to design his own parts. The first designed product in his shop, the slingshot manifold for flathead Fords, became an overnight success, and launched the company as a manufacturer of high-performance parts. Unlike many of the early parts manufacturers, Edelbrock’s technical staff put in extra effort to educate the customers about their products. This is now a common trend with all manufacturers, the tech departments have become much more customer friendly.

Honest Charley Speed Shop maintains the feel of a vintage speed shop, while changing to meet the new markets. Photo courtesy of Charley Speed Shop.

“The sport compact market changed things a bit too,” said Lee. “The sport compact guys that wanted to hop up their motor, maybe not rebuild it, but buy a part to put on their engine, could find parts at places like Walmart, Target, or chain auto parts stores. They didn’t need to seek out that specialty speed shop to buy their high performance parts.” With bolt-on performance available at the mega-stores, speed shops found it even harder to compete with the decreasing profit margins.

Where Enthusiasts Get Information Now

“A lot of these guys are doing their bench racing and talking at events and races, and places like that. As you are aware, a lot of guys are doing their research online,” Lee added. “They are going to forums and online magazines, the same way that guys would read print publications in the decades prior.”

Technology has made the world a smaller place, and information is available everywhere. “The Internet has changed the way information is handed out, and forums are a big part of that,” said Tichenor. “Consumers must be super careful however, and not just read one forum post as gospel.  They need to read several until they feel like they get a consensus.”

Historical speed shops like Ansen Engineering are long gone today. Photo from www.jalopyjournal.com

Honest Mike agrees, “At Honest Charley Speed Shop, we see enthusiasts reach out to multiple sources before making a final decision. Initially, they speak to friends and fellow enthusiasts, most likely with a similar vehicle or area of involvement. Because of ease of access, online is always part of the mix.”

Blakley confirmed the online involvement. “We’ve found that most consumers are now researching products online. We think that most of our new online consumers have come from the print advertising channel, considering we’ve seen our phone call inquires decrease, and website traffic increase–especially traffic from mobile devices.” He added, “We also believe forums are quickly becoming a place where consumers can interact with other enthusiasts of the same interest, and ask specific questions about products before they decide to purchase.”

While almost everyone sees the Internet as a means of quick information, Honest Mike claims that the tried and true print publications still have a lot of power in keeping enthusiasts educated about performance parts. “Most everyone talks about online, but we see a resurgence in interest of high-quality magazines with well developed articles on current technical topics and ‘How-to’ articles”, said Honest Mike. “At Honest Charley, we place extra and older magazines, manufacturer catalogs and literature in the showroom, and indicate they are ‘Free’. The magazines get thumbed through, picked up, and taken out constantly.”

“The manufacturer is ultimately the best place to go for the correct information,” Tichenor stated, “but as we all know, that is easier said than done, as tech lines are often hard to get through, manufacturer websites are often incomplete, and many don’t have their own forum.”

“Enthusiasts can often go to their local race track to find the best and most knowledgeable guys,” Tichenor added. If [a guy] can make a race car work, they will have excellent advice for a street car.  We see this all the time at the Holley LS Fest. If you want to know how to do something with your LS-powered ride?  Come to the Holley LS Fest and talk to the vendors and owners of the cars you see that are working.”

Honest Mike also found events to be beneficial for the enthusiasts. “Many of our buyers attend NSRA and Goodguy’s events, primarily for exposure to new products, product ideas, and first-hand technical info.” Then he added another media source, “The power of automotive TV programming can’t be overestimated.”

Social media helps enthusiasts discover what works for other enthusiasts around the world.

The Bottom Line

Our experts agree that enthusiasts tend to educate themselves, and are exposed to products and technical information in a variety of ways. All agree that staying with the interest or specialty market that the individual is involved in, will bring the most accurate information the quickest. Specialty shops like LS specialists, turbo specialists, tuner shops, fuel systems shops, suspension and drivability shops, and performance exhaust shops, are all serving a narrower area of expertise than what most think of a traditional speed shop – but are filling the enthusiast’s need for information nonetheless.

“For high performance enthusiasts, there are a wide range of places where he or she is going to get their information,” said Lee. “It can almost seem like there is too much information coming at you sometimes. People are being exposed to so much now, through TV, online, social media and print, that they have to be selective to what they want to pay attention to. They migrate to where they see themselves getting the most value.”

Social media sites and digital magazines give instant access to a wide range of information.

Honest Mike sees the value of modern technology and communication. “Enthusiasts with smart phone capability have their online options immediately accessible. With that capability, forums, other like-minded enthusiasts, manufacturers, distributors and advertisers, are all within their immediate reach. In many cases, exploring online results during a phone call to a knowledgeable individual or company helps because they can actually talk to somebody for specific technical help or advice.”

It all boils down to the fact that there are different methods of technical education for different individuals. Each has its strength and limitations, each plays an important role in educating the enthusiast. These trusted sources are an important part of ensuring a healthy hobby and aftermarket automotive industry.

Article Sources

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
Read My Articles

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