Column: Who Is Making the Replacement Parts We Rely On?

The first time I went to a British Motor Trade Association meeting, some years ago, much of the conversation centered around the poor quality of some of the aftermarket parts that were being produced for our beloved old cars. I have to confess, my initial reaction was bored skepticism. I figured it was just a bunch of business owners complaining about an influx of lower-priced competition, since the problem hadn’t really affected me yet.

Since then, I have been left stranded on a rally in my TR6 with a bad master cylinder that was just six months old. On that same TR6, I installed a new mirror that lost its chrome in less than a year. And I have replaced strut rod bushings three times in 500 miles on my Shelby Mustang.

Most recently, I have just finished a Mini restoration and have been plagued with parts problems from a number of sources.

The Mini community is especially plagued by this problem, as the cars were produced by the millions, from 1959 to 2000. Perhaps more significant, the Mini community is notoriously thrifty, especially in world markets, so many of the owners are not restoring, but just trying to keep their economy cars on the road. Thus to stay competitive, manufacturers in this market have produced some truly horrendous stuff.

Another emerging problem is metric threads on parts that should have SAE components. Listen, I get that these parts are being made in China, but at least get the American hardware to copy, so they can be produced correctly. If you aren’t going to do that, at least tell us when we are buying the part that the hardware has been changed to metric threads.

Frankly, this is not fair. We are paying our hard-earned money for crap.

We haven’t even addressed the potential impact on values. Is a car restored with thousands of dollars’ worth of inferior parts worth the same as one that is either original or done right with high-quality or NOS (New Old Stock) parts? Who among you could tell the difference? At auction, should I check the threads and make sure there are no metric bolts on the car I am buying?

I’m equally concerned about the poor guys trying to service or restore these cars. When I work on an MG or Mini, should I expect to need metric wrenches? When a customer pays a restoration shop $100,000 to restore that Austin Healey or Jaguar, should he expect to break down on the side of a busy interstate within days of getting his car back from that restoration shop?

The failure might not be the fault of the shop, but it is the shop owner who will have to tow the car in and make things right. Sure, the guy who sold you the part will give you another one, but will he give you back your hours, or fix the damaged relationship with your customer? What if that inferior part resulted in a failure that caused someone to be injured?

And what does this do for the hobby as a whole? Will this problem drive people away from old cars? Many of them already have a mostly undeserved reputation for poor reliability. This won’t help it.

What can a hobbyist or restorer do?

Awareness of the problem is the first step to solving it. Know who you are buying from, and make it clear that you are more concerned with quality than price. As I have mentioned before, National Parts Depot (Mustang and other parts) gives customers a choice between lower quality and concours quality parts whenever possible. Parts vendors need to know that people will pay a little more for quality. These vendors are not totally to blame for the situation, as they have been conditioned by years of cheapskates to believe cost rules all. So ask if they offer a better choice. They might be surprised at how many of us will opt for more expensive, higher quality parts.

Second, we need to take a minute and be thankful that we have parts available for our antique cars. Without these vendors, we would have none at all and our cars would be nothing more than lawn art.

Third, actively reward quality. If you cherry-pick and shop the cheapest prices from a variety of suppliers, you force the compromises that make for inferior parts. Companies must compete or die.

The manufacturers and parts vendors need to step up as well. As a Triumph TR approaches or even passes the $30,000 price point, they need to recognize that it’s worth spending a few extra bucks to repair or restore with good parts. Vendors, please pressure your manufacturers for better quality. Some suppliers have already started doing this; I know that Moss has a guy who spends a large part of his job working to help get parts quality improved.

Don’t forget that NOS parts are still an option, and the way we solved our TR6 master cylinder issue. This is not a fail-safe, however, since decades old “new” rubber parts are a recipe for potential disaster. These parts are not getting cheaper or easier to find, either.

Finally, support organizations–like the BMTA–that are devoted to bringing real solutions to our hobby. We have been active participants in the BMTA since day one, and believe they serve a very real purpose in bringing every one together to make our old car hobby more satisfying and safer. Let’s make our voices heard.

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TurnerX19
TurnerX19 SuperDork
10/15/20 8:33 a.m.

Five years on this remains a serious issue. The quality remains far below the original equipment across the board. The cost to produce the poor part is little less than making it correct or better than original, it is just plain sloppy on the manufacturing side.

Coupefan
Coupefan Reader
10/15/20 2:56 p.m.

In reply to TurnerX19 :

Two points, one of which was iterated in the story:

1.  We're cheap, we're not willing to pay top dollar for replacement parts.  That's reflected in the product.

2.  "The cost to produce the poor part is little less than making it correct or better than original..." Yes, I know, I'm a production engineer, but...have you dealt with the multitudes of MBA types in Corporate America today?  The 'race to the bottom' is alive and well and shows no signs of abatement.  

 

sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
10/15/20 3:35 p.m.

A few months back I bought off Ebay a Lucas Sport Coil...at least that was what the ads picture showed.When it arrived it was not a Lucas coil.Some cheaply made Chineese part.Fought with them and rec'd my full refund and they didn't want the coil back.Might be good but I don't trust using it.

cosworth1
cosworth1 New Reader
10/15/20 4:15 p.m.

Good article, with good points made. One other point to be made: When a supplier sells you a quality piece, that fits correctly and is the genuine article, let them know that. A simple e-mail will do, letting them know that you will be coming back. It will just let them know they are on the right track, and should stay there. Same thing with service companies. If you just had some chrome plating done, and it came out nuts, let them know it.

After that, its up to them whether they just want to cheap out, make mega money, and probably go out of business, or if they want to retain the same quality of product and service that they have been.

matthewmcl (Forum Supporter)
matthewmcl (Forum Supporter) Reader
10/15/20 4:31 p.m.
TurnerX19 said:

The cost to produce the poor part is little less than making it correct or better than original, it is just plain sloppy on the manufacturing side.

This assumes you have:

1. Properly trained workers. For overseas work this can be almost impossible. Even down in Mexico this can be tricky.  I had a coworker who had been helping set up a factory in Mexico years back. The average retention for employees was about 6 weeks.  Many would not even make it all of the way through training. The company he worked for eventually gave up.

2. Proper materials.  Buying materials that come with material certs is hit or miss if you source from China.  They are not going to bother above and beyond that to put the correct materials into locally produced goods. You can't make top products from substandard materials and you can't always trust that the materials received are in fact what they are labelled or whether they were actually processed correctly.  It is not like the only ones cutting corners were at final assembly.

Properly trained inspection people are difficult to train and keep, as compared to a typical factory worker. That additional labor/equipment cost can be significant, and for a supplier that plans on being a different company name next year (or next month), what does it really matter?

stylngle2003
stylngle2003 Reader
10/15/20 5:14 p.m.
Coupefan said:

In reply to TurnerX19 :

Two points, one of which was iterated in the story:

1.  We're cheap, we're not willing to pay top dollar for replacement parts.  That's reflected in the product.

2.  "The cost to produce the poor part is little less than making it correct or better than original..." Yes, I know, I'm a production engineer, but...have you dealt with the multitudes of MBA types in Corporate America today?  The 'race to the bottom' is alive and well and shows no signs of abatement.  

 

*cough* Not all "MBA types" exhibit these behaviors...

Coupefan
Coupefan Reader
10/15/20 5:52 p.m.

In reply to stylngle2003 :

My apologies.  That was a broad and unfair observation. I have in fact (quite refreshingly) worked with many who didn't follow a scorched earth philosophy to the next quarterly report.  There was still a shred of humanity within them. 

aircooled
aircooled MegaDork
10/16/20 1:14 p.m.

I am suspicious some of this is related to the lack of use of many of the cars these parts go on.  Most classic cars are barely driven and will not notice a bad part for a long time.

If you like to drive your car though... bad news.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
10/18/20 1:18 p.m.

The irony (for sellers) is that while owners are only willing to pay for cheap Chinese chrome parts, they are the first to complain when the thin flashing of chrome deteriorates (in as little as a year).

I have talked to some of the vendors who tell me that stocking a premium bumper, for instance, at double the price or more is loser for them as the cheap car owners would apparently rather buy a new cheap version every couple of years, carping and bitching as they go, than pay just once for a premium product.  (insert emoticon rolling eyes)

oneway
oneway New Reader
10/19/20 8:05 p.m.

Being employed the past 5 years by a nationwide auto parts store has certainly been an education for me.  I really love my job and the company that signs my paycheck but it amazes me how customers will request right up front, " Just give me the cheapest one"  without even considering the better quality part which is sometimes just a few dollars more.  Price rules the consumers in our current culture.  On the flip side, profit rules the suppliers in our current culture.  The cost of most of these inferior parts is so low that a lifetime warranty is offered and the supplier can afford to replace it several times without severely affecting profit.  Talking with our corporate loss prevention auditor about how it bothers me how many of the impulse items under our front counters are stolen- it takes about 3-4 weeks on the small cheap impulse flashlights in the dislay of 10-he understood my frustration but said not to let it bother me.  If we sold just 1 flashlight out of the 10, we did not lose money.  Not sure what the profit % is on repair parts but they don't seem to have a big issue with warranty returns or replacements.  Keep the customers happy.  They are happiest when the parts are cheap and can get it replaced if it fails or just does not work or fit quite right.  In the past couple of years I have noticed a slight increase in the number of parts with "MADE IN USA" stamped on the box.  A step in the right direction.  Thanks for your time, John-Lugoff, SC

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