Need to 'look up' a carburetor? Follow rebuilders to the library

You won't find it on a list of interesting things to see while in the area, but Oak Brook, Ill., has the distinction of being home to something unique -- a carburetor library.

It belongs to Champion Parts Rebuilders Inc., and Champion boasts that on its shelves one can find a sample of "virtually every type of original-equipment [ carburetor] unit manufactured during the last 20 years." Each year considerable time and expense go into adding the latest carburetors to the 3,600 some units in the library.

Why is the history of the carburetor of such interest?

To Champion and its competitors in the automotive remanufacturing business, such information is their bread and butter.

The remanufacturing industry is the end of the line of what is known in the automotive business as "the aftermarket." Auto repair shops and service stations buy automotive parts -- carburetors, alternators, clutches, starters, and so on -- from "jobbers," or automotive parts salespeople. These jobbers, in turn, get the parts from warehouse distributors.

When the parts cease to function, they make a return trip in the reverse direction and land once again in the hands of the warehouse distributors. That's where the remanufacturing industry enters in.

Companies like Champion buy back the defunct units from the warehouse distributors, reduce them to their original components, sort out the pieces, and determine which ones still have good wear in them. From there on in, the automotive parts remanufacturers follow the same procedures that the original manufacturers did.

"The only difference," Joe Selicelli, director of sales and marketing services for Champion, points out, "is the source of the parts."

Another difference is the price. Remanufactured products cost 20 to 40 percent less than new parts, and the manufacturers claim that they perform as well. That helps to explain why, according to statistics put together at a joint marketing conference of the Motor Equipment Manufacturers' Association and the Automotive Warehouse Distributors, rebuilt parts significantly outsell new parts on the jobber level. In some areas, such as alternations, generators, and starters, rebuilt parts claim as much as 91 percent of the market.

"The genesis of the remanufactured parts industry was during the war years, the 1940s, due to the shortage of material," Mr. Selicelli explains. "And throughout the history of the industry we've seen that during periods of shortages and high prices, remanufactured parts sell better. In recent years they have been gaining a stronger and stronger share of the replacement-parts market, and that trend really took off in 1973 and 1974 during the Arab oil embargo."

Things are not entirely rosy for the industry, however.

"We should be selling these things like hotcakes," says Stephen Lanning, director of personnel at Carter Precision Parts Inc., of Los Angeles. "We're selling, but it's not as great as it should be because of the gas situation. If gas were more plentiful we'd be doing better."

Larry Scuhy, vice-president of operations for the Southeast division of Arrow Automotive Industries of Spartanburg, S.C., agrees. "These have not been banner years for the remanufacturing industry," he remarks, "for two reasons. One, the price of money is out of sight, and the individual warehouses [both customer and supplier to the remanufacturing industry] live and breath by the prime rate. Two, Johnny Consumer is not driving his car like he used to. He's not driving it as much, and with the reduced speed limit, he's not driving it as fast."

But Mr. Scuhy remains optimistic about the future. In less than a year he expects business to pick up, largely because of the growing number of imported cars in the United States.

"Fortunately we saw the import business coming, and we're ready for it. Imported cars will not take the abuse Americans are used to giving to their cars." Consequently, he expects to see a brisk business in parts for imports.

Champion Parts was caught a little behind on the import scene, and is still at work developing its line of imported parts. Still, with the exception of 1980, Champion's sales performance in recent years has been on the upswing.

Mr. Selicelli attributes this to a number of factors, including a new "energy consciousness" in the US, the high cost of new replacement parts, and a greater acceptance of remanufactured parts in the market place. He chalks up Champion's 1980 performance to the nature of the economy and the energy crunch.

But he claims that there is no reason not to expect a brighter 1981. He predicts that sales this year will demonstrate that the American public has "adjusted to the state of the economy."

Also, he points out, "Public transportation is not a good alternative." The car has yet to be replaced .

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