Economics 101

"The mother of all bullwhip effects"—How supply chain woes are impacting classic cars

by John Stoll
23 October 2021 5 min read
Shortages of everything from shipping containers to steel is making it harder (and more expensive) to keep classics on the road. Photo by Evan Klein

Eric Peratt, owner of Pinkee’s Rod Shop in Windsor, Colorado, enjoys plenty of demand for his custom-build hot rods, which can take 18 months to complete. But fulfilling orders these days is coming with an increasing number of headaches.

“If we order a chassis, they’ll ship it to us without parts,” he said. And, instead of waiting the typical two months for complete chassis, orders are taking six months to receive an incomplete one. Radiators, high-performance axle shafts and intercoolers are also affected.

“I spend way more time on the computer and calling people and scouring the internet [for parts],” he said. In many cases, Peratt will find a part that isn’t quite right for the vehicle he’s working on, and modify it. Where he once dealt with a half-dozen suppliers, he now needs to search far and wide for components that can cost 40 percent more than they did the last time he bought them.

Supply chain woes are weighing on nearly every corner of American life, with buyers of everything from Starbucks breakfast sandwiches to baby diapers facing supply shortages or, in some cases, no supply at all. Retailers and gift givers are bracing themselves for a Christmas shopping season where pickings are slim, and prices are high.

It should come as no surprise that the collector car industry is facing many of the same issues, triggered by a similarly complex web of macroeconomic issues.

“We don’t get good answers,” Peratt said. “The answer we get is ‘deal with it.’” Shipping container shortages, and the fact that U.S. manufacturing capabilities are thinning out, are the most widely cited pinch points.

Renting space on a cargo ship, a main vehicle for global trade, has risen by more than ten-times the typical cost, according to mid-October shipping rates for a 40-foot container. A lack of shipping capacity, and traffic jams in key coastal ports are exacerbating the problem. If you need a big shipment fast, it’s almost as cost-effective to go the air-freight route.

Meanwhile, an international semiconductor shortage has crimped supply of many durable goods. Chip makers expect the pain to continue through 2023. This headache is only made worse by reports of shortages for other commodities and components, affecting the outlook needed for daily staples, including food and electronics.

Finally, all of this is taking place during a major dislocation in the labor market. Job openings reached record highs this summer, according to the Labor Department, in part because fewer workers are job hunting and people are quitting the ones they have at the highest rate in two decades. A lack of employees has hurt businesses nationwide, forcing them to curtail their hours of operation or cut back on services.

This has led to a shootout among companies trying to hire capable help. Dick’s Drive-In, a well-known throwback fast-food joint in Seattle, recently announced it is lifting entry-level wages to $19 an hour. A dollar-an-hour raise is promised in as little as six weeks after starting. These issues, no surprise, extend to the classic car industry, which even before the pandemic was dealing with attrition among the ranks of skilled trades people. (A help wanted blurb on the homepage for Pinkee’s Rod Shop seeks “experienced sheet metal and chassis fabricators.”)

The worldwide crunch has hit the car business particularly hard, with new-vehicle lots now carrying less than 30-days’ supply of inventory (down 70 percent from historic levels). The value of raw materials needed to build a new car or truck has risen to above $4,000, more than double what they were at the beginning of 2020.

The pandemic-era demand for collectible items has been strong and shows no sign of slowing. And, the much-talked about growth of online auctions has, if anything, increased the flow of classic cars into the market. But supply-chain issues have the potential to squeeze many of the players that hobbyists rely on to keep their vehicles on the road or keep their projects humming along. An economic backdrop plagued by logistics risks and inflation presents plenty of potholes.

The Mother of All Bullwhip Effects

The automotive components industry is the most obvious victim.

“It feels like for a parts manufacturer that [we] wake up in the morning and there is an issue that pops up,” Paul McCarthy, president of The Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association, said. “It seems to be a new problem every time you turn around, like a game of Whac-A-Mole.”

In business circles, McCarthy said, parts suppliers are suffering from the “mother of all bullwhip effects.” The amplitude of a bullwhip increases down its length—a simple adjustment, such as a flick of the risk, can create a big wave. If a steel mill can’t effectively ship from abroad, for instance, the ripples can travel far and wide, and someone is left shouldering the price tag.

It feels like for a parts manufacturer that [we] wake up in the morning and there is an issue that pops up. It seems to be a new problem every time you turn around, like a game of Whac-A-Mole.

Paul McCarthy, president, Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association

“This is the most difficult supply-chain environment that I have ever seen,” AutoZone Inc. Chief Executive William Rhodes said in a recent call with analysts and investors. The company is suffering from the “lowest level of stock that I can ever remember.” Shortages can be seen across the industry, with several retailers, from Tire Rack to Summit Racing, reporting lean or empty inventories of key items.

McCarthy said this “systemic disruption” is affecting a broad array of materials, including steel, resin, foam, silicon, and precious metals. The impact is just as wide, affecting everything from service bays to do-it-yourselfers-to custom builders.

“We are definitely seeing shortages in a lot of parts required in our service department,” Mark Hyman, founder of Hyman Ltd. Classic Cars, said. “We had a difficult time getting tires along with other parts required in our shop.”

“Freaking Disaster”

Raw materials price increases are particularly punishing. Purchasing the steel needed to manufacture brake and clutch pedal assemblies, for instance, isn’t for those with weak knees. A quarter-inch sheet of steel, measuring the same size as a standard piece of plywood, typically cost $200. Now? The price tag is $1,000 and manufacturers are requiring buyers to purchase five at a time, Peratt of Pinkee’s Rod Shop said.

Brant Halterman, owner of Virginia Classic Mustang Inc., is also dealing with short supply and high price tags.

“I’ve been doing this ever since I was a kid, so like 40 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad.” He said the wider price inflation and supply chain mess represents a “freaking disaster,” and isn’t confined to his business.

A few minutes earlier, Halterman had returned from a trip out of the shop and was told that a pallet of supplies had arrived. He was happy to see the materials, but would have liked more certainty on what was arriving and what was included in the load.

“There’s just not a lot of certainty or consistency. That’s what’s changed.”

 As a result, he spends a lot of time explaining to customers what’s happening in the outside environment “beyond our little world of Mustangs.” He specializes only in models ranging from 1964 to 1973. He is dependent on a broad supply chain for his parts, and can’t easily fabricate the parts he typically procures elsewhere.

“Most customers are understanding,” Halterman said. “They know what’s going on.”

But a piece of advice he gives everyone is to act quick when they see a part they need. “Don’t wait until your order is complete—if it’s available now we need to jump on it.”

I’ve been doing this ever since I was a kid, so like 40 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad.

Brant Halterman, owner, Virginia Classic Mustang Inc.

Most customers aren’t upset about higher prices, or the lack of good deals in the market.  “It’s more like customers asking ‘do you have it?’ If not, they say ‘hey let me know when it comes in.’”

Peratt says, for now, builders and parts suppliers need to be creative in figuring out when it is right to pass along costs, and when it is time to eat it. Although hobbyists generally aren’t looking to do things on the cheap, every buyer has a breaking point.

“These people can afford these cars, but if the car goes from $200,000 to $400,000 it takes some of the fun out of it.” For now, the pain is found more in the waiting game than in the pocketbook. With many analysts and economists predicting at least another year of disruptions, that equation could shift.  

Comments

  • Rod says:

    Exporting for me has ground to a halt. I have several cars that have been bought and paid for many months ago that are to be exported to Europe. Containers in the past have been costing under $4,000 for a high cube 40-ft. Now I’m being told we can’t even get a price let alone book a container. A few months ago when I was ready to ship, the price was between 12 and 15,000 three times the average! Now I’m told don’t even ask! Crazy ridiculous stuff going on in the world. How will it end?

  • Terry says:

    Re-awaken USA manufacturers . No longer depend on China. Make it at home – just like Henry Ford did .

  • Cindy Meitle/CAR PR USA says:

    OMG everybody should be checking (CPX) CollectorPartExchange first for collector car parts! If more people start free stores on their site and upload spare parts laying around their garage/uard/shop, it will put GREATLY needed parts back into circulation for those who really need them, especially during this crisis.

  • Cindy Meitle/CAR PR USA says:

    OMG everybody should be checking the (CPX) CollectorPartExchange website first for collector car parts! If more people start free stores in this online marketplace and upload spare parts lying around their garage/yard/shop, it will put GREATLY needed parts back into circulation for those who really need them, especially during this crisis.

  • Lisa H says:

    We have been seeing more business internationally for 2nd Gen Firebird parts than ever before. Since we have a good supply of OEM stock parts we can fulfill orders. However, our resale manufacturers and suppliers like Legendary Interiors, and the like, are raising prices and now have long lead times. Stock up now car peeps.
    Second Gen Graveyard

  • Jim Liberty says:

    I’ve been restoring Porsche 356s for 50 years. The cost of parts and labor is such, (When you can find them) that one cannot come out whole on a full restoration. Our shop does not restore these cars anymore. Just repair and engine building.

  • 62hagerty63 says:

    I have great sympathy for our retailers and manufacturers, but no sympathy for the American public which is the cause of the problem, in my opinion. In the purchasing public’s search for the cheapest products, our manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers have had to go abroad to get products and supplies at prices that could turn a profit. Without profit, for those that are anti capatilistic, companies cannot stay in business, and you whiners will not be able to get anything when the company closes its doors for good. So, we’ve invested in China, who also gave us Covid, and now as a result of that, shortages. Well done, American public – you’ve done it to yourselves!.

  • General Ed says:

    Nothing like some ol’ “Detroit Iron” slapped together with parts from China.

  • MATTMERICA says:

    I feel the pain, I am in the final leg of a couple classic vehicle restorations, and I am not so sure that it isn’t price gouging too. Typically if people can work less and charge you more, they will.

  • John McGrew says:

    If this doesn’t scare you, it should. Yeah, not being able to get a replacement radiator to finish a muscle car restoration is a bummer. But what about those who are responsible for maintaining the basic infrastructure that makes our easy lives possible are facing? Someone not being able to get a critical part for keeping your local power grid, water and gas supply, waste removal and treatment running would definitely be more than a bummer. It could be the beginning of the collapse of civilization as we’ve known it for a century.

  • Fred Wallace says:

    We have no one to blame but ourselves for this situation. When price trumps quality; then the suppliers had to move to offshore supply, use just in time inventory programs, and shut down domestic productions. We are now at the mercy of those same offshore suppliers( and countries) that can control everything from the production of the chips used in every car, and every other household item, to the magnesium needed for 80% of the alloys produced. Make a guess as to which country produces 85% of the world’s magnesium. It starts with a C.

  • Patriot says:

    “LETS GO BRANDON”

  • Jack Baruth says:

    “I DID THAT!”

  • Julie Gu says:

    NO WAY!

  • Joe Topper says:

    This was Chinas way of taking over the world and crippling the west! They tried in the past with other viruses and failed this time they succeeded!

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