Good parts for some classic European cars are getting scarce
Front and center in any good car project is the list of parts necessary to complete the job. I’m presently at the shallow end of returning my 2002 Porsche 911 Carrera back to (mostly) stock, and recently had my trusted shop price out a few components before diving in. One of my car’s key needs is an exhaust system, so I asked the shop to price a brand-new, OEM heads-to-tailpipe replacement as it would have left the factory.
I was quoted $17,273.32, including tax.
Ouch. According to the Hagerty Valuation tool, the cost of parts alone would be 64 percent of the projected value of the entire car. Based on inventory found on reputable online sellers of OEM Porsche components, a full replacement exhaust for a far newer and far more valuable 991.2 (2016–19) Carrera settles somewhere around the $9000 mark.
Shocked? You betcha. But I shouldn’t have been, considering I was duly warned over a year ago by a foremost marque expert that parts for my car—and all older cars, for that matter—are going to rapidly become significantly more scarce and expensive.
I visited Jake Raby’s Flat-Six Innovations (FSI) facility back in the early spring of 2022. As a 996 owner, this former pig farm in the hills of rural Georgia is sanctum sanctorum; Raby and his outfit build the best M96/M97-family engines on the planet, turning engines long seen as unpleasant, problem-prone paperweights into over-engineered reactor cores that match Porsche’s own Mezger for meat.
Toward the end of the day-long tour, he took me into a repurposed shipping container that held one of his on-site parts archives. This veritable treasure trove of OEM-grade Porsche parts would shame any official service center. Sandwiched between shelves of coil packs, manifolds, and various flat-six detritus, he told me he maintained this archive to battle a wide-reaching parts shortage that was hitting 996s and 997s, hard.
I left with a hot coal in my gut.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when a conversation with Jonathan Hodgman of Atlanta’s Blue Ridge Mercedes echoed Raby’s earlier sentiment to an eerie degree. Hodgman’s one of the top resources in the States for pre-merger AMGs and related models, specialty hand-built cars that have always required clever fixes or fabrications for bespoke parts that simply didn’t exist. But as Hodgman tells it, he’s struggling to source OEM-grade “essential” componentry, and it’s become a serious problem. “I used to spend 20 minutes of my time ordering parts. Now, I spend half my time ordering parts,” he sighed. “It’s become a real chore.”
So, along with Hodgman, I checked in with Raby a year and change after my visit to see what is happening, where we are heading, and what can be done. “From the root to the top of the tree, it’s dying,” he tells me in a video call. “There are too many factors that are going to take it all away.”
We’ll start with the “what.” As both Raby and Hodgman tell it, the basic supply of new OEM-quality replacement parts—that is, parts manufactured by either the original equipment manufacturer or to the same quality—has all but dried up. If there are aftermarket or non-OE supplied parts available, they’re of sub-par quality and often fail right out of the box.
“Radiators, hoses, basic stuff started to be a struggle ten years ago or so,” explains Hodgman. “Then the pandemic happened alongside the push for electrification, and that has had a staggering effect on parts availability. Ten years ago, it wasn’t really a problem, it was just annoying. But, as the years have gone on, it’s only gotten harder and harder and harder.”
“It’s 356, it’s 914, it’s Volkswagens, it’s the more modern Porsches—it’s everything,” says Raby. “Inflation has helped with parts supply for 996 and 997s because it’s taken some of the demand away—that’s good. The parts supply is there, but now we have is the quality of the parts.”
He tells me of troublesome oil-air separators and water pumps, finding that more than a few are duds right out of the box. As a result, he’s been forced to build a specialized test rig in the shop to test the oil-air separators before installation. “If it was built during or post-COVID, it has a question mark on it, quality-wise,” Raby says, frustratedly. “Now, we go by date-codes.”
Ah, there it is—the great “Everything Shortage” of 2020 and onward. Peak pandemic supply struggles saw acres of brand-new vehicles parked en masse mid-assembly, awaiting parts. As automakers scrambled to fill in-market parts supply, many production lines for old parts were pivoted in the name of profits. “Suppliers are turning off these mildly profitable lines and retooling them for newer cars for which there are mass shortages as well,” says Hodgman. “I get that it’s simply supply and demand, but that doesn’t help me any.”
So, as the OE supply dwindles, lower-tier suppliers fill the vacuum with sub-standard replacements—or nothing at all. According to both Raby and Hodgman, stock of legacy electronic modules for mass-produced are essentially non-existent. “You need an E-GAS module for your [Mercedes-Benz] 500E—a part that it essentially needs to run? Good luck—I bought the last seven Mercedes had in stock, and they’re never going to replenish them ever again,” says Hodgman, laughing ruefully. “I’m going from recommending certain cars to not, simply because the parts supply is such a dreadful ordeal, and there’s no ready workaround.”
I push Hodgman on what the limits are of this scarcity, asking him what would happen if a wealthy owner brought his 500 E in for a module fix. “Well, I’ll say that we have two options. Either we sit and wait patiently for a good used one—hopefully—cause no one is remanufacturing,” he explains. “Or, you unfortunately have to re-engineer the car, and that’s an expensive proposition. You’re taking what was a $1000 module problem and turning it into a $30,000-$40,000 re-engineer problem.”
I’m sure owners of most pre-war and low-volume cars are nodding in affirmation by now. Parts supply for some early cars is non-existent to the point where everything is custom fabricated or re-machined. For many cars, it’s been this way for well over half a century, and in most cases this means metal and shop work and is mostly a matter of money and time. The same cannot be said for those irreplicable electric components.
Ok—at this point, you’d think there’d be enough moneyed enthusiasts sick of crappy parts and long layovers at the shop that someone would step in to re-introduce quality components. And people have, to a degree; Raby tells me Flat-Six Innovations is building more exhaust components, coil packs, and modified water pumps in-house. “In some cases, we’re taking older parts and fitting new bearings in and building it ourselves,” he explains. “We’re building a better part.”
Problem at least partially solved, it seems. But this perceived gold rush—driven primarily by the extreme appreciation in the collector car market—has spawned a legion of new shops who, according to Raby, don’t know what they don’t know. “They just buy all these parts and think it’s ok,” says Raby. “They don’t know any better. They could have the best intentions in the world, they could want to sell a great engine, but don’t know it’s filled with junk.”
“People come to me with broken cars, telling me ‘I’ve replaced this, I’ve replaced that,’ and in their mind, those replaced parts are no longer a factor in the problem. A guy like me questions the new part first,” he continues. “There are some instances of cars going to shops, and leaving worse off than when they first went there.”
I reached out to Hagerty senior editor and noted 1970s–2000s Ford expert Sajeev Mehta for a more domestic perspective on the Teutonic shortage. “The thing to remember with mainstream [domestic] brands with huge dealer networks is that their parts supply decreases far less rapidly than the cars themselves get scrapped,” he explained in an email. “I can pretty much rebuild a 1986 Ford Taurus under the hood with parts from eBay and Rockauto because they made the parts by the hundreds of thousands and very few cars still exist to utilize them.
“Dealer networks from Porsche, Honda, VW, Toyota, et cetera weren’t nearly as large as the big three back in the 1980s and 1990s, so their parts supply dried up a lot quicker, which exacerbated the problem during the pandemic,” he continued. “The problems you are noticing are real, and that’s why I smile at my euro-centric car friends and wish them the best.”
I ran this by Raby. “I can get any part I want for my old Bronco with absolute ease,” he laughed. “What you also need to keep in mind is much of what the Big Three built also shared a ton of parts across many models. Porsche? Not so much.”
Where do we go from here? Is there a tipping point?
Hodgman is somewhat optimistic, particularly on emerging tech like metal 3D printing. “I hope as technologies become more accepted and advanced, the price will come down and these niche items will be easier to find,” he reflects. “I hope we’re in this middle lull where the emerging technologies can’t quite meet the demand we’re having now—but hopefully in ten years, that will come around and start to flip.”
“Unless people really step it up, it’s going to become quite a nightmare and chore,” he continues. “At the same time, it’s going to take a lot of mid-grade cars off the road as parts cars. I see that happening now. Cars that are a little tired, a little worn. But, they have a bunch of stuff you can’t get anymore, and it’s worth more in parts than as a car.” Hodgman tells me has four “rough” 500Es as parts cars, and I cry foul at the idea of decommissioning such a special car. But, without this sacrifice, a lot more 500Es would be off the road.
I ask Raby what we as enthusiasts can do to potentially turn the tide in our favor. “We need to hold manufacturers, shops, and automakers to a higher standard,” he explains. “Be a better consumer through education. It’s up to the hands, minds, and wallets of the [car] owners. If you keep buying the junk, the bar will never be raised.”
In the meantime, I think this has the very real potential to push a portion of enthusiasts who were not considering electric conversion over to the sparky side. When faced with the choice between pickling a prized car for want of unobtanium componentry or installing one of the (nearly) drop-in EV conversion kits becoming increasingly available, more might take the plug-in path than previously expected.
Hodgman rejects this false dichotomy. In true early-AMG fashion, he’s swapping a 6.2-liter M156 (think C63, E63 AMG) into a 500E donor car hooked up to a BMW-sourced six-speed manual. “It’s so, so much easier to get parts [for the M156], and it keeps the true spirit of the car intact,” he says, sounding excited. I ask him when he thinks it’ll be ready. “I’d get it done a whole lot faster if I had another set of capable hands on my staff.”
Hear that? That’s the sound of another can of worms being cracked open.