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Narrow niche proves profitable

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For more information, email Marc@FrankensteinMotor works.com.

Garage project led local engineer to form Frankenstein Motorworks

Monday, November 5, 2012 - 12:01 am

Finding the right business opportunity is sometimes accidental or just a matter of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Most of the time, however, that special niche becomes a reality because of necessity and the desire to overcome a problem.

Marc Labranche, a transplanted Canadian who came here to study engineering software at Indiana Institute of Technology, found that his 1994 Toyota MR2 had some serious acceleration problems. When he pushed down on the gas pedal, the horsepower he needed to pass another vehicle just wasn't there.

“Not only that, but it wasn't consistent, definitely not reliable, made for some hairy experiences and there was a surprise around every corner,” he said.

He decided to look for a more powerful engine and searched junk yards until he found a 2006 Toyota Avalon engine with a factory horsepower rating of 268.

Swapping out engines, however, required designing a custom exhaust system.

“It took me three months to design and fabricate a prototype in a friend's shop. When I installed it I couldn't believe that the engine's horsepower had surprisingly been boosted to 340. That was a huge jump! It was significant enough to inspire me to write an article on how the horsepower increase had been achieved. I posted it on the MR2 Owners Club website. Feedback was instantaneous. Everyone disagreed vehemently. Some called me a nut case, a wacko and even a liar.”

However, Paul Woods, who is well-known in MR2 circles, came to Labranche's defense.

“He asked if I was willing to make my swap into a kit and send it to his shop in England. I made up the first prototype production unit and sent him one that he installed in an MR2 for a guy in Norway. His reputation made all the difference in the world, and kits began flying off the shelf and sort of made me the unofficial MR2 3.5L V6 system conversion guru.”

Labranche dubbed his entry into the narrow MR2 conversion market Frankenstein Motorworks. The fledgling enterprise, selling kits all over the world at $1,580 each, showed a profit within three months and has sold 103 since becoming a limited liability corporation three years ago.

The conversion kit consists of mounting brackets, headers, an adapter for the accelerator plus gaskets, nuts and bolts.

An arrangement with a Texas distributor has been finalized so he can refer requests to them to take care of the shipping and handling so he has “more time to work on other things,” including racing MR2s.

“My real job as an independent contractor with Solid Design, a firm with which I hope to become a partner in soon, supports my wife, Caitlin; my 18-month-old son, Sebastian; and me and also my 'LeMons Racing' (a take-off on LeMans, but low-budget) hobby.”

He mounted a WWII radial airplane engine on one of his MR2s, but it only made one lap in its first race. After some major adjusting he was able to get in 20 laps. His next project is to try racing it with a couple of turbo jet engines.

Labranche's entrepreneurial brain is always swirling with new ideas.

His heart, however, is solidly with the sturdy little Toyota MR2. For him and MR2 Club members around the world, the little car holds a fanatical fascination because it is inexpensive, easy to work on and fun to drive.