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Auto-parts firm built on blind faith and fast cars

Bob McJannett's passion for customizing hotrods, along with his wife's support, made Performance Improvements a 50-year success story.

  • bob-and-susan

If it wasn’t for his girlfriend’s $1,500 savings, Bob McJannett may never have started his car-parts business.

In the 50 years since, Performance Improvements has become one of Canada’s premier high-performance auto-parts dealers. ?Susan had enough faith that she put her money out before we were even engaged,? says McJannett, who will celebrate his golden anniversary with his wife next year.

?I wouldn’t have gotten into this business if it weren’t for her.?

It all began in 1964, when McJannett was working at the Toronto branch of a bus and trailer business.

?I was a hotrod hobbyist involved in building a couple of things, and I belonged to a car club,? he recalls. ?When I went to buy some parts for a Volvo, which was an unusual car at the time, the seller said the parts wouldn’t fit. I’d done my homework and I knew they’d work.?

But the man at the counter refused, insisting the parts wouldn’t work and McJannett would only return them for a refund.

?I left there mad as hell and, when I told my girlfriend, who was waiting in the car, her reply was, ?Why don’t we start our own parts business?’

?I said, ?Because I have no money.’?

McJannett tried to get a bank loan but was turned down.

?Luckily, Susan saved her money, like the good person she was,? he says. ?We rented a tiny corner store on the Queensway at Kipling for $95 a month, and started a part-time speed and custom shop, which we opened evenings from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

?We said we’d keep it going for as long as we could pay the rent. And when we thought the business was going well, we decided it was time to get married.?

The business of selling moon-disc hubcaps, intake manifolds, custom wheels, carburetors, mufflers and other aftermarket parts was so good that Performance Improvements soon moved to a bigger location, on The Queensway near Islington Ave.

McJannett quit his day job and he’s never looked back.

He’s still involved in the business, which now has shops in Barrie, Brampton, Guelph, Hamilton, Oshawa, Pierrefonds, Que., and a large Toronto headquarters on Advance Rd.

His sons now do the heavy lifting, with Andy managing the day-to-day operations and Rob looking after marketing, promotions and their all-Canadian auto magazine Performance in Motion.

True to their hotrod roots, the brothers took a road trip last year in Andy’s super-charged Chrysler 300 to the Texas Mile speed event in Beeville, Tex.

They hit a top speed of 168.2 m.p.h. on an 8,000-foot former Navy airstrip. But unlike most entrants, who transported their cars by trailer, the brothers drove the 300 to and from the event. Andy and Rob also cruised to Los Angeles and then Las Vegas for the 2013 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show.

Andy is SEMA’s new-products committee chairman.

While on the 9,000-kilometre trip, they visited various manufacturers their company does business with across the U.S.

?Yes, I’m a proud papa because they’re both great young men,? McJannett says.

?But I was mad they didn’t take me with them.?

Hotrod high school

A postponed father-son project helped form a bond between Bob McJannett and students in Art Hagner’s shop class at Judith Nyman Secondary School in Brampton.

McJannett and his sons Rob and Andy bought a replica kit of a 1933 Ford hotrod ? just like the car McJannett owned when he started his car-parts business in 1964 ? but they could never find the time to build it.

He mentioned this to Hagner, a friend and fellow member of the Roadmates Car Club of Mississauga, during the club’s Labour Day corn roast last year. The teacher suggested his students could build the hotrod as a class project.

?A class I had two years ago assembled a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, so I thought this year’s class could handle a project like this,? Hagner explains. ?And, this time, it’s not the school’s expense but someone else’s, and the board approved it.?

So Project 33 was born.

?It gives the students insight into the mechanical and structural aspects of a car and what makes it run,? he says. ?It’s a hands-on project that takes them beyond what a textbook can teach them. It may look like an old car but it’s a modern vehicle ? a fuel-injected, computer-controlled car with a new-style LS engine.?

Whether the students continue their education or search for jobs after high school, the experience will be a valuable part of their resumes.

?I’d like to be an electrician or a mechanic, so this is a great place to start learning,? says Nathan Benjamin, 16. ?And it’s fun putting a car together as a team.?

Fellow student Tabitha Colman, 17, agrees. ?I think I want to be a tow truck operator, so knowing how things work in cars is important in that job. And I love being the only girl in this class.?

Although still not complete, the car was on display at the Canadian Motorsports Expo in February and the MegaSpeed Custom Car and Truck show last weekend.

McJannett believes it’s important to get high-school students interested in cars because it relates to a variety of career possibilities.

And it’s good for his business, too.

?The number of kids at 19 who don’t have a driver’s licence has gone up dramatically, and we find that our customer base has gotten older,? he says.

?But I like to think that kids who get interested in cars, just like the Project 33 students, will one day be our customers and future employees.?

Auto-parts firm built on blind faith and fast cars

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