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Common Tread

Expensive parts, cheap parts: What's the difference?

Dec 24, 2019

As a young tech learning to wrench, I remember one of the fellows in the dealership where I worked was getting rid of his old tool box and getting a brand-spanking new one off the tool truck.

He offered to sell me his old one. I'd long wanted a pro box, and agreed to pick it up. The tool man was happy; he never even had to load the box onto his truck.

I was horrified at the cost of the Snap-On tool chest he purchased, and I was almost as horrified at what it cost me to buy his used unit. I recall wondering “Why would I spend insane amounts of money on a tool chest which presumably does the same thing as this much cheaper competitor I already own?” The tool box is just an apartment building where my tools sleep at night. The money-makers are in the box. Teenage Lem was effectively asking, “What’s the difference?”

Spot welds
Just a few spot welds, right? They don't seem worth thinking about until you're rolling a heavily weighted box across a bumpy surface. After that, your brain might well be working overtime thinking about those poor little welds. Photo by Lemmy.

The reality is that Snap-On boxes were (and still are) made primarily for professional use, and their price tag reflects that. They’re infinitely configurable — maybe that’s not important for the home user, but when you’re in and out of that box hundreds of times a day, it matters if your sockets can’t fit into the preferred drawer because it isn’t tall enough. The build quality is very high, too. I recall a promotional video they made years ago touting the number of welds used in their boxes, something no owner or shopper will ever see. Those welds permit them to hold more weight than less robustly built boxes, which means racking forces (overloading a drawer, for instance) doesn’t pull the box out of square as easily.

Those welds also help out when moving. A home mechanic might just buy a toolbox, set it up in the garage and it sits in that spot forever. But when a professional wrench changes jobs, it’s pretty common to call a rollback wrecker and move the box fully loaded onto a tow rig, and then it’s unloaded at the new place of employment. That involves a fair amount of rolling the box to get to the wrecker with thousands of pounds of tools beating casters with no suspension. The winch cable gives the box a hell of a twisting, too. All this in a box made of thin, thin sheet steel.

A pro wrench is also going to lock down his box each night, lest the tools grow a set of legs and walk away. A homeowner may never lock his box! Obviously a lock will be of differing levels of importance to the two customers.

Now, of course, this quality comes with a price, often a very steep one. Externally, tool chests can look very similar — 18-gauge steel versus 16-gauge may be hard to notice upon casual inspection and the value of ball-bearing slides compared to plain friction slides might not be apparent until you’ve opened a drawer with 50 pounds of tools in it. So, a cheapy and a Snap-On box (or a Matco, or a Cornwall or a MAC; pick your preferred brand of designer tool chest) will often look very, very similar though one might cost thousands of dollars more. People naturally wonder, why the big price difference?

Drawer slides
Ball bearing slides, or plain? If you've ever asked that, you're likely experienced the draaaaaag of a toolbox drawer that's been loaded heavily. Photo by Lemmy.

What's all this talk about tool boxes?

You may be wondering why I’m going on and on about a tool box on a motorcycle site, and that’s a fair question. My point is that differences in quality can be difficult to pick out, especially if your profession or trade does not require you to make or repair things, or frequently examine failure modes. Let’s look at how this applies to a motorcycle part.

Baker Transmission makes Klassic Kicker Gears. We don’t sell these at RevZilla. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never bought a set. But I should. My motorcycles are ticking time bombs… each of my own doing. Way back when, you see, Harley-Davidson heat-treated everything. Kicker gears were no exception. They lasted forever!

The problem, however, is that Harley quit making those, so the 50-year gear was unavailable for quite a while. The aftermarket stepped in and imported replacement gears can be had for 80 bucks or so. And they’re… well, not junk, but they’re not good. Certainly not better than the originals. They don’t usually mesh together that well and I think the hardening on them is a little wonky. But they were the only game in town and hey, it’s $80. How many are you ever gonna buy? That changed when Baker stepped in, offering a competing set for about $265.

If these were Baker gears, perhaps I wouldn't have a picture of them. Photo by Lemmy.

As the company explained on its web site: “We started making six-into-four transmissions with kickers over five years ago. At the time, we could only purchase some Taiwanese shit kicker gears in volume because nobody made them in the U.S.A. anymore... we tooled up our own right here in Michigan... Klassic Kicker Gears roll smooth as glass. They’re not cheap, but they are the last set you will have to buy.”

I’ve always used the offshore junkers. I’ve got them in three bikes right now! When they go kerflooey, I just buy another set and I don’t think about it too much. Or at least I didn’t until an older biker one day asked me what my insurance copay was. That drove home his point: Do you want to spend money on a hospital bill, or on some parts that would prevent the trip to the hospital and avoid a premature end to your riding season? You see, hyperextension of the knee is a common malady when a poor gearset frags.

The problem is you can't just look at the Baker parts and the offshore parts side by side and see the difference. You can’t see the 1018 hot-rolled steel the Baker gears are consistently made of. (I suspect those imported ones may be made of whatever blend of old truck bumpers and washing machines enter the smelter.) You can’t really see the tumbled finish that acts as low-grade peening and helps eliminate stress risers, nor can you you see the heat treatment the Baker units undergo, so it’s easy to dismiss them as “too expensive,” but all those things add strength and consistency — as well as cost — to the parts.

It's no surprise that buying parts can be a bit of a minefield for someone who’s not well acquainted with the process.

Cheap parts, expensive parts: The differences add up

I have a friend who’s an excellent mechanic who has been wrenching for longer than I have been walking the earth. And he asked a very familiar question recently. In fact, it’s what caused me to put the quill to vellum and write this story.

Greg started a thread on a message board we both frequent. His Shovelhead-powered Road King was having a case of electrical farts, and after proper diagnostics and parts replacement, he was still having issues. So he decided he’d simply replace the whole electrical system once and for all and get back to riding in the sunshine.

You can buy all the pieces in kit form, as often an electrical part will “take another part with it” when it fries, dies or lets loose its magic smoke. Greg found an cheap-o kit that appeared to have everything he needed for $125. (I’ve used such kit myself. They’re excellent in some cases, and awful in others.)

“Charging system prices range from $100 to $800," Greg posted. "What’s the difference?”

I’m a parts goon. That was my past and is still my present, I’ve mentioned before that parts have stories to tell if we’re willing to listen, and I love finding about how stuff is created and built. (Often by dismantling the wreckage, but that’s a different story.) The fact is that there are various engineering solutions (or lack thereof), material differences, and manufacturing processes that can represent huge cost variations. There are other things, as well, but these are the heavy hitters.

I mentioned a few things to Greg that could drive up the quality — and the cost of the kits. Were rotor magnets glued in, or a one-piece sealed affair that could never fly apart? Was the rotor made of thicker metal in the splined area where the mainshaft spins it? (That was a popular aftermarket improvement that offers benefits over the OEM piece. It also offers some drawbacks, though, like a greater potential for the engine’s mainshaft to be damaged if a glued-in magnet comes loose, necessitating a full engine teardown.) Was the rotor vented? That would help keep the stator cool in dry primary chaincases, and it would slosh cooling oil around in wet ones. Heat kills electrical parts.

The stator design would matter, too. The factory used old junky single-phase power, but some of the pricier kits Greg looked at had three-phase power. This is what all modern motorcycles use. Three-phase charging setups offer smoother waveforms, which is better for devices using the power, and it also greatly reduces the amount of work the regulator/rectifier needs to perform (since the waveform doesn’t drop to zero during operation). But to look at the stators… well, they appear exactly the same, unless you know what to look for.

Voltage reg
It's just a regulator. They're all the same, right? Photo by Lemmy.

And the voltage regulator bore consideration. Is it a plain ol’ shunt-type, letting the stator work its brains out, or is it a series-style that offers some thermal protection to the stator?

Depending on what features each kit offered or chose not to offer, I completely understood the wide variation in price on what seems to be the “same” thing.

I recognize all the use cases I presented may seem boring, but it pays to remember that engineers sat down and re-worked solutions to common problems. They chose different methods and materials to make new, innovative products. The catch is that unlike some “new and improved!” or “bold new graphics” stuff, these pieces, to the untrained eye, appear to be just expensive versions of the same old thing.

So, what’s the difference? It’s not always easy to say. But when it comes to parts that don’t easily fit into “lifestyle marketing,” odds are excellent that a difference in cost is going to represent a difference in quality, and the price necessarily reflects that. At the upper end of the spectrum, small increases in quality usually cost exorbitantly, and at the lower end, the opposite is often true: a few more bucks often buys a lot more.

Do you have to research every single piece? No, but to fail to do so may be expensive in the longer term. At least, if you want to get what you pay for.