“I think you’ll find our place to be interesting,” were the words RPM Transmissions shop manager Jesse Wilson used when he suggested that Transmission Digest should consider the business for this story. With a trip planned to the area already, we were more than happy to stop in and see what was so interesting about the shop. Jesse may have understated the interest level produced when one walks through the front door to encounter a lobby housing a Lamborghini and a body-less Corvette that serve as decorations.
The building itself looks nothing like a transmission shop. It’s big and it’s tall and there aren’t a lot of vehicles parked around it awaiting service or pickup.
Explains RPM founder Rodney Massengale, “We’ve been in this facility for about 5 years. The building originally housed a theater for live performances. It had a wooden stage and theater seats. We worked on renovations, like putting in overhead doors and all, for about six months and then moved in. It seemed like a lot of space at the time, but we’re out of room again. Beyond what’s here we have storage facilities – all of them full – including a building outside that was originally supposed to be single-purposed for a chassis dyno. Now we use if for storage too.”
In the back of the house the roll-up doors reveal a large work area with lifts and builder benches not unlike many large transmission shops. One glance, however, at the cars on the lifts and the builds on the benches reveals immediately that RPM is very uncommon among shops.
Wilson points around the room, saying, “We use the race cars for R&D. We had a 2010 Camaro that recently was our 4L65 test car. It was a 4,000-pound vehicle that we were able to stuff about 1,100 horsepower into. Over time evolution takes place, and as we no longer need the R&D vehicles, we offer them up for sale.
“This Viper, originally a six-speed manual, has received the 4L80 conversion here. We did the frame rail fabrication that allows the transmission to fit and custom built everything needed to use the 4L80 from the back of the motor on back to the differential.”
Massengale says that the business started about 20 years ago and sort of grew up from his involvement with drag racing. “We had cars and raced cars, and if we tore up a transmission we had to fix it. We started with the five-speed stuff (T5). Then we graduated to buying Grand National Buicks with 200-4Rs in them and so we learned to fix those transmissions too. We couldn’t afford to take them to someone else. RPM started in a Chrysler town and somebody said if you can handle the 200-4R you can build an A-604. I remember we spent a lot of late evenings here figuring out how to do just that.”
With 17 employees these days, Massengale says he remembers when he realized that the business had grown substantially. He set up his first credit card merchant account and recalls, “We went to process a sale one day and the transaction wouldn’t approve. The customer assured us it was a new card that could handle the charge but the transaction was again rejected. He called his bank and everything was good so we called the people that handled those card sales for us and found out the problem was we’d exceeded our limit of processing $20,000 of charges in a month. When it hit us that we’d sold that amount of transmissions on charge cards in a month we all went out and celebrated. Now,” he says with a grin that indicates he’s only partly joking, “we try to do $20,000 a day.”
When asked about the typical RPM customer, Wilson observed: “We have customers literally all over the world. There are a lot of people who, for instance, will buy a stock Corvette and then want to push it past what’s possible from the stock model. That’s where we come in. That’s our niche; we specialize in the high-performance side of the marketplace.
“And even though the shop always has plenty of vehicles on the lifts, we don’t do a large volume of installs here. For the most part we are shipping exchange units out. We’ll build the performance of a unit up to handle extreme horsepower and then sell it to someone who will send us the unit they’re pulling out as core.
“That’s keeping us pretty busy here usually completing four or five transmissions a day; something in excess of 1,000 units per year. That covers everything meaning automatics, manuals and differentials.
“Our customers don’t come to us looking for a stock replacement. They’re looking for the next level or the one after that. That includes high-performance daily drivers like the Trailblazer Super Sport (SS) that comes with the same LS-2 engine that’s used in the Corvette. That thing is all wheel drive and 400 HP. People stick kids and groceries in the back and drive them every day, but they go through transmissions on those just with daily driving. And we go all the way up premium stuff like the outlaw drag radial car over there that packs 3,500 horsepower.
“If you exceed the power limits of a 4L60 we can take you right up to the 4L80. We are one of a very few places in the world that can offer a 4L80 or Turbo 400 that will fit in the back of a C5 or C6 Corvette.
“We don’t work on diesels, but we’ll take anything with a 4L60, 4L80, Turbo 400, Powerglide or T-56, TR-6060 and TR-6070 manuals and we’ll have something for it. We offer multiple levels of our builds. Customers often use our website tool to match their unit and their horsepower to the level of build they’ll need in a transmission.”
Massengale says the company isn’t in the parts business and sells only full units. “We have between 50 and 100 dealers that represent our products,” he reflects. “Transmissions like a level 4, 5 or 6 4L60E, a T56 or Corvette differential; any of the units we build here. We’re fortunate to have those people pushing our products. They make a good profit on selling the units and, very important, installing them as well. We’re always looking to grow that network of guys who sell our units into their local marketplace.”
“We work hard and the guys who work here go home tired every day. They work hard for me, out of respect, I think, because I’m here every day working hard with them. It is a great group of guys. If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t do what we do.”
While Massengale seems to enjoy the work his business provides, he reflected, “I’ve been go, go, go for so many years. But I have a 19-year-old son who is driving. He and I are going to go out and do a lot of racing this summer. The guys here have things well under control and I’m going to take a sort of break – not really a break because I’ll be here every day – for the next year or so and just concentrate on the racing.
“I figure that once he and I get that out of our system this year,” he concludes, “then we will hunker back down and keep going. We’re going to need a new building and then we’ll see where the business takes us from there.”