COMPANY CO-FOUNDER, OWNER AND CEO
At the ripe old age of 14, Alex Shen knew that, if possible, he wanted to spend a lifetime making cars much faster, and more powerful, than their OEM manufacturers ever imagined. Starting with a 1982 Datsun 280Z 2 + 2 Turbo automatic, Shen was immediately seduced by the powers of forced induction.
Fast forward a few years and Shen and family had moved to America, settling in Houston, Texas. The move turned out to be fortuitous as Shen was hired as a shop boy by the one and only Gene Deputy of Texas Turbo Engineering. At this time, Gene Deputy was turning the Mustang world on its head, developing the first fuel injected twin-turbo Mustang V8s and, eventually, becoming the first small block Mustang V8 to run a 7-second quarter-mile. Gene Deputy also successfully collaborated with Kenny Duttweiler of Buick Grand National fame. Shen later applied lessons learned at the feet of these industry giants to vehicles owned by the customers of SP Engineering.
After leaving Texas Turbo, Shen moved California in 1990 and became fast friends with Jeff Kung, the owner of very fast Buick Grand National, and a Type “A” car guy in his own right. The move proved to be auspicious, as the 1990s are considered by many to be the pinnacle of Japanese high performance sports cars. Led by the 1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo, the 1992 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4, the 1993 Mazda RX-7 and the 1993.5 Toyota Supra Turbo, the ‘90s offered a fantastic assortment of cars, all of which were turbocharged from the factory. This was like being in a candy store for Shen and Kung. For a while, Shen worked as an independent contractor for various southern California speed shops. It wasn’t long, though, before Shen and Kung made the decision to open a shop and, in 1996, SP Engineering was born.
SP ENGINEERING - FROM THE BEGINNING
From the start, Kung and Shen positioned SP Engineering as a forced induction specialist, focusing on QUALITY and COMPREHENSIVE builds for the plethora of Japanese sports cars newly available, and with the occasional German, Italian and forced induction domestic (including Kung’s Buick Grand National) vehicle thrown in the mix as well.
Starting with 4800 square feet, with one lift and, later, two lifts, SP Engineering’s reputation for top notch, quality work quickly outgrew the physical work space available. Even so, growing too fast can significantly impact a business’ prospects for success and the partners, ever cautious in a cut-throat southern California speed shop environment, bided their time until under capacity became a serious hindrance to future business growth.
By this time, SPE-built cars had been featured in national and international media specializing in import performance and the import tuner markets. In order to responsibly grow the business, and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by OEM turbocharged vehicles, Shen and Kung moved the company to new quarters, totaling 13,000 square feet, five lifts and two dynos. Settling in its new facilities, it was at this point that the SP Engineering brand truly took off with the rise, and subsequent dominance of import performance by the fourth-generation Toyota Supra Turbo.
Led by a multi-year collaboration with Ken Henderson, owner of “Blackie”, the world’s most recognized MKIV Supra according to Import Tuner magazine, SP Engineering built a pioneering car that, to this day, continues to be emulated by many in the Supra community. Many Supra “Firsts” were accomplished in various stages by SP Engineering with this car, including the following:
First MKIV Supra in America with Custom, GReddy, Big Twin-Turbo Upgrade (1998)
First MKIV Supra in America with Custom, Brembo, 4-Wheel, 4-Piston, 14-Inch, Big Brake Upgrade (1997)
First MKIV Supra in America with Fluidyne High Performance Aluminum Radiator (Prototype; 1998)
First MKIV in America with HKS F-CON V Pro EMS (2003)
First MKIV Supra in America with Do-Luck “Late Model” Body Kit (2003)
First MKIV Supra in America with HKS 3.4L Stroker Kit (2004)
First MKIV Supra in America with Twin HKS GT3240 Turbochargers (2004)
First MKIV street Supra in America to make over 1,000 whp on boost alone
First MKIV Supra in America with OS Giken R4C Quadruple-Disc, Multi-Plate Clutch (2004)
The above accomplishments led Import Tuner magazine to rate “Blackie” as 1 of 5 Greatest U.S.-Built Supras of All Time and “the world’s most recognized Supra”, October 2010 Edition of Import Tuner Magazine (only non-race car) Import Tuner's 5 Greatest Supras of All Time
Import Tuner’s rating of “Blackie” as one of the five greatest U.S.-built Supras was driven, in large part, by the featuring of “Blackie” in HPBook’s STREET TURBOCHARGING: Design, Fabrication, Installation, and Tuning of High-Performance Turbocharger Systems. The book was a follow-up to HPBook’s pioneering publication, “Turbochargers” written by the late, great Hugh MacInness. “Blackie” was one of 10 project vehicles featured in author Mark Warner’s book, with the infamous SP Engineering Supra-7 (2JZ-GTE motor installed in an FD Mazda RX-7) shown on the book’s front and rear covers:
In 2002, Shen had bought out Jeff Kung and became the sole owner of SP Engineering. Kung’s tremendous contributions to SP Engineering cannot be overstated, though, and enabled SP Engineering, from 1996 to about 2008, to be home to the largest number of highest quality, most beautiful, and the most powerful, street Supras in America. As the axiom goes, though, “All good things must come to an end” and, with the release of the Nissan R35 GTR in 2009, a USDM car for the first time, SPE begin to focus its energies on tuning, developing parts and building the car universally known as Godzilla.
SP ENGINEERING – TODAY
In 2016, SP Engineering, celebrated its 20th anniversary in an industry rife with speed shop start-ups and failures on an ongoing basis. Over these years, Shen spent considerable time attempting to identify “The Next Big Thing”. Pick the right car and the chances of success for a company like SP Engineering are better than good. Make the wrong choice and insolvency is on the immediate horizon.
While SP Engineering continues to service the cars of its faithful customers, no matter the type of vehicle or vintage, Shen realized that, in order to survive as a company, taking it up market gave it the best chance at survival and, with luck, even prospering for a bit. The transition from a builder and tuner of mass market vehicles to a boutique shop has not been without its challenges. With its cost structure and labor rates, SP Engineering has never been the go-to shop for everyone, but moving up market to BMW, various Lamborghinis, the occasional Ferrari, and the occasional Ford GT, created better margins for the company while waiting on a successor to the MKIV Supra.
Into this breach stepped the 2009 Nissan R35 GTR. Twin turbocharged from the factory, it was the 1990s all over again for a forced induction specialist and aficionado like Shen. To outside observers, there have been times when it may have seemed like every GTR in America was being serviced by SP Engineering. Such has been the demand for ever more powerful GTRs, the ability for SP Engineering to get in on the action at the beginning of the GTR craze has enabled it to successfully make the transition from its Supra era to the GTR era. This was vitally important for a speed shop that’s already been in business for 20 years and hopes to be in business for another 20.
Just as the featuring of Henderson’s “Blackie” in various national publications, and the book “Street Turbocharging”, help boost SPE’s fortunes during its Supra era, so did another fortuitous piece of marketing catapult SPE’s work on the R35 GTR to an unprecedented international level. Brought about by everybody’s favorite car guy, Jay Leno, Shen, and one of the company’s mildly built R35 GTRs, was featured on “Jay Leno’s Garage”.
With its staged GTR power packages, ranging from 700 whp to 2000+ whp, a discrete engine-building room was developed for its GTR customers desiring levels of power unthinkable even a few short years ago. An SP Engineering R35 was the first GTR to run an 8-second quarter-mile and, in 2016, SP Engineering-built cars won the Global Time Attack and the Super Lap contests for the ___ consecutive year. The Nissan GTR is an incredible machine, capable of astonishing performance in various forms of racing. From time attack to drag racing and from rolling start half-mile racing to standing start mile racing, the GTR, with its vaunted all-wheel drive, has proven to be even more dominant than its R32, R33 to and R34 forebears. While Nissan has continuously improved this car, the sun is about the set on its nine-year run, with the coming of the R36 GTR on the horizon.
SP ENGINEERING – THE FUTURE
In a world with an ever increasing amount of electric and hybrid vehicles, traditional internal combustion motor-based speed shops are in danger of becoming an endangered species. While SP Engineering hopes the MKV Supra and the R36 GTR will carry on in the manner of the MKIV Supra and R35 GTR, rumors abound that both cars could be hybrid high performers as a result of increasingly stringent emissions regulations. Note also that industry competition is oriented more and more toward hybrid and all-electric vehicles.
Today, even though internal combustion motor expertise is difficult to come by, qualified employees can be identified and retained if enough diligence is applied. In the hybrid/all-electric arena, such expertise is non-existent outside of trained factory technicians employed by marque-specific dealerships. As in the past, SP Engineering will have to be flexible and adaptable.
Many auto manufacturers have turned to turbocharging as means to meet emissions and performance targets at the same time. This is why we see turbocharged offerings from Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and other main line auto manufacturers. Of course there are millions of cars from 1970 to the present that represent potential business opportunities if a shop can properly position itself. In the current environment, and looking at industry trends, it appears that SP Engineering must look forward and backwards at the same time in order to give itself the best chance at succeeding over the next twenty years. As new opportunities are identified, and services offered, you can be sure SP Engineering will make you, our valued customers, and future customers, aware of such opportunities and services as they become available.