Raleigh’s 21st century warehouse district is a ritzy remake of its industrial past.
Six blocks of brick buildings in the southwestern corner of downtown feature few relics of the area’s manufacturing and commercial history. Craft breweries, hipster eateries and tech companies have supplanted factories and workshops.
But one business still embodies gritty days gone by: Boyette’s Automotive Performance Machine Shop.
The 73-year-old garage, still run by two generations of Boyettes, is not an auto repair shop. Its staff build racing engines — some of the most powerful, naturally aspirated motors in North Carolina.
“We’ve had a lot of high-profile local racers come to us for their motors,” said John Boyette Sr., whose father founded the company in 1949. “We get your front wheels off the ground.”
James Lanson Boyette Sr., John Boyette’s father, set up shop after refining his craft as a tool and die worker in World War II.
“A buddy of his called him and said, ‘You’re either going to fight or you can help build ships or planes or something,’” Boyette said. “So he took my mom and went up to Baltimore and worked on planes. Why he decided to do this after I don’t know.”
Aside from a modern CNC machine, the shop floor is a snapshot of the mid-20th century. A Rottler cylinder boring machine from the 1960s is among its “space age” technologies, Boyette said. “That thing was stepping way up when we got it. Still works like a dream.”
The shop’s walls are cluttered with photos of erstwhile times — Fayetteville Street lined with Model T’s, the defunct Westinghouse Electric Supply building on Martin, black and white family portraits.
Boyette, 78, joined the family business as a shop hand at 16. Back then, the American-made engines he modified were newly developed. Decades later, he’s still souping up Ford flatheads, Chevy 454s and Chrysler Hemis in the space at 327 West Martin Street.
Boyette’s exclusively refashions engines from the American muscle era. Lest prospective customers mistake the shop’s product, its website warns in bold red lettering, “We do not work on Foreign Engines.”
The shop’s prevailing attitude reflects Jimmy Kowalski’s in 1997’s “Vanishing Point”: Mid-century motors were “the “apotheosis of American muscle car technology… a reminder of when we were number one.”
“They’re the best,” Boyette said. “Our customers are mostly running round track cars, drag cars and racing boats. You can’t beat American muscle for that.”
A niche market shielded Boyette’s from some of the pandemic’s earliest setbacks. But supply chain shortages are undercutting the shop’s capacity.
“We’re doing OK, but we just can’t get what we need,” said Doug Boyette, John’s son and business partner. “I tried to find a buddy a (Chevrolet) 502 crank and not even Chevrolet’s got it.”
Coupled with his parents’ climbing age — John Boyette’s wife, Julia, is the shop’s bookkeeper — the pandemic’s effect makes Boyette’s future uncertain.
“There just aren’t so many businesses like us left around anymore,” Doug Boyette said. “Right now there’s no telling what will happen.”
Offers come often from developers and real estate managers interested in buying Boyette’s building, John Boyette said. He’s fended them off for years, but the right figure might finally persuade him. Doug Boyette’s specialized talent earns him frequent job offers from competing outfits. They might eventually draw him away from the family business.
“But one thing’s for sure,” Doug Boyette said. “The only time Dad’s hanging it up and retiring is when they put that tag on his toe.”
This story was originally published February 22, 2022 11:21 AM.