Rebuilt generators, alternators, starters keep vehicles running
Story and photos by John Gunnell
For many years, auto enthusiasts (as well as mechanics, truckers and farmers) in the central Wisconsin region, have relied on a business called Fondy Auto Electric to keep the generators, alternators and starters on their vehicles functioning properly. I recently had a generator and starter from a 1957 MG Magnette rebuilt at the company’s facility in Fond du Lac and asked if I could see how this work is done and photograph it for you.
At first, shop manager Jim Wolfe acted a little “camera shy.” Apparently, it’s not an everyday occurrence to have a writer visit a production shop where such specialized work goes on. However, I’m glad that I talked Jim into a tour, since I got a good editorial piece and it also made me feel good about the repairs that I was having done. The crew at Fondy Auto Electric knows its stuff.
The Project at Hand
When I bought the Magnette, it had an MGA sports car drive train in it. I bought a correct engine and transmission via eBay and went to Oregon to get them, even though both had to be totally rebuilt. The BMC 1500 “B” Series engine used in the Magnette sedan has no tach drive, different carburetors, a thicker rear plate and other distinctions. The sedan gearbox has the clutch fork coming out the top and bellhousing differences. Over the years, electrical parts had been swapped. I had two generators and three starters, all different.
It didn’t take long for a Fondy Auto Electric employee to sort things out with a computer. I discovered that none of the parts had the numbers shown in the shop manual, but one starter and generator were proper dealer replacements. While any of the devices would have worked, correct is “kerrect.”
Once I determined which parts I wanted to rebuild, I began my walk through the shop area to see what the parts were going to go through. At the first work station, Jamie Ostram was rebuilding a 6-volt starter for an Allis WD model tractor. “This is custom work,” Wolfe said. “Jamie does it in small batches.”
Though Fondy Auto Electric handles custom rebuilds, it is not a “old-car’ business per se. This became apparent when I saw Shane Abitz rebuilding a starter for a heavy over-the-road truck. Still, the amount of obsolete parts that Fondy Auto Electric repairs for car collectors these days actually dwarfs the number of rebuilds turned out by smaller, hobby-only shops.
Working on old parts is no problem at Fondy Auto Electric. The business started as a two-person operation in 1968. Its original plan was simply to serve the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin community. Now, the company maintains three facilities (in Fond du Lac, Appleton and Madison) and utilizes more than 37,000 square feet of floor space. Each facility houses complete remanufacturing facilities, as well as a giant inventory of completely-rebuilt parts, including vintage parts.
Building high-quality products and offering a high level of service at a competitive price are the company’s cornerstones. The cost of rebuilding my starter/generator combination was $119. The service was good and the turnaround time was only a couple of days. Fondy Auto Electric calls this type of business its Rebuild-and-Return Service. This is especially popular with vehicle collectors that require matching numbers and people with hard to get parts.
In other cases, hobbyists can bring in an inoperable starter, alternator or generator and swap it for one sitting on the shelf that has already been rebuilt. The company maintains an extensive inventory of ready-to-ship rebuilt alternators, starters and generators, plus batteries and belts. Its online catalog lists thousand of parts and pieces of equipment stocked in its factories.
Jim Wolfe pointed out that, for a long time, the company focused on selling to professional installers. It still serves that market. “Our walk-in trade is onesey-twosey stuff — about 15 percent of our business,” he noted. “The rest is commercial accounts with a pretty good portion going to the antique trade today.”
The Remanufacturing Process
In the first step at a Fondy Auto Electric factory — like the facility in Fond du Lac — alternators, starters and generators are completely disassembled. Some parts — such as housings — are “reclaimed” after a thorough cleaning and inspection. All parts that endure wear — such as brushes, bearings, bushings, seals and gaskets — are automatically discarded and replaced with new parts.
The parts are rigorously tested in sophisticated equipment to ensure that all new and reconditioned parts perform right. The new, reconditioned and salvaged parts are then reassembled using established procedures and specifications. Next, they’re tested under “full-load” conditions. This means they are subjected to conditions like those the vehicle experiences when in operation.
According to Wolfe, the goal is to make every unit look and perform better than new. They are actually rebuilt to be tougher than OEM parts. “We believe our products have to perform better than new,” Jim explained. “They have to be good, since they are being used on vehicles with old batteries, old cables, old switches, etc. The vehicle’s electrical connections may also be old and worn.”
The company’s main products are what it calls “rotating electrical devices. These fall into three main categories as far as cars and trucks go:
Generators were replaced on most cars in the ’60s and on other equipment a few years later, but they have not disappeared from Fondy Auto Electric’s shelves. The company stocks generators to fit vintage cars and farm equipment as well as tachometer and power steering pump units. New voltage regulators to match the generators on the “mature” vehicles are also carried.
From alternators for cars to those for semis, tractors and construction equipment, Fondy Auto Electric has the model needed, whatever the application may be. The company remanufactures and stocks hundreds of alternators of all sizes. If they don’t have the exact alternator you need or if you want to keep numbers-matching parts on your car, your old alternator can be rebuilt.
Fondy Auto Electric can remanufacture, rebuild and repair hundreds of different starters. Starters for many applications are also carried in inventory. If the exact one you need isn’t in stock, the starter you have can be rebuilt.
Jim Wolf pointed out that if the online catalog does not show a listing for an antique car application, the owner should call a Fondy Auto Electric facility. “We do have additional information that may allow us to identify the part you need or a substitute.” He said that even though a part is not listed in the online catalog, it may still be in stock if one of that type was recently rebuilt.
The three Fondy Auto Electric locations are: (Fond du Lac) 765 Sullivan Drive, Fond du Lac, WI 54935. Phone: 800-236-2701. (Appleton) 4555 W. Prospect Avenue, Appleton, WI 54914. Phone: 800-236-2702. (Madison Outlet) Madison Spring Inc. 255 Industrial Drive, Madison, WI 53713. Phone: 800-383-2701. The email for all locations is: firstname.lastname@example.org.