Shifting Ahead – An Inside Look at Bowler Performance Transmissions
When you grow up in a family that operates a transmission shop in small, rural Lawrenceville, Ilinois, the chances that you’ll end up in the same business are pretty strong. For Mark Bowler, that path began early.
“Since an early age I was attracted to hot rods, custom cars,” Mark says. “Always had a passion for performance, anything to do with cool cars. I wanted to be part of the hot rod industry.”
Even as a teenager Mark was thinking about how to turn the family business into a performance shop, how to attract the clientele, and how to make the transmissions better. Working in the shop helped form his strategies. He built his first car at the age of 16, which was customized and twin supercharged; this motivated him to find performance solutions. He toured the car to events, which helped build a network of acquaintances in the performance world.
“The big advantage that I had working on everyday vehicles, was to see what failed in everyday applications,” Mark says, explaining his transmission learning curve.
About the time his father retired after nearly four decades in the business, Mark used his years of after-hours experimenting on performance transmissions to shift the shop’s focus. He began with a clear idea of working with the top builders.
“The only way I felt I could do my best work was to match myself with customers who allow me to do my best work,” Mark says. That opportunity came early, when Mark met Jack and Troy Trepanier of Rad Rides by Troy, also based in rural Illinois.
“Troy gave me the chance to get into the industry in 1998,” Mark says. “This validated our reputation, Troy trusted in us and helped spread the word to other builders.” Troy is still a loyal supporter of Bowler Performance Transmissions 24 years later.
That lead to a long run with the Overhaulin’ TV series. After building a custom transmission for the first episode, Bowler ended up supplying products for more than 40 episodes. Since the transmission is not the most dynamic part of a build, Mark devised a strategy that worked to his advantage.
“I wondered how to get the most screen time,” he says. “Let’s make it look amazing.”
For that first episode, Mark’s team smoothed the transmission case, clear-coated it, and then airbrushed the Bowler Performance Transmissions and Overhaulin’ logos on the bellhousing. Mark says that helped build Bowler’s reputation to get in the doors of other builders.
As enthusiasts have moved from standard three- and four-speed automatics to modern units, Bowler now specializes in late-model, electronically controlled automatic transmissions and Tremec manuals. Every automatic unit is a custom build – there are no ready-to-go, off-the-shelf transmissions sitting on shelves. However, if you’re looking for a Tremec five- or six-speed that is something that Bowler has ready to go, along with the conversion components to update your muscle car, truck, or custom vehicle.
In addition to custom internal components, Bowler Performance Transmissions has in-house CNC design and manufacturing capabilities, along with REM finishing equipment. REM is an isotropic surface finishing process that improves wear properties and reduces friction. Investing in this new technology demonstrates Bowler’s commitment to be innovative and stay ahead of the curve to deliver a performance advantage to their customers. The company also offers a variety of case finishes: Cerakoted, custom painted, power-coated, polished, or prepared for the customer to paint. This allows Bowler to work with the builders to achieve the level or detail that they need.
While enthusiasts like to talk about big horsepower numbers, Bowler begins each transmission build focused on torque. With the power and torque produced by modern engines, an enthusiast who adds power to the engine usually needs a stronger transmission than can be found with an off-the-shelf unit.
“I’ve always believed that horsepower is just a number,” Mark says. “Horsepower doesn’t break parts, torque does. A 600-horsepower diesel motor can produce 1,100 foot-pounds of torque. If I build a transmission for 600 horsepower, it’s going to fail. Torque is what matters. That’s the whole point of a transmission, to transfer that torque to the rear axle.”
Each build is based on the customer’s torque (and horsepower) needs and how the vehicle will be used. Customers complete a tech sheet that drives the build process. One technician handles the build from teardown through the build, final assembly, and testing on the in-house dyno. Customers don’t need to provide cores, since Bowler has a broad supply of cores and components.
Bowler’s dyno testing is done on custom-built equipment. “One thing we found pretty quickly is a store-bought dyno doesn’t give some of the information we want,” Mark says. “We built our own configuration that monitors what others don’t.” That include convertor pressure and line pressures. The Bowler dyno also allows operators to put up to 800 foot-pounds of torque on the transmission.
In addition to the dyno testing, Bowler uses a collection of test vehicles to provide real-world experiences. That means evolving transmission technology is tested on the pavement or dirt, not just on the dyno.
Mark’s obsession with hot rods was aided by his mom, who made sure that as a youngster he had subscriptions to various hot rod and custom magazines. His father that started the business in 1963 helped support his passion by taking him to shows.
“My mom always said that if it wasn’t for hot rod magazines I would never have learned how to read,” Mark says. All of that early education paid off, as Bowler Performance Transmissions is now a major force in the industry that Mark first learned about as a youngster. The company is still family owned and operated – in fact, Mark’s sister Melinda, who built transmissions for 9 years, is still very involved in the day-to-day operation, along with his wife Jessi and his nephew Austin.
The Bowlers pride themselves in the relationship side of the company. “We consider all of our team members family, as well as our customers,” Mark says. “We are not selling products, we are building relationships. We are blessed with amazing support from the industry and thank God every day for the opportunity we have been given. We put together a package with all of our transmissions that is a Welcome to the Family package, because we want everyone to know that they are now part of the family.”
Bowler Performance Transmissions
Photos by John Jackson