AEM wasn't always the big-time electronics and engine parts manufacturer that it is today. Before it coined the term and developed the first cold-air intake for Hondas, before it acquired and later sold exhaust system manufacturer DC Sports, and before it introduced the world to the first-ever plug-and-play engine management system, AEM's beginnings were quite humble. Cofounded by John Concialdi in 1987, AEM began as a modest dyno tuning facility tucked inside of industrial Compton, California. There Concialdi partnered with and guided many of whom would go on to make Honda racing history. In the late 1990s, AEM transitioned from tuning facility to parts manufacturer as well as backer of some of the most successful drag racing and drifting teams in history. Concialdi's story begins as an R&D technician for North American Weber Carburetor distributor Redline, but doesn't end there. Today, renowned fuel-injection specialist and Honda expert Concialdi oversees engineering operations for both AEM Electronics and AEM Induction, but will be the first to tell you that his little tuning shop in Compton wasn't just where it all began--it's where his fondest memories reside.
HT: Tell us about your first experience with a Honda.
JC: I got involved with Hondas initially because I had an employee who had an '89 Integra that he street raced. Not that I condone street racing. All the money he made with us he put into that Integra. He bought Mugen cams; we put two Weber sidedraft carburetors on it before we put electronic fuel injection on it with nitrous. We built that car up, and he'd go out, street race, and win. Back then, no one was building engines like Honda was. The precision they built these engines with was staggering. I had taken apart dozens and dozens of other engines, but none were built as well as Honda's engines. They had their tolerances down to the 10th; everyone else's were like the Grand Canyon. That really piqued our interest in Honda. That was the beginning of the end for us [laughs].
HT: What types of cars were you specializing in at first?
JC: I used to run R&D for Redline, the Weber [Carburetor] distributor for North America. AEM was their former R&D division. We did a ton of tuning on vintage race cars--Coventry Climax engines, Ford 289 and 427 Cobra engines, and a lot of vintage Ferraris. Once again, those engines, compared to the Honda engines, were just flat-out crude.
HT: So was AEM directly affiliated with Weber?
JC: No. With fuel injection and tightening emissions laws, my boss said we needed to not spend any more money on [carburetor] R&D. So we bought the R&D division [from] Redline and started AEM on October 1, 1987. Initially, we were just going to be a tuning shop that specialized in fuel-injection systems.
HT: AEM was a completely different place back then. What could customers expect when visiting the facility during those early years?
JC: We would take what the [customer] had, tune it, and make it run right, or we would advise them or even build engines for them, depending on what they wanted. Back then, Tony Fuchs, Brian Kim, Adam Saruwatari, Russ Matusevich, Steve Dunn, Mike Kojima, Abel Ibarra, Frank and Tom Choi, and Archie Medrano--all the old-name guys used to come to AEM where we'd tune their cars. That was a good time.
HT: Did you have any unorthodox tuning philosophies back then?
JC: Pinning [the block] was the first attempt to keep the cylinders [from moving]. We were concerned the cylinders would walk under the boost pressures that we were running. If you remember Darin Ishitani with the [Honda Service Center CRX], he had a D16, and we started pinning on that block. Pinning worked OK, but it wasn't the end-all solution. We noticed the pressure exerted on the pins caused warpage, so we went to a semi-solid block. On Darin's car, we'd preheat the engine block, fill the block full of epoxy to about a half an inch from the block's deck, and then cure it at a heat-treating plant. It was basically a cemented block. For imports, that was kind of unknown stuff back then.
HT: That was at least a few years before the first sleeved Honda block, no?
JC: Oh, God, yeah. I would say [that was] probably '93-ish, right around Battle of the Imports.
HT: What other sorts of tuning tricks were you up to?
JC: To be honest with you, Honda had done all of the cool tricks. The engines were built so well that you really didn't have to do a whole bunch of stuff. On our race program, we sent our NSX heads out to Cosworth. I said, "Tell me what I can do to make these better." Back then, Kim Spearman, who was running things, sent me an email back and said, "Leave them alone." He said the ports were dead perfect: "Don't even mess with them." Our race car heads were the easiest heads in the world to maintain [laughs].
HT: How big of a role did Darin Ishitani and some of the others you'd mentioned play in AEM's early success? After all, Darin's CRX was the first Honda in the 11s.
JC: That was a big thing. They helped put us on the map. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of those customers. That whole gang of people was pretty instrumental in helping AEM. Kipp Kington of Turbo [magazine], who's an incredible guy, would help out with ad space, and we'd do some editorial. I didn't have any money back then. Our cars were on the cover a few times, which helped out quite a bit. But without those racers going out and fighting the battle for us, we wouldn't even be here.
HT: There seemed to be a rivalry in the mid-1990s between AEM and JG Engine Dynamics. Tell us about that.
JC: Oh, no, there didn't seem to be a rivalry. There was a rivalry [laughs]!
HT: Was it just the customers and the racers, or did it transcend to you and JG's owner, Javier Gutierrez?
JC: It was fairly civil. Javier and I knew each other. He'd actually come down before he had his dyno and do dyno work at our place. Once Steph [Papadakis] was working for him, he put an Accel DFI system on [his Civic], but we did the tuning on it. I will tell you this, though, and I was a little annoyed: We'd done all of that tuning, got Steph running really well, and then I read an article that said Javier did a killer tune on the engine.
HT: What type of dyno were you using when AEM first started?
JC: It was the old Weber R&D dyno. It was only a 200hp [Clayton] dyno. I'll tell you what was cool: Because of where we were in Compton, we were right in the middle of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. All the special projects divisions of those companies knew us because of their affiliation with Weber, so they would all bring their secret project cars down to AEM. These manufacturers used us for testing since getting to do dyno work at an auto manufacturer was tough because they had to go through all sorts of headaches to get [it]. Also, most of the manufacturers' chassis dynos were emissions dynos that [weren't] suitable for power-sweep testing. The Clayton dyno didn't have the cool correction that today's dynos have, so we calculated SAE power by using a mercury barometer that was corrected for our latitude and altitude, a sling psychomotor, and a relative humidity chart.
HT: Out of all the OEMs that brought cars to you, did anything shock you technology-wise? Were they all on the same page?
JC: Honda seemed to be a page ahead a lot of times. Back then, they were a very revolutionary company. I remember the first VTEC car that came in during the early '90s. I said, "How the hell does that work?" I believe they were the first with a production, dual-path inlet tract to broaden the torque curve in the NSX and GS-R. When you think about it, Honda blazed the trail for the auto industry with innovations like those. Now everyone has some sort of variable cam timing system.
HT: Was Papadakis' Accel DFI system your first experience with a stand-alone engine management system?
JC: No, we had [worked with] the first MoTeCs that came to the United States. I'll never forget, [MoTeC] brought a Lamborghini Countach down that they'd converted to [fuel injection]. The first MoTeC box was the size of a notebook page and maybe an inch thick. It had eight potentiometers on one side. You'd be on the dyno tweaking acceleration fuel and high-speed fuel all with potentiometers and a screwdriver. That was my first taste. We were also doing a lot of work with Shelby and Chrysler [and] were using Electromotive with [them]. And then DFI came out. I did a lot of cars with that system as well.
HT: Did you always know you'd one day develop your own EFI system?
JC: The name of the company, Advanced Engine Management, was purposeful. When I worked for Weber I wrote a paper saying we should make fuel injection available because carburetors had their shortcomings. They came back and said, "No. There's no way an everyday user could understand [fuel injection]." I understood their point because back then you had to understand and write hex code. That might've been a little tough, but my wish was to make something that had user-friendliness to it. We chose the name Advanced Engine Management because we did want to do a fuel-injection system at some point in the future. When that would be and when I'd have the money to do it, God only knew [laughs].
HT: So tuning cars and building engines was just a stepping stone, so to speak?
JC: Absolutely. And, to be honest with you, had I not partnered up with Peter Neuwirth, it would have never happened. Back in '97, I'd gotten an offer to work for Ford at Roush in Livonia, Michigan. I was contemplating it. We were struggling to get along, living hand to mouth. Before I made that decision, I happened to meet up with Peter, who was [previously] the owner of Redline/Weber, and I [asked him] for advice. He asked me to bring [my] financial information about AEM. We weren't too sophisticated with respect to the business end of running [things], so my financials were a bit sparse.
We had some notoriety, and I brought him the various magazines and press that we were [involved with], which I think piqued his interest in partnering up. I'm an engineer, but I'm not a good business guy. Peter, he's a brilliant business guy. He was like, "Look, you've got something going here. You've got momentum. You just need somebody to carry it. You need a partner." I replied, "You're right. Will you be the partner?" And he goes, "Yeah." That was literally the conversation. Frankly, I would not have partnered with anyone but him. That's what allowed us to build the business and do fuel injection. Ironically, though, when we first talked, I said, "I want to do fuel injection," and he said, "Over my dead body. Let's do the things you're doing, making intakes, and cam gears, and drive pulleys."
HT: That doesn't sound too promising. So how did the AEM EMS finally come to be?
JC: In early 2000, we had a fuel-injection system that we'd codeveloped with a gentleman who worked with us. It had a beautiful interface, and we came up with the idea of making it plug-and-play. Then it became financially palatable for Peter. All of a sudden he was like, "Alright, let's do it!" [laughs]
HT: You had another partner in the beginning. Had he already left the company by now?
JC: Yeah, he did. Back in the mid-'80s I did a lot of certification for Weber to make street-legal carburetors, and Bob [Sullivan] was an engineer at the [California] Air Resources Board. He was also from Cal Poly Pomona, which is where I'm from, so we hit it off. We [also] hit it off because he was a car guy and he really understood the emissions and the mechanics of cars. He was an enthusiast. He was almost displaced, working at the Air Resources Board [laughs]. He and I became really good friends but, like many partnerships, you don't always mesh perfectly, so in '92 I bought him out.
JC: I've always been interested in mechanical stuff. As far as automotive goes, I have magazines from 1963, when I was eight, so do the arithmetic [laughs]. Back then, Jackie Stewart was a big hero of mine in Formula racing. I also loved NASCAR and drag racing. My neighbor had a slingshot dragster with what was called a Sesco Chevy, [which] was a V-8 Chevy cut in half made into a four-banger, and I used to go to his house and watch him wrench on [it].
HT: Whoa! Never heard of that.
JC: I know [laughs]. You're way too young for that. Another neighbor across the street, he had a minibike that he converted to methanol. When I was a kid, I used to cut grass or deliver newspapers--whatever I could do to get money. He helped me convert my lawn mower to methanol [laughs]. We milled the head, Isky made a cam for it, and he had one, so in it went. We drilled the carburetor jet with a Black & Decker drill. That was my first exposure to modifying an engine. I love the internal-combustion engine in all its variants. Engines are my passion. As far as I'm concerned, it is my job as an engine guy to make the suspension, transmission, and tire guys' lives hell.
HT: The AEM cold-air intake was arguably one of the most innovative products ever made for a Honda. Talk about how it came to be.
JC: First of all, cold-air intakes were not AEM's idea; in 1969, 1970, Boss Mustangs had them. I think we did one of the first cold-airs on an '89 CRX. We made that first one out of steel muffler tubing and powdercoated it wrinkle black. We noticed we'd gained almost 10 hp on the dyno. We were like, "Wow, look at that!" That first one was steel, but we couldn't use steel because they'd rust. Initially, we hand-built the intakes out of tube bends. We didn't have tube-bending machines--there were just five of us in Gardena at this point, so we were just whittling the intakes out by hand, buying bends from a company called Dynaflex. We got interested in making them [in mass] later on, but I just couldn't do it. I didn't have the finances. When we did the deal with Peter, that's when we really launched into full-scale production. I know Tony [Fuchs] had mentioned he was the first guy to do a cold-air system on his [Integra], and frankly, I don't remember. I don't have anything to say one way or the other only because he had Weber carburetors on his Integra when he came to us back in the day. But if he says he was, he was [laughs].
HT: Was the cold-air intake the critical product that put AEM on the map?
JC: I think that and our cam gears. When I was at Redline/Weber, I worked with Esslinger Engineering. They were the source for Ford's 2.0L engine that was used in the Pinto. They designed a cam gear for the Pinto that was very easy to adjust. Dan Esslinger and I were friends, and I did not want to rip off his design, so I went to [him] and said, "Look, can you do these for us?" [But he] wasn't interested because it was Honda. So I said, "Well, let me ask you this: Would you mind if we take the design and use it for ours?" [He] said, "Go for it. Knock yourself out." So we did, and that's how AEM cam gears came about.
HT: Which came first, AEM's cam gears or JG's?
JC: We were first in mass, absolutely.
HT: Did you have a feeling how big AEM would one day become?
JC: I'd hoped, but I had no idea. Anyone who starts a business has high hopes or high expectations. But the face of AEM when it first started is not what AEM became. When I partnered up with Peter, he was gracious enough to point out to me that, unless we send pallet loads of product out every day, we're going to be poor. AEM used to be open to the public. You made an appointment, came in, we did the dyno work, and away you went. That works on a small scale, but we wanted to branch out. I was fortunate to have mentors like Steve Murphy and Peter. They taught me more than I could have imagined.
HT: Let's talk about the first Battle of the Imports, which was a major turning point for this industry. How was AEM involved?
JC: First off, God love Frank [Choi]. He did everyone a favor. He did the streets of California a favor, he did the industry a massive favor, he did our business a favor. We were the first sponsor at Battle. I'll never forget, we used to have these kids come in from the street races and they'd say, "Oh, there's gonna be this race in Palmdale--Battle of the Imports." I was like, "How do I get in on that?" I think [Frank] charged me like $200 to have a 10-by-10 awning.
JC: I had done an electronic fuel-injection system on a white Ferrari Boxer at the time. I drove that Boxer up to the Battle of the Imports, and that was our display. We got no love...at all [laughs]. The kids might've just as well flipped us off [laughs]. I thought it would be cool, but then I was like, "Why would you bring that to a Honda event, you moron?" But it was great, because what we saw was the groundswell. We always knew it was there from street racing, and we always knew at some point there was going to be a turnaround.
HT: What do you miss most about that small dyno shop in Compton?
JC: What I miss more than anything is the customer interaction. Our customer base was quite broad back then. We had customers from all walks of motorsports--vintage racers, sport compact racers, road racers, drag racers, and of course, we developed close ties to the big three Japanese manufacturers. I'm still friends with many of the customers who came to AEM in the early days.
HT: Tell us about AEM's acquisition of DC Sports.
JC: We had done all of the dyno work for Darrell and Darrick Contreras [DC Sports founders] back in the early '90s--great guys, still friends with them. They built DC up admirably; they were way bigger than AEM. They went by us like we were on jackstands. The opportunity came to buy them back in '03, '04. We thought there was a great synergy between AEM and DC Sports. I'll admit this: You make mistakes. I don't think we handled the DC line as well as we could have. We ended up spending a lot of money and didn't quite get out of it what we should have, so we ended up selling it off.
HT: More recently, AEM has gotten involved with K&N. Tell us about that.
JC: K&N was making filters for us, and [then] they decided to get into the intake business. We used their filters in our intake systems because they were great filters and they had a good brand. When they decided to compete with us in the sport compact intake business, it was really disappointing. A friend of mine had a mantra that stuck with me: When a vendor starts competing with the customer, the vendor's now a problem. So away went K&N.
We were, at this time, working on the dry filter anyways, so we migrated everything, which I think got their attention. We were getting a lot of traction with the dry filter, which is what allowed us to get into OEM manufacturing. Through that dry filter, there was a lawsuit between K&N and AEM. They were not happy with some of the advertising claims we'd made even though I had a lot of independent lab testing done. We took shots at K&N simply because we [wanted] to compare [against] a company we respected. There's no point competing with the bottom dwellers.
But listen, I was always friends with K&N. My business partner at AEM Electronics puts it right: "You ever have a situation where you have two best friends, they get into a fight, but then later on they shake hands and are best friends again?" That's exactly what happened [laughs]. We ended up settling, and then two months later we talked with the guys at K&N about selling AEM Induction to them. They have much better filtration testing and manufacturing capability than we ever had, so the fit was perfect. I've been friends with Steve Williams at K&N since the late '90s, and now that we've teamed up with them, we have vast resources available in terms of testing, manufacturing, and we also have complete autonomy to design products that have an AEM feel to them.
HT: To be clear, AEM Induction and AEM Electronics are separate entities, correct?
JC: Completely separate.
HT: So what links AEM Induction with AEM Electronics?
JC: The name and me.
HT: Nowadays, you're basically working for two different companies then, right?
JC: Basically, I'm a ho [laughs]. No, when the deal was made, K&N wanted me to keep working with the R&D group we had here for induction. I work for them 80 percent of the week, and I work for AEM Electronics 20 percent of the week. I still own part of AEM Electronics. I don't own any of AEM Induction at the moment, but I have a nice deal with them. I run R&D for AEM Induction, and I'm the chief engineer at AEM Electronics, although I don't get to play with them as much as I used to.
HT: So AEM went through some pretty big changes over those few years, didn't it?
JC: We had DC in Corona [California], a manufacturing plant here in Hawthorne [California]--almost 200,000 [square] feet and 200 people. When we sold it, K&N took the lion's share, and now with electronics, we're down to about 45 people and a 30,000-square-foot building.
HT: AEM Electronics is based out of a massive, state-of-the-art facility and its founder, part-owner, and chief engineer's office is a cubicle inside of a modular trailer in the back parking lot. What is the deal with that?
JC: I used to be upstairs and the electronics and induction [engineers] used to have two trailers downstairs. Whenever I wanted to talk to the guys, I'd have to trudge out to the trailers, talk with them, and then go back up. I'm not afraid of exercise, but here's the deal: When I was upstairs, sales people, accounting people, and other people would want to have conversations that maybe were a hindrance to progress. I'm also of the belief that if you have guys who work with you, you should be with them. I love the trailer. My girlfriend says, when people ask her what I do for a living, "He works in a trailer and sells car parts in a parking lot." [laughs]
HT: What should Honda enthusiasts today give you credit for?
JC: Man, I don't like to take credit. I would like to think that we helped move the Honda movement [forward] by being present in magazines and helping Hondas go faster. I mean, our drag Civic was in a Honda sales brochure. With that car, I think we created a lot of awareness in the Honda community, but because the car was so fast, a lot of the domestic car community started looking at how a V-6 car could run a 6.52 at 218 mph.
HT: I would say developing a true plug-and-play engine management system was a pretty big contribution, no?
JC: As far as plug-and-play goes, we were the absolute first. I'll tell you how that transpired. Before we had our own ECU, I'd gone to Jim Munn at MoTeC and said, "Jim, what would it take to take a MoTeC ECU plug and go to a stock car?" Because of legal issues he said, "It's not even something I'd want to entertain. And you can't do it anyway." The Achilles' [heel] of any EFI system is wiring. We thought, "Why not take advantage of wiring that is already proven by the factory and plug right into the stock harness?"
HT: There's a rumor that needs to be laid to rest. When AEM introduced its EMS and used it in Stephan Papadakis' drag car, accusations flew of it internally being a MoTeC ECU hidden inside of an AEM case.
JC: That is such absolute bull shit. Ask Steph. That's rubbish. First off, if we ever got busted doing something like that, how stupid would we look? That would've been insanity to do that. I remember reading that, and it would infuriate me. Steph had a MoTeC box on that car initially, when he and Shaun Carlson built that car, but when he came to race with AEM, he had the AEM box on it.
HT: AEM's early experiences were with D-, B-, and H-series engines. What do you think of modern Honda engines, like the K series?
JC: The H22 was my favorite back then because it had displacement and because it was a closed-deck block. It was a rock-crusher of an engine. As far as the K engine and, even more importantly, the F engine out of the S2000, they are miles ahead. I like timing chain motors better than belt motors even though [they] took us out of the cam gear business. They're more reliable.
HT: You said "more importantly" when mentioning the F-series engine. Do you prefer those over the K series?
JC: I like it more. The head's better. That engine had a better specific power [output]. It's always been one of my favorites.
HT: How many Hondas have you owned?
JC: To be honest with you, just my NSX. I've worked on Hondas, I've built tons of off-road engines, but I have only had my NSX, and by far, it was the best car I've ever owned by a country mile.
HT: That says a lot coming from a guy who drives a Ferrari 550. What sort of mods did you have done to it?
JC: [It had] one of our engines from the Civic race program. It was dual-fuel, so off boost it ran on gasoline, and on boost it ran on methanol. It ran 20 psi on an 11.5:1 engine. On our dyno, which was a very sadistic dyno, it made 725 [hp] at the wheels. It was a lot of fun. It had all Comptech suspension, an NSX-R front steering system and braces, and Adam [Saruwatari] got me a set of Enkei wheels. It was, by far, the fastest street car I've ever had. I drove the NSX as a daily driver. I'd go down to Orange County and try to hunt guys in Enzos down. I never did get that wish granted, though [laughs].
JC: I will, on record, say that getting rid of my NSX and buying a Ferrari 550 was a mistake. With the NSX, you sat in that car, and that car owned you. You felt comfortable and confident. That car was as sure-footed as can be. I rue the day I sold it.
HT: Besides the NSX, what's your favorite Honda model of all time?
JC: I love, specifically, the '97 Integra GS-R. I like the bumpers, I like the way they did the headlights. They were great, and the GS-R was a great engine. Back then, they were extremely cutting-edge. I also love the CRX. It's lightweight, nimble, and God help you if you put a K motor in it.
HT: How do you feel about Honda today? Are they getting it right?
JC: I have a lot of friends at Honda. I just had lunch with a few of them the other day, and my comment to them was: "Where's your new FR-S, guys?" I think the last best car Honda made was the S2000. It was a magnificent car. Since then, what have they made that's gotten me really excited? Sadly, not much. The new NSX is interesting. I don't know if it'll be a hit. I think it's beautiful.
I think they've gone from a revolutionary company, as far as driving excitement goes, to evolutionary. The Acura line's gotten incredibly ugly with the pronounced beaks. I used to get an MDX every four years, but when they came out with the new one with the goofy face on it, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Hopefully, the new one will be better because I love Honda products.
So, yeah, as far as Honda these days goes, I think they're a little off track from what they used to be. That's just brutal honesty. It's sad. Think of what they've done in Formula One with Ayrton Senna. They've introduced variable valve timing to cars. And now the new V-6 with the single exhaust port, it's bothersome. To me, it shows [they] care about emissions and low-cost manufacturing and not about what we can do. Back in the days when the sport compact market was really coming up, Honda owned it. Seventy percent of our sales were Honda. Everyone else was fighting for scraps. Then they started losing it. They had this golden egg in their hand, and they let it fly. Our sales now with Hondas is probably 20 percent. I hope they get it back.
HT: Any closing thoughts?
JC: For me, what's helped me out a ton are the people I work with. Without them, there would be no me. Somehow, those guys go unrecognized, and that's both my engineers on the induction and the electronics side. They are an exceptionally gifted bunch of guys who pour their hearts into the AEM culture of engineering excellence. The thing that makes a company, it's not the [John Concialdis], it's the people who are doing the hard work and, of course, the customers. One day, when I retire, I may open up a little dyno shop just to tweak cars and hang out with gearheads. It was so fun.