The HyLift-Johnson Story – The Piston Ring Company,
Sealed Power and TopLine Automotive Engineering

The HyLift-Johnson legacy began in 1911 when two friends, Charles E. Johnson and Paul R. Beardsley each deposited $2,500 into the Lumberman’s Bank in Muskegon, Michigan and founded the company known as The Piston Ring Company.

In 1912, the Piston Ring Company officially opened for business and began supplying the rapidly expanding automotive industry with piston rings; primarily at the OEM level; the Company quickly earned a reputation for quality products.

In 1931 the Piston Ring Company acquired the Accuralite Company and changed its name to “Sealed Power Corporation”. The product range was broadened and in addition to piston rings, the company began manufacturing pistons and cylinder sleeves for various military applications. During WWII and through the 1950s, the company expanded and soon had distributors in every state and in 40 countries. At the time, Sealed Power parts and components were used as original equipment in more than 80 percent of American-made cars and trucks.

In 1949, the Oldsmobile division of General Motors developed the first overhead valve type engine which utilized pushrods to actuate rocker arms to depress the intake and exhaust valves. This development revolutionized the modern engine we know today. In order to keep the pushrods located and provide a surface for the camshaft to actuate the pushrods, it was necessary to have pushrod tappets. Sealed Power was approached to design and produce these ‘flat tappet’ lifters. The Overhead Valve (OHV) engine was soon adopted by the entire automotive industry and again, Sealed Power was at the forefront of the design and manufacturing of virtually all OEM products for the newly designed valve trains.

As manufacturing demands expanded for valve train components and lifters, Sealed Power built and opened the HyLift-Johnson valve lifter division of the Company in Muskegon.

Sales rose steadily during the 1960s and 1970s as Sealed Power expanded. From annual sales of $25 million in 1960, the company’s sales grew to over $200 million by 1977. Although sales grew, earnings remained heavily dependent on fluctuations in the auto industry. In 1974, for instance, a year in which American car and truck production plummeted, earnings fell to $1.46 per share from the previous year’s $2.19. Diversification had meant that piston rings made up a smaller percentage of sales than it had in the early 1960s; nonetheless, Sealed Power’s original engine parts group, which now included sealing rings, valve tappets, and transmission filters in addition to the company’s longstanding engine products, still accounted for 42 percent of sales in 1975. With over three-quarters of these sales coming directly from the auto industry, Sealed Power’s fortunes were inextricably tied to that of the major American automakers. In a 1980 press release, company President Edward I. Schalon stated that “as a supplier of engine parts to the motor vehicle industry we are adversely affected by the proliferation of cars and trucks imported into the United States. This situation is compounded by the growing number of vehicles which bear domestic nameplates, but are powered by drive trains and engines manufactured predominately in China and Korea.

By 1988, and due to global competition, Sealed Power was forced to diversify into an aftermarket and replacement parts and specialty service tool manufacturer. The company changed its name to SPX Corporation and went public. For the next 10 years, SPX remained a U.S.-centric automotive component manufacturer with nearly $1 billion in sales.

Steady Growth in the 1960s and 1970s

At the beginning of the 1960s, in spite of product diversification over the previous 50 years, the sale of piston rings for both the original and replacement markets still accounted for over 65 percent of Sealed Power’s sales. These sales made up about one-quarter of the total U.S. market for piston rings and made Sealed Power the second largest manufacturer of piston rings in the country. Cylinder sleeves and pistons made up the bulk of the company’s remaining sales, although by this time it was also producing a variety of small engine parts, such as valves and tappets. By the end of the decade, Sealed Power, determined to decrease its reliance on a single product and implemented a program of product diversification. In 1968 the company acquired another cylinder sleeve plant in Mexico as well as the Consolidated Die Cast Corporation (later renamed Contech), a Michigan firm that produced precision die castings. Sealed Power also acquired a manufacturer of transmission fluid filters (later renamed the Filtran Division), and a manufacturer of small alloyed castings. It had also opened a sealing ring plant in Franklin, Kentucky, a tappet facility in Zeeland, Michigan, and a new piston ring plant in Liege, Belgium, to serve the European market.

The Downfall and bankruptcy of Federal Mogul and Dana Corporation

By early 2000, the affects of globalization on companies like Sealed Power/SPX were devastating to domestic operations and especially to profits; the company was forced to divest many of its brick & mortar assets; in particular the original facilities based in Muskegon. SPX was teamed tightly to companies like Federal Mogul, Dana, Delphi and others who were becoming insolvent and unable to support overheads. In 2002, Federal Mogul declared bankruptcy; the financial repercussions were felt by many, including Sealed Power and TopLine Automotive Engineering ( , who were both major suppliers to Federal Mogul.

Many of the older Sealed Power facilities were soon demolished and the land sold off including the original Sealed Power facility. The move offshore by SPX was a contributing factor to the end of “Made in America” and only added to the drawdown of heavy manufacturing in the United States.


From the Ashes

In 2002, following the Federal Mogul bankruptcy, SPX further divested interest in US based operations, opting for manufacturing offshore (China and Mexico). Several SPX plants were sold off including the original HyLift-Johnson valve lifter company in Muskegon. The Nelms Brothers took over ownership of HyLift-Johnson and proceeded to take the company through a ‘designed bankruptcy’ and leverage assets. In late 2003, TopLine Automotive was contacted by the remnant staff which remained at the HyLift-Johnson facility in Muskegon, MI as the Nelms’ had driven the company into bankruptcy and the facility was in foreclosure and was scheduled to be demolished.

TopLine Automotive Engineering, Inc (Chicago, IL) purchased the company from Comercia Bank in March 2004 and began the task of rebuilding the company back to its rightful place as the manufacturer of “The World’s most Beautiful Lifter”.

Following the sale of HyLift-Johnson to Topline Automotive Engineering, Inc, problems continued to escalate as the newly appointed General Manger of operations at Hylift, Charles “Chuck” Hicks, attempted to sabotage the reopened company by dismantling and removing several Hydramats and other large industrial milling machines and selling them to other local businesses. Mr. Hicks also stole many millions of dollars worth of ‘first-quality’ valve lifters and attempted to sell them through a shell company, which he, and several others had formed. In 2006, it became obvious to TopLine management something was amiss with HyLift operations and started an investigation. Soon after, a warehouse was discovered nearby which was filled with Hylift-Johnson products and machining equipment. Local and federal authorities (FBI) were then contacted. Charles “Chuck” Hicks was arrested for Federal Wire charges as well as transporting and selling stolen property across state lines. In 2010, Mr. Hicks was found guilty on all charges and sent to federal prison; the financial impact of Hick’s actions on Topline and to the Muskegon area was tremendous and nearly caused the complete collapse of Hylift.


As soon as the theft was discovered by Topline, Chuck Hicks was terminated and replaced with one of the top automotive engineers in the US, Mr. Dave Popp, who oversees all production at HyLift-Johnson today.

TopLine Automotive has served to restore the facility and since 2008, HyLift-Johnson has again regained its place as the lifter which all others are compared to. No other valve lifter company can produce a lifter with the same quality, specification, endurance or reliability as the HyLift-Johnson product.
Hylift-Johnson…Made in the U.S.A…and always will be.