Have you noticed that every reality TV car show uses the same lame sound effect of a car doing a one-wheel peel? You know the one. About 10 years ago, a sound effects guy recorded a weak-sauce wreck with a slipping trans and an open rearend on some studio back lot. Sometimes the sound bite ends with a redneck laughing hysterically. Guys who edit TV shows and commercials are on deadlines, so when they want a car doing a burnout, they all reach for the same sound file. Every time I hear it, I cringe. Not only has it been overused to death, but the sound is about as far away from cool as possible. This car is a tortured mess—you can plainly hear one rock-hard tire barely spinning enough to make a squeal while a small V-8 on its last leg labors through a two-barrel carb and a leaky exhaust manifold. Whatever action or plot that was taking place previous to or immediately after the "lame burnout" is effectively rendered bogus.
The thing legions of Prius-driving Hollywood TV producers don't understand that all of us already get is that every hot rod has a sound that is as unique as a fingerprint. Everything is specific to that car, whether it's the sound of the door latching, the engagement of the starter, the whir of the accessory drive, the clatter of valvetrain, the whoosh of the butterflies opening, or the crackle of exhaust. If someone lined up a hundred hot rods in front of you and started them up one by one with you blindfolded, you'd be able to pick your own car out every time. It's like knowing the voice of your own kid.
That's not the same as saying every car sounds cool. Some cars are the equivalent of Fran Drescher—they look great, but honey, please don't open up your mouth and say a word. Go to any dragstrip or car show and you'll always hear a few machines that just seem mechanically afflicted by a menagerie of scraping flywheel teeth, worn hinges, unbolted bodywork, leaky manifolds, loose rocker arms, and constipated mufflers. It's funny when a cool car fires up with a high-compression big-block, a fat cam, and Flowmasters. Usually right after that some wheezing turd will crank up and zing its throttle in mock competition. As if.
When the Laguna rolls through the neighborhood, car alarms go off, children cry, dogs vomit. When the revs get up, it's like the ...
You might remember PHR's Street Sweeper Chevelle. It was a 1968 Malibu with a 496ci big-block that made about 630 hp on pump gas. The great thing about it was the exhaust. It had a COMP Cams Big Mutha Thumpr, enough compression to make it work, long-tube headers, and a dual 3-inch rear-exiting exhaust from Stainless Works. It was a boulevard bone-shaker that sounded so sexy you'd want to lay rubber on every straight. It was a miracle I didn't get thrown in the slam with that car. Yet it sounded 180 degrees different from PHR's 1975 Laguna, which has a 427ci solid-roller small-block with about the same power, Hooker ceramic-coated long-tube headers, and Flowmaster 40s with axle turndowns. When the Laguna rolls through the neighborhood, car alarms go off, children cry, dogs vomit. When the revs get up, it's like the gates of hell opening. The Chevelle and the Laguna are so very different from each other—one a deep-singing Pavarotti with the muscle of a strip club bouncer, the other a high-strung Robert Plant with mixed martial arts skills.
My theory is that a happy car will sound happy and make its owner happy. I'm talking about all the parts, not just the exhaust. Hinges that don't squeak, bodywork that doesn't rattle, steering columns that don't creak, starters that engage nice and clean. One thing that drove me crazy with the Chevelle is that in spite of its wonderful-sounding engine and exhaust, that Chevy sounded like it was unscrewing itself. No matter how hard I worked to track down loose or missing bolts, the thing always sounded like a rattletrap. I didn't know if the bumper was coming off or if a fender was gonna peel away—in the best of times it was embarrassing, but other times—like at the dragstrip—it exuded the air of a car that was unsafe (although it, in fact, was quite safe). There was just something about it that resisted my best efforts to correct. That car was not as happy as it could've been, and neither was I.
The exhaust is arguably the most defining part of a hot rod's audio signature. Some days I'm of the mind that an engine's mechanical symphony of valves, pistons, airflow, camshaft, and ignition is more important when you're behind the wheel, but certainly from a distance everyone agrees it's the exhaust note. The exhaust is what people hear before they see you, so if that's weak or off-pitch, the impression is made before you even roll onto the scene. The thing is, in spite of there being a huge amount of empirical data about what makes an exhaust sound and work great, it's hard to find, and therefore many people remain uninformed.
We're hoping that this month's plenitude of header tech will help fill the void of information on the subject, as well as dispel a few myths. (My favorite header myth is that small diameter primaries accentuate the low-end torque, which is only sorta true. Over-small pipes do that by choking off the top end power, leaving only a brief grunt at the hit.) Get your headers right, and not only will you benefit from more power, but your ride will get a decided improvement in sidewalk appeal. Who knows, maybe even Hollywood can learn a thing or two about what makes a cool-sounding car.