Every once in a while we find ourselves with just a bit of extra cash burning a hole in our pocket and a big conundrum: what to spend it on? We say savings is for suckers—give us catalogs full of the good stuff that our projects have been waiting on!
We’re kidding of course; stashing cash away for a rainy day is a smart idea, but you have to treat yourself sometimes. It’s like getting dessert after a good meal, you may not do it all that often, but those rare treats make the temperance worthwhile.
Since nowadays our free spendin’ money seems to stay well under the four-digit realm, we decided to focus on a reasonable sum of cash that we wouldn’t lose any sleep over spending, while still being enough to get a good payback for the expenditure. We settled on $500 since that’s a manageable amount of money, and it opens up a lot of good options that will make an immediate difference in how much enjoyment you get from your car. Also, we’re assuming you’re up to the task of wrenching with your buddies to get the various parts installed, so we’re only taking the cost of the parts themselves into account.
Of course our sampling of ideas here is just the beginning of the deals out there. Use this list as a guide to get your brain working and maybe you’ll sniff out options better suited to your pursuits. And as always, depending upon your hot rod platform of choice, the mileage of your moolah may vary.
Please note that our story is not meant as an all-encompassing buyer’s guide—there are many great manufacturers in the game that offer effective parts. This is strictly meant to identify the general areas of opportunity that offer the easiest and biggest performance payoff.
For traditional carbureted pushrod engines it is still very possible to reinvent your power curve for under $500. It’s always preferable to match the intake and cam operating range, so if you’re stepping up from stock parts, plan on pairing these together. Tons of cam and lifter package options are available for pretty much every engine platform and power curve for well under $500 from names you trust like COMP, Crane, Edelbrock, Lunati, Summit, and Trick Flow. Matter of fact, the options can be overwhelming, so we recommend simplifying the search at SummitRacing.com where you can set your price range and see the options from everyone. Same with intakes; the options are wide open for carbed engines with single-plane, dual-plane, and tunnel-ram options numbering in the hundreds. Plus, if you upgrade from cast iron to aluminum you’ll get the additional free performance benefit of removing weight from the top of the engine and increasing charge cooling.
Fuel, air, spark—those are the three main ingredients for power. Nonetheless, we’re always surprised at how many well-built muscle cars we see with excellent fuel and air delivery, but mediocre sources of ignition. There are two things to consider here: how powerful the spark is, and how accurate the timing curve is. We prefer modern billet drop-in distributors like those from MSD Performance (shown) or Performance Distributors for their reliability, precision, and upgradability, but if you want to keep the stock look with an original distributor, upgrade to a high-energy retrofit system from PerTronix. Points are pointless nowadays. Also, it’s a good idea to send it out for a rebuild and recurve by a performance ignition shop like Ignition Engineering.