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.
Driving Class & Seat Time
All the upgrades and performance parts in the world won’t make a lick of difference if you can’t drive your way out of a paper bag. While attending a full-on driving school at a private facility is well out of our preset budget, attending an autocross clinic or a daylong driving instruction often is not. Driving Concepts is a good example; they offer a two-day Advanced Racing and Competition School at Willow Springs Raceway for experienced drivers for $495, as well as one-day High Performance Driving School in your own car for only $395. Alternatively, just search for local autocross events. The typical cost for a single day event is probably $20, so you can get your feet wet and maybe even get free advice from the regulars racers.
Not ready to swap out your suspension hard parts for better engineered aftermarket stuff, but want to massively improve your handling? It’s all in the bushings, baby. Energy Suspension carries polyurethane upgrade kits and individual bushings for just about any classic or late-model muscle car, and they’re all very reasonably priced. The main benefit is the increase in hardness on the durometer scale that will greatly reduce flex between suspension components and the chassis versus the original rubber, which is designed to give to increase ride cushiness. We always use them for engine and trans mounts as well, since they decrease power-robbing driveline flex. Secondarily, but also very useful is the fact that polyurethane has a far greater life span under use, so you won’t be doing this swap again anytime soon.
Wheels for under $500? They’re out there if you know where to look. Our favorite source for ultra budget-friendly wheels is Summit Racing, since their filtering system will allow you to hone in on exactly what the options are for your platform. They’re mostly in the 15- and 16-inch range, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s always fun to have a set of drag wheels and tires off to the side. Like that classic drag five-spoke look? You can have a set of these hoops (15x8 and 15x4.75) for $489.
If you want your car to suddenly feel (and actually be) faster off the line without changing anything else, gears are what you need. It’s simple math here: The gear ratio in your rearend needs to correspond to the rpm range your engine has been tailored toward. For example, if your chosen combo of parts is designed for the ever-popular 1,500- to 6,500-rpm range, to make the most of the altered power curve you need a ratio that will allow your engine to climb rpm more quickly. Some 3.00 cogs will get there eventually, but 3.50s will get there much faster, and that’s a difference you’ll feel in your seat and see reflected in your e.t.’s. Ring-and-pinion sets are fairly cheap, and installation really shouldn’t cost more than $150 or so.
To stay under $500, you may have to choose one or the other here, but either option will yield positive results. For exhaust, DIY prebent kits are the way to go. In the July ’12 issue we put a sweet 2½-inch mandrel-bent stainless steel header-back kit from Flowmaster complete with Super 44 mufflers on Project EcoNova; total price of the kit was a budget-friendly $483. Kits like that will not only yield amazing sound, but exhaust flow that will support upward of 600 hp. Headers are a no-brainer for any performance engine. Hedman, Hooker, Summit Racing, and Doug’s all have multiple offerings well under $500 that open the corked airflow and free up horsepower and torque you didn’t even know you had.
We always knew water/methanol injection systems like those pioneered by Snow Performance worked well on boosted applications, but we were pleasantly surprised to see how much power they free up on naturally aspirated engines as well. On our NASCAR-inspired 430ci stroker engine for project Max Effort, a fresh out-of-the-box Snow Performance MPG Max kit dropped the air intake temp by 25-40 degrees during dyno testing and gained 21 hp and 16 lb-ft of torque. And that was without any real tuning time. We saw similar results in the Aug. ’11 issue on a street/strip Fox Mustang where Snow Performance water/meth injection with pump gas supported the same horsepower on a high-compression race engine as 113-octane race gas. We can’t think of a single other 15-minute bolt-on that can do that. But there’s more. Snow calls it MPG Max for reason: properly wielded, a water/meth kit can increase your fuel mileage as well.
We prove this on a regular basis with project car tuning and parts testing: The performance potential of any car is suspect if it hasn’t been tested. Basically what we mean is that almost any performance modification you do to an engine is not optimized out of the box, and every change you make can negatively alter a previously perfect tune. We’ve never failed to pick up significant power from a half day of tuning on a chassis dyno. The good news is that in most cases the price of parts is minimal; subpar tuning and timing are more often the biggest culprits causing power loss.
Dollar for horsepower, there’s nothing that beats nitrous. Nothing. Want to add as much as 450 hp to your race engine? Done. With the proper fuel and tune, nitrous can add astronomical amounts of power to your rod without annihilating your bank account or your engine. Novices should begin with a basic plate-type system and small doses, since small shots are relatively easy for a healthy engine to tolerate. But when you start getting aggressive, make sure to factor in additional costs for good fuel, a bigger fuel pump, or expert tuning. Both are central to whether your engine lives or dies under spray.
Carbs are not created equal, and most factory offerings pale in comparison to even entry-level stuff in the aftermarket these days. One of the biggest benefits to having a carb is the superior emulsification properties, and while the OE gave up on carbs decades ago, the aftermarket has been hard at work creating a machine that not only blends fuel and air better, but does it more consistently. Plus, they’re easier to tune than even before. Holley’s Street Avenger carbs, for example, are well below $500 and feature a quick-change vacuum secondary for easy fine-tuning, four-corner idle adjustment, built-in fuel filters, and clear fuel level sight glasses for easy, no-mess float adjustments. On top of that, they’re superlight, thanks to aluminum construction and have an industry-first limited lifetime warranty. Also be sure to check out offerings from Edelbrock, Demon, and QFT’s feature-packed line of Slayer carbs—all under $500!
You can get away with unsupportive stock seats on the dragstrip, but the moment you start asking your car to go fast in any direction other than straight ahead you’ll find yourself fiercely clutching the steering wheel in an attempt to keep yourself in the seat while driving. Trust us, you can’t do both effectively. Sport bucket seats are designed with specific bolsters that are intended to help keep you planted in place during aggressive cornering, which frees you up to control your car and enjoy the modifications you’ve made. The less you move, the more control you have. Companies like Corbeau (Sport Seats shown), ProCar, and even Summit Racing have some excellent sport bucket options that look at home in any modified vintage car. But what about getting them into your car? Luckily, all three of those companies have bolt-in mounts for most popular models of cars and trucks and quite a few oddballs as well.
In our humble opinion, a good set of gauges should be one of the very first mods made to any hot rod. Idiot lights are called that for a reason. You need to know what’s going on with any modified engine. You don’t have to go crazy with the number of gauges, but at a bare minimum you should have oil pressure, water temp, and voltage. All three of those can give you critical insight into what’s going on under the hood and can even foretell brewing problems. After that, tailor any other gauges to what the car’s used for. Drag race? You need an accurate and easily seen tachometer. Forced induction? Air/fuel ratio and fuel pressure are ones we like to have. Road course? Oil temp is a good one to add.
If going fast in a straight line is what gets you excited, a good set of drag radials will transform your traction and instantly put your power to better use. That’s because you can’t accelerate at maximum potential if your hard-compound street tires are struggling to put the power down. Every little bit of tire spin is lost e.t., so just swapping out the rear tires can make a huge difference in both your lap time and your 60-foot time (or just your stoplight-to-stoplight time) by allowing you to hit the pedal harder without creating a smoke show. We’re fond of Nitto’s NT05 and the even more street-friendly NT555R, since they’ll give you the grip without sacrificing street driveability. Like carving corners? Save up for another pair for the front; they make amazingly effective autocross tires too.
You can only go as fast as you can stop, so make sure you can stop as fast as mechanically possible for your combination. The right set of brake pads can make all the difference in the effectiveness of your braking system, so make sure to match your pads to what you plan on doing with your car. Taken to the extreme, yes, that could mean that you need more than one set sitting around; such as a set for street driving and another that is more suited to road course or autocross duty. For dual-duty cars, there are options that walk the line fairly well. Hawk, EBC, and Raybestos all offer several options. The HP Plus Autocross Brake Pads from Hawk (shown), for example, are designed to take the heat of the track, and get you home safely without having to change back to street brake pads.