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Sunday, March 05, 2006


The project car checklist

It's a pretty common question that I see on message boards: "I've got such-and-such a car, and I want to make it faster. I'm on a budget. What mods should I get?" Well, the first thing to do is a bit of planning. While it's good to see they are doing a bit of research, it helps to do a little planning. Even if you are an absolute beginner and know nothing about cars, there is some pre-planning you can do before trying to decide what mods you are getting.

They say Yogi Bera once said, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else." And when project cars end up "somewhere else," the result can be pretty ugly. So, here are some questions you should ask yourself before beginning a project, so you will know where you are going.

1. "How much do I have to spend?"

Some people may be thinking spending only $200 in mods. Others may consider a $5,000 project "low-buck." Be specific, or you may see people recommend stuff that is way outside your price range.

2. "What sort of performance do I want?"

Most people think of horsepower, but there's also handling and style to consider. In some cases, mods in one area can hurt another. An all-out handling suspension will not put as much power to the pavement as a drag racing suspension, for instance. Usually, though, the question is just how to divide up your money, not whether spending it on one thing will hurt others.

3. "What trade-offs am I willing to make?"

Performance mods sometimes trade comfort, fuel economy, or reliability for speed. This is especially true if you cut corners. If you have a Lexus, for example, you may not want to ruin its famously silent interior by giving it an obnoxiously loud exhaust and scraping out all its sound deadener to save weight. On the other hand, there are some times where you can improve reliability, and sometimes even gas mileage, with performance mods. Usually this applies to older cars. For example, if you put a modern, fuel injected LS1 engine in place of your Nova's stock 307 V8...

4. "Are there any particular mods I really want this car to have?"

Some mods just don't mix. On some occasions, the parts simply do not work well together, while in other cases, they won't physically bolt up to each other. To continue the above example, if your ultimate goal is to swap an LS1 out of a '99 Corvette into your Nova, don't waste time trying to put a cam in the 307. You won't be able to reuse that when you do the engine swap. Likewise, if you're eventually going to put a turbo on your Civic, don't buy headers and a cold air intake for it. The turbo kit will replace so much of the intake and exhaust system that you almost certainly won't be able to keep those.

5. "Do I plan on racing this car?"

Racing isn't just expensive runs around road courses where you run a very real risk of crashing. Events like drag racing and autocross cost under $50 a weekend to compete in. If you plan to do any official racing, you'll want to keep the rules in mind when you select mods. For taking it to the dragstrip, you may just need to pass a basic safety inspection. If you want to be competative in autocross, you will need to prepare your car keeping class rules carefully in mind, but again, they'll let you in if you can just pass a basic safety check. This usually doesn't even mean needing a roll bar, just things like a secure battery and working seat belts.

6. "How long can I have this car off the road?"

Big projects can mean big delays, so if the answer is "Just for Saturday," you'll want to stick to simple, bolt-on changes. If you've got a week or so that it can be off the road, you might be able to pull off some more complicated mods. And if you have another car, the sky can be the limit.

7. "How much mechanical ability do I have?"

We all have to start somewhere. If you don't have much practice wrenching, you'll either want to stick to easier bolt-ons until you develop more skill and confidence, or get a mechanically inclined friend to help out. Even gurus are seldom equally good at all areas of performance.

8. "What emissions laws do I have to meet?"

Some areas will let you get away with virtually anything. On the other hand, if you have a late model car in California, you will have a huge list of restrictions. Many areas are somewhere in between, letting any car pass that meets a tailpipe test and looks as though it has a catalytic converter.

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