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Monday, July 10, 2006


On using shoes as hammers and teaching dogs to whistle

It's something I see all the time on automotive message boards. Somebody has a car and a clearly defined performance goal. Only these goals really don't match the car. "I want my Daewoo Nubira to run 13 second quarter miles." Or maybe, "I want to make a Toyota Avalon handle well."

Hot rodding is much easier when you use the right tool for the job. And one member on the Grassroots Motorsports message board likened those sorts of goals to using a shoe for a hammer. Are these the sorts of projects where it's better to just give up and get a more suitable car?

Well, as you've seen from my blog, I have been busy trying to turbocharge a slant six powered Dodge Dart to make it hang with built V8's. And I've also put a fair amount of handling and braking mods on it. Obviously, I am not going to say others with equally unreasonable-seeming goals should always give up. Instead, I would urge anyone wanting to drive nails with a shoe to consider their motives, consider the costs, consider what the possible outcomes, and then decide if it's best to give up or to forge on ahead. And I'll be honest: Sometimes, it is best to give up before starting.

First thing to consider is your motives for such an unusual project. Many times, the reason I hear is something like, "I can't afford to start with a different car," or, "I can get this car at such a bargain price." This is often the worst reason you can have for such an offbeat project. If there are no aftermarket or junkyard performance parts around, you can rack up a huge tab trying to fabricate and sort out custom built speed parts. About the only time this is going to save you money is if you are a fabrication genius who can build something like Denny Crabill's infamous V8 CRX. And if you've got that kind of skills, you probably wouldn't be asking what would be involved with your project. About the only time this can save money is if there is some little-known engine swap or performance varient of your car that you can raid for parts. For example, a Mitsubishi 4G63 engine from the turbo Eclipses fits into a Hyundai Excel.

There are some better motives. For example, you may want to take on the challenge of building something off the beaten path. Or you may simply want something unique. Park a turbo slant six next to a similar car with smallblock V8 power at a car show, and you can guess which one will get the most looks from passersby. Whether the uniqueness is worth the price, or the challenge is something you can handle, is your call.

Next thing to consider is the cost. This isn't just money, but also time and effort. There are no signposts when travelling off the beaten path. Engine and suspension tuning tend to involve trial and error, and in some cases that error part can mean breaking things. Or you may simply spend two or three times as long as it would take to get a bolt-on part in place.

Big power gains on an engine with little aftermarket support tend to mean one of three possibilities: Turbo, supercharger, or engine swap. It is possible to put a junkyard turbo on an engine for under $1,000, or swap in an engine on a comparable budget, but you will really need to know what you are doing and have a fair amount of spare time on your hands. If you are hirign someone to do your work and using new parts, you may end up spending ten times as much. And when you're contemplating that sort of bill, you may find yourself wondering, "Now why didn't I just go with a 5.0 Mustang?" Or some similar common performance car. If you expect that question to haunt you, you might have chosen the wrong project.

Handling can also be a bit of a problem. You can get just about any car to corner better if you can put some stickier tires on it and get some better shocks. However, many times you will need to monkey around with springs and anti-roll bars to get it to stop leaning over so much in corners. The good news is that you can have somebody make custom springs and anti-roll bars for any car imaginable. The bad news is that the wrong custom suspension bits can give a car evil handling quirks, like having the rear tires suddenly lose traction and spin the car out of control. If a good quality aftermarket company already makes these for your car, they may have tested things and found a combination that works well. If not, you'll have to do such testing yourself. That's likely to mean trying out seveal different set of springs and anti-roll bars, and probably different alignment settings too. Those extra parts can really drive up your budget.

Then consider the outcome. Sometimes you may have the luxury of finding others who have done what you plan; I've had some help from other turbo slant six owners and others who have set up Dodge Darts to handle better. Other times you may only guess at what is likely to happen. Sometimes the only thing holding back a car is a lack of aftermarket, and you can make the car hang with other, more popular choices. Worst case is that you get a car that performs worse than before (a common result of tinkering with the handling if you don't know suspension theory) or becomes unreliable. If there is some real limitation built into the car holding you back, you may just end up with a whistling dog. It doesn't whistle very well, but it's remarkable that it can do that at all.

I plan to campaign my Dodge Dart in Street Modified autocross once I'm done with it, and I know fully well that it may be something of a whistling dog there. I can probably get it to handle as well as a modified Fox-chassis Mustang, but getting it to handle like the tuner M3's that dominate Street Mod at the national level isn't likely at all. But (with apologies to Despair.com's Demotivators) if I can't get the car to do something well, at least I can enjoy having it do something badly.

Only you can determine if your crazy project idea will be worth it to you at the end. But try to get all the facts and make an informed decision before you remove the first bolt.


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