Low Cost Automotive Performance
A newsletter of racing realities!
Million dollar cars. Hundred thousand dollar motorcycles. Mega-buck Street cruisers. We'd all like one. We fantasize about blowing the doors off that "too cool for the prick driving it" Porsche in our twin turbo, fuel injected, full race-yet street legal, one of a kind, super double kick down whatever. All the while getting new ideas on how to go faster, shine brighter, slam lower or kick louder from such unquestionable sources as Road & Track, Auto Week, Circle Track, Low Rider, European Sport Car, Street Rodder, 4 Wheel Drive, Performance Weekly, or any of a hundred other such magazines. The first Question out of our lips when we look at a cool car or walk into a performance shop is how much power does it have or how quick will it go?
Unfortunately, our own car just isn't fast enough or doesn't quite run right. Or it is still on blocks. Or we're still waiting for the right part from Japan. Or any one of a thousand other excuses/reasons. Very few people are willing to admit that they don't really want the fastest car in the world, or that their goal is somewhat short of the August centerfold in Street Rodder magazine. Everyone wants the best looking, fastest moving, cushiest sitting, loudest rocking babe magnet on the planet. Although this may be an admirable goal, this IS NOT an excuse for not having lots of fun on the road RIGHT NOW. With just the money in your pocket RIGHT NOW!
Choosing the right project for you
The first step is the least glamorous. You will not be able to brag about it to your bench racing buddies. It will not get you into any automotive publication. You couldn't even write an SAE paper on it. It is figuring out what you want. No, I mean REALLY figuring it out. We all have an idea of what we want (see above) but is that really what you want? Balance that with how much money is in your pocket RIGHT NOW. Under $10,000? $5,000? $500? I got about $50 on me right now, and not much more than that in the bank, and to be honest, not a whole lot coming in the near future that wont have to go to bills, rent and food. But I love the kinesthetic thrill of taking a 30 MPH rated off ramp at 70. I love stopping so fast that you know you could hit the driveway at 30 and stop long before the garage door was in danger of being blocked. At the same time, I don't really care about impressing anyone other than myself and perhaps a few other motorheads that I know. I have no desire to get into ANY automotive magazine, because I don't like playing politics with people who think they know it all.
cutaway of a mazda rotary..the most volumetrically efficient engine alive today!
Your priorities are different...I guarantee it. There are no right or wrong answers at this point as long as you are honest with yourself. Most people at this point do not really know what they want, and are always open to suggestions if it makes their car cooler, but seldom if it makes their car a reality quicker or increases the projects factor of do-ability (FOD). For example, if your desire is to build a Street Rodder Centerfold from the ground up, do you personally posses the education, training, engineering abilities and all the other stuff that it would take to do so? Of course not, so do you have the money to pay for people that do? Probably not. How about the time involved to do it coupled with the tenacity and energy required to undertake a project of this scope? No again.
Well, how do these cars get built? See if you fit into one of these categories:
• A factory (e.g. Chrysler) with a desire to build a prototype for publicity; i.e. the money comes from the advertising budget
• A custom rod shop with a "price is no object" customer
• A successful body shop owner with lots of free time
• An automotive insider with lots of connections and a good amount of influence among most of your peers/suppliers
• A retiree with unlimited time on your hands and a good disposable income
• A well funded high school or community college auto shop teacher with an understanding administration and enthusiastic students willing to work endlessly for no pay on someone else's car for a passing grade
No? Me neither. Yet you need to understand, this is how most of the cars featured in most of these magazines get built.
People generally have either a lot of time or a lot of money. Seldom will they have both, and sometimes you may have neither. Figure out where you are. Do you watch TV an hour a day or more? Are you happily married? Do you want to be happily married? Can you work in your back yard or garage? Do you know how to weld? Do you want to know? Do you know a good welder? Do you know what a good weld looks like? How? Will your worst neighbor call the police because he sees a bright light coming out of your garage at midnight? Assuming the average street rod takes two to four THOUSAND hours to build (40 hours per week times 50 weeks per year times one to two years), how many of those hours will be done by other people - welders, painters, upholsterers, engine builders, and how will you know when the guy is good and when you're being taken? Double those numbers if you are determined to get into a magazine or win a show, or perhaps even a semi-professional race.
Have I lowered your expectations yet? I don't mean to. Projects of this scale can certainly be taken on and conquered by your average Joe. All I'm saying is that what you have been looking at in all those automotive magazines may be as much of a fantasy as the Centerfold in that other magazine - Just realize it!
Perhaps your goal is simply to make your present car go fast. Or just faster. Lets talk about that for a while. Certainly this is an easier proposition with a much higher factor of do-ability. Most people see their car as the one they will always want. I once had a 1966 Chevy Van that was the most bitchin' thing in the world to me. I put thousands of dollars and as many hours working on that thing to get it just right. I went through half a dozen motors, almost as many interiors and when I was finished with it, it wasn't what I wanted. I took a camping trip in a later model Ford camping van with the wife and our dogs and had more fun in a weekend than in twelve years of the old Chevy. I sold it for about 15% of my total investment in it and couldn't have been happier to see it go.
Lesson one: You will put money into any car you own. - have it be the car you (eventually) want.
This is neither good nor bad, it is simply a fact of life. Get the car you want, in whatever shape you can afford as soon as possible. If your daily driver is starting to leak from the rear main seal - don't chase good money after bad. If you're driving around a Monarch, but really want a truck; get the truck. If you can't afford the one you want, get the one you can afford. Buying a $200 carb for the truck you want is going to be easier to swallow than the $200 to fix the rear seal on the car you don't. Hey, I know as well as anyone times are tough, but keep in mind, these $425 a month leases are no bargain when you still have to fix the thing AND give it back when your lease is up (plus the $3,000 mileage penalty). At the same time that same $225 month can get you a new engine for that 20 year old beast in just a few months.
Lesson two: You will never get out of a project like this for what you have into it.
Generally speaking restorations are not economically viable. There are of course, exceptions, but you may still be better off playing the stock market. And forget the idea of ANY motor swap ADDING value to the car. It simply does not happen in the real world. Oh sure you may find the rich high school kid that thinks a blown 454 in a Vega is a bitchin' thing - but don't count on it. Motorcycle choppers are the same way. Yeah, we all heard of some guy who sold his '42 panhead with the 27" extended girder front end for $10,000 but in reality, by the time you add up the parts cost, labor, and storage as he waited [and waited and waited] to find the right buyer, I'll betcha he still lost money on the deal. I know I lost money on my 1962 Triumph Pre Unit twin chopper when the time came to sell it, and it still took me months to sell. But that WAS long before OCC made the $100,000 chopper fashionable!
The most common performance upgrade is the motor swap: putting an engine in a car that was never intended for. Big Chevy engines in little Japanese s-boxes. Big Ford engines in small European sport coupes. Mazda rotaries in go-carts. This will devalue your car more thoroughly than anything; your car will now be worthless to anybody except that one in a million buyer, and it won't be worth much to him because in his mind you put the wrong engine in and did a bad job of it anyway. With this said, it is still the path that most motorheads choose to take because it is within their realm of understanding, [perceived] experience and of course affordability. Everyone understands that if you put a big engine in a little car it will go fast. Lots of people understand that if you put a rotary in a light car, it will also go fast. Some people even understand things like volumetric efficiency and that by increasing it, the car will go fast. But cars also have to stop, turn, occasionally pick up chicks, and in reality carry groceries and be dependable enough to start without a two hour ritual every time you feel like going for a ten minute ride. Several things can determine which engine goes in which car. The basic assumption at this point is that you already know more than the engineers at both companies, right?
One Case Study
Lets assume we want to put a 302 Ford V8 in a 1974 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe (don't laugh - it is being done) How are the mechanicals on the rest of the car? Well, the brakes are too small, the front suspension is too flimsy (and yet the hood weighs a hundred pounds), the body flexes and the firewall will have to be moved back. Can it be done? Sure. Should it be done? Well... Maybe a rotary would have been a better choice for this car, It's lighter, so the body flex might be livable, it's physically smaller so the firewall wont need to be moved back, and the powerband is more suited to this car, so the brakes may be good enough to at least get the car on the road.
How much power should the engine have? The car was slow with the stock 78 HP, and disappointing with the engine modified up to 108 HP. So 200 should be good. But not as good as 250. Or 300 AUGH AUGH AUGH 350? 400?
Lesson three: Speed cost money - how fast do you want to go?
A dead stock 12A, carbureted, smog legal can get about 120 horsepower. A naturally aspirated street port Mazda 13B rotary can get around 200 HP. You'll need a good motor, carburetor, exhaust, stock ignition, good transmission, good rear end (all stock?) Mazda or Fiat? Where does one manufacturer stop and the other begin? Let's make the transmission and driveshaft Mazda and keep the Fiat rear end. I'm guessing you'll spend less than three grand - that's with no outside labor except engine machining.
Lets go another 50 HP. Turbocharge or put a blower on that 13B. Another grand or two right? Well, you're gonna need low compression rotors. And the turbo transmission. And forget the Fiat rear end. Maybe a crashed turbo II donor car? That will give us all the ignition stuff, but we'll have to wire in a computer for the fuel injection. Can the stock ignition keep up? Probably. Are the stock Fiat brakes gonna be able to stop this thing now? Probably not - but I'm sure there is some high performance Fiat store somewhere. Let's triple that $3,000 we had before.
Well that still may not blow away that damn Porsche, better go 300 horses. Do we still want to keep the rotary? Are you going to drive it on the street? A well built peripheral port rotary CAN deliver 300+ horsepower for as long as you want, but it probably wouldn't be real pleasant to drive to the grocery store. It also might be kinda loud. A V8 might be a better choice here. Chevy 350s are popular and plentiful, Ford 302s are lighter and better engineered (roller cams, cooler running etc.) Either way, you're gonna have to make some tough choices here: do you build it with 300 horsepower and hope for the best, or do you do it correctly? Keep in mind, that if you're wrong, all the time and money you've spent to this point, IF YOU'RE LUCKY, will be flushed down the toilet with nothing to show for it except experience. If you're not lucky, your widow or next of kin will be left with the unpleasant task of giving away parts. I can tell you right now where to get a deal on a super seven kit because the builder finished his kitplane first! If you're not sure how lucky you tend to be, spend some time at the Luxor hotel in Vegas...if you win enough to finance this project, go ahead and build it with 300 HP and hope for the best!
Lets say you're gonna be smart and build the car correctly with 300-350 HP. The cost is gonna go way up because you will no longer be doing a motor swap as much as building a real race car and putting your body on it. Given the example of a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, this means starting with a steel tube frame to keep the body from crumpling in on itself, then real suspension bits, Willwood brake components, not to mention some real V-8 performance work, and so on and so on. Keep in mind, this is still with YOU doing most of the work, from hardware store runs ten times a day, to welding and assembly. You will be responsible for assembling, disassembly and reassembly of EVERY NUT AND BOLT ON THE CAR at least three or four times. This is not an exaggeration. For something to be done correctly, it must not only be figured out and put on the frame, but then taken off and made correctly, reassembled until it is as close to perfect as you can get and reassembled. Then you move on to the next piece that will require you to remove the first piece, and so on and so on. You know this is true if you've ever done work like this, or if you know someone who has. This is why custom fabrication is so expensive. You can have this labor done cheaply only if you don't care if it is done correctly.
Let’s narrow the field a bit…down to the only car on the planet that has been in continuous production, in one form or another, since 1957 to this day, a car just celebrating it's 50th anniversary: the Lotus Seven. AKA: Lotus 7, Lotus Super 7, Lotus Super Seven, Se7en, Rotus, Caterham 7, Caterham Seven, Caterham Super 7, Caterham Super Seven, Locost 7, Vindicator, Robin Hood, Wesfield, Dax Rush (a 4x4), BWE Hornet, Troll, Locust Seven, Sylva Striker, Tiger Super Six, Superformance Seven and so on.......
Nearly all Seven Kits use a 1” square tube space frame with an aluminum skin. The “Pirate 7” uses the same frame with a foam & fiberglass skin. Ron Champion’s book “Build your own sports car for as little as £250" is a great starting point to find out more. Be aware though, there is always the issue of $$$ vs. time; you can save money by spending time, and time by spending money. A $500 budget means you are going to spend THOUSANDS of hours scrounging junkyards. Also remember this:
FAST GOOD CHEAP choose any two
Presently, new Caterham 7s run about $45-50,000; good condition vintage Sevens, like a 1966 S2 can be had for around $30,000. Ariel Atoms, the 21st century 7, range from $50-$100,000. I have seen pretty nice new replica turnkeys for around $20,000, but I have never seen a good, running Seven, one that didn’t require anything to be a daily (!?!) driver for under $10,000, but they may be out there!
The Pirate7, as you see it here cost me about $7,000 in parts, with the single biggest expense being the upholstery ($1500), and the biggest time consumer being the space frame (easily 600-700 man hours) and surfacing [sand, fill, sand, repeat] taking another 300-400 man hours. I would never build another space frame unless I had a customer with lots of money and a deep desire to spend it. I figure I have about a total of 2000 to 2100 man hours invested, and could easily spend another 500 hours on it if I cared more about winning car shows, races, or things other than driving it!
The Centaur 7 is unique in the world..
It has no tubes and in the time it takes to go to the steel supply store and bring back the 20 pieces of 1” tube, you can have the tub assembled and ready for running gear! Oh,... and almost no body work. Remember that 1000 hours (full time 8 hours a day for six months) for frame construction and surfacing on the Pirate 7? Trim that back to about 10 man hours! [literally 1% of the work!!!] The kit is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from 35 preformed pieces of 16 gauge sheet metal. No jig or assembly fixture is required, and the tub comes out straight and true, even more rigid than a skeleton frame with 1% of the work, and none of the frustration! This design and construction method provides both maximum strength and torsional stiffness, while also being very economical. Monocoque steel construction has been proven for decades by the major manufactures of the world, and cancels the problems that are inherent in some other type frames. Broken frame tubes, squeaky or broken sheet metal rivets and excessive frame twisting just can’t happen with the Centaur Seven. The only thing you need to get started is a sturdy workbench (unless you can tolerate working on the floor!) a little mig welder from home depot (even a gas welder will work!) and a small hand grinder.
Kits include all sheet metal that form the tub, and the 6 fiberglass pieces (hood, scuttle, left & right clamshell, left & right rear fenders) The first 3 kits sold will also include the front safety-laminated windscreen with aluminum frame. You can get nearly everything else from your donor car. Originally, the Centaur was made to get everything off of a Ford Pinto, but you don’t really find too many of those in the junkyard these days! Any small, 4 cylinder, or rotary-engine, rear wheel drive car will work, my first choice would of course be a Mazda Miata (mainly because of the independent rear suspension and the hot-roddable engine), but a early 80’s Toyota Corolla or Nissan 240SX would be just as good. Don’t overlook old Japanese pickups either! Very few automatic transmissions will fit, but you could probably squeeze in a Ford C-4.