Unless you went dumpster-diving outside SEMA or your uncle is Stacey David, you probably don’t have unlimited resources to throw at car modification. Thankfully, you friendly neighborhood Tavarish is here to help you frugal modders make your cars into something truly deserving of a voided warranty.
Most new cars, new being the word describing every car made after 1973, probably has a rack and pinion steering setup, in which the steering wheel is directly connected to a rack that uses hydraulic fluid or electric motors to help the wheels move with your input.
The steering rack is affixed to the body with rubber bushings that are prone to flex and deterioration over time. You can replace these rubber bushings with two piece polyurethane bushings that will make the steering input more direct with less flex in the system, resulting in a feel that’s loads more sporty and precise. At way less than $50 for a set, it’s a no-brainer for the cash-strapped modder.
You can redo all the bushings in your suspension, but based on my experiences, the steering rack bushings should be the first on the list.
An important measure in evaluating whether a car is fun to drive or not is its throttle response, meaning how quick the car’s engine is to reciprocate on your press of the accelerator. Older cars equipped with a cable throttle have a physical coupling between the throttle pedal and the throttle body on the engine. Over time and many heat cycles, this cable can get stretched out and may need adjustment. Thankfully, on most cars, this is easily solved with two wrenches and about five minutes of your time.
On newer cars that have a drive-by-wire throttle, where all throttle body functions are controlled by an electronic motor that’s tied to a potentiometer on the accelerator pedal, you’d have to perform an accelerator relearn procedure, which is usually as easy as disconnecting your battery for about 15 minutes, then reconnecting it. Different cars do have different idle relearn and throttle mapping procedures, so I’d consult with the car’s factory service manual first.
With a properly adjusted throttle, you can expect a night and day difference to driving feel and acceleration response.
You’re barreling down a mountain road and try to do a heel-toe into third gear screaming #savethemanuals, but with the pitch of the engine, the state of your bushings, and the fact that your car was made for economy, you end up smashing your fist right into your Pioneer double-DIN radio and skinning your second favorite knuckle. Thankfully, you can prevent this from ever happening again by buying a short throw shifter kit.
What this kit does is change the distance between the business end of the shifter and the fulcrum point of the lever, allowing you do to the same work with less actual input. It makes for more precise shifting and gives the car a more sporty feel, even if it is a bit more notchy and hard to handle at first. Most newer front wheel drive manual cars have the shifter fulcrum point on the transmission, making the shifter install a one hour job, but older cars tend to have the shifter in the center console, requiring disassembly of the interior and possibly the exhaust underneath the car.
For a mod that decreases the time and effort that you spend shifting, this cheap addition is worth every pinched penny that you spend on it.
When it comes to mods, most people gloss over brakes, mainly because it’s counter-intuitive to want to spend money on going faster and slower at the time. Nevertheless, one of the best and cheapest mods you can do it to upgrade your car to a quality brake pad setup. No, I don’t mean springing for the “better” pads at your local Pep Boys, I mean buying brake pads that are formulated to make stopping as predictable as possible.
I recommend EBC’s range of pads, as they’re cheap to buy at under $150 for a full set, reduce stopping distances and all but eliminate fade in repeated hard braking situations. Short of getting a four figure track-specific brake setup, this is best component you can buy to make sure you can stop your 3,000 lbs hunk of metal from crashing into mother nature on your Sunday drive.
Most brake pad changes can be done in a few hours in a driveway, so it makes sense to do it yourself to save a few bucks if you’re moderately mechanically inclined and you’re not afraid of a little dirt under your fingernails.
One of the first mods that the Fast and Furious crowd actually got right was the front strut tower bar. While the tuner nation loves the bar for its ability to advertise yet another sponsor, the component does have a very functional purpose, because the car’s front strut towers are a main point of flex in the chassis when subjected to increased stress.
If your strut towers are worn, rusted or simply weak from design, you’d be able to see tears and splits forming in the metal after hard use. The strut tower bar essentially connects the car’s strut towers together so they don’t flex independently and produce handling that’s more predictable and direct, saving weak designs from their inherent flaws and giving drivers the confidence and ability to take the off ramp that much faster.
While strut bars can be quite expensive if you go for name brand, TIG-welded-and-carbon-fiber examples, a cheap aluminum one on eBay or Amazon would do the trick just fine. Just please don’t put stickers on it.
A manual transmissions isn’t like an automatic transmission in that in can, in theory, run without any fluid in it at all. It’ll likely grenade itself in short order from the metal-on-metal grinding, but it could potentially get you home in a pinch . However, if you don’t want to grenade your manual transmission and keep shifting until your shiftin’ hand is sore, it’s important to have the fluid that can withstand the abuses of spirited driving.
For this, I recommend Redline MT90. It eliminates the notchy shifting feeling that you get when your car’s warming up in colder climates and is better suited to protect your gears and synchros when everything is up to temperature. Make sure it’s compatible with your gearbox and shift away.
Just because you don’t have a manual transmission doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. It does mean, however, that you have to be more careful, as your transmission fluid temperature and pressure is an integral part in keeping your car moving. If you’re the kind of person that does a lot of paddle shifting and downshifting for approaching corners, be forewarned that this heats up the fluid in your transmission, and though most new cars do come equipped with a transmission cooler built into the radiator, it’s not enough.
A cheap, front mounted automatic transmission fluid cooler can decrease fluid temperature considerably and allow you to do the things you love to do for longer. Just don’t neutral drop it, no matter what your dumbass cousin says.
If you’re lucky enough to have a car with a turbocharger, you know the thrill of mashing the accelerator and listening to the torrent of air get crammed into your car’s cylinders, resulting in a force not unlike being kicked in the cerebellum.
However, you can now kick your brain’s hind quarters even harder if you fit a little valve between the turbo’s compressor (the thing that makes the boost) and the wastegate (the thing that makes sure you don’t have too much boost). This mod won’t work on every car, since a lot of cars have electronically controlled boost maps, but that can often be overriden with a simple software hack. Older cars can use this homemade valve that would trick the wastegate into thinking it’s getting less boost than it actually is. You can also buy a ready-made manual or electronic boost controller that does the same thing.
Be careful, as small increases in boost can likely be tolerated by the car’s fuel system and ECU, but larger increases (more than ~3 PSI over stock) would require you to custom tune the fuel maps to ensure that you don’t run the system lean and blow the whole thing up.
If you have any friends with a Mazda Miata or a BMW, you’d have heard all about a few things called weight distribution and lightness. What these concepts essentially mean is that cars that weigh less are faster than heavier ones, and cars that have an equal amount of weight over the front and rear wheels tend to handle more predictably than ones that have a front or rear weight bias.
For those who aren’t hairdressers, dudebro stock brokers, or Travis Okulski, here’s how you can get your cars handling better and accelerating faster, for next to nothing.Yes, some of these have effects on the car’s drivability and practicality, but you’re looking for cheap performance - damn the side affects.
- Relocate your battery from your engine bay to your trunk.
- Remove your spare tire, jack and all tools
- Remove your rear seats
- Remove carpets/floor mats
- Remove sound deadening from floors
- Remove radio and speakers
- Remove air conditioning compressor, lines and miscellaneous components, purchase shorter accessory belt
With all this done, your car should be considerably lighter and handle more nimbly than any stock example, even if it is a wee bit louder and hotter than you’d like. Who needs AC anyway? Crack a window and mash the gas.
Cars don’t run forever, but it’s not for a lack of trying. One of the most effective methods of making your car into its former showroom self is by simply doing the scheduled maintenance. Performing fluid flushes, spark plug changes, minding the status of the fuel filter, using quality gasoline, changing the belts and giving the car a redline run every now and again will give it the long life it deserves. Since most people don’t pay close attention to the maintenance schedule, I’d recommend following it closely, replacing everything that any previous owners didn’t mention, just as a pre-emptive measure.
Maintenance can be the difference between a car barely running and a track star, so spend a few bucks making sure nothing gets neglected.