Old Car End Run

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I’ve written before about peacefully finding alternative ways of doing things that makes it possible to avoid the edicts of oppressive government. Here’s a way to do that on four wheels: Update an older car with a few key pieces of modern technology – electronic fuel injection and an overdrive transmission. You’ll get most of the important perks of a modern car – including the modern car’s everyday driveability and fuel economy – without the modern car’s high cost (including associated costs such as insurance and property taxes, which are based on the car’s average retail value), its nannyism (air bags, belt-minder buzzers, GPS, black boxes, etc.) and lack of personality.

It’s a great way to do an end-run around Big Brother – without giving up decent gas mileage, a car that starts easily (even in the dead of winter) and works as well on the highway as it does trundling around town.

First, fuel injection (EFI):

Carburetors have a number of virtues, including low cost, but they don’t include set-it-and-forget-it operation (nearly maintenance-free) or automatic/instantaneous adjustment of air-fuel ratios for optimum performance and economy under all driving conditions – cold or hot, high elevation or sea level, full-throttle or just cruising along. EFI does all those things for you – which improves both driveability and gas mileage (as well as lowers emissions, especially at cold start) which is why carburetors were retired in the late 1980s – more than 25 years ago.

One can usually adapt EFI to a car originally fitted with a carburetor in a Saturday afternoon and get all these same benefits, but without Big Brother riding shotgun.

Aftermarket companies such as Edelbrock sell bolt on EFI (typically, a throttle body that you simply drop in place of the carb on the original intake manifold) systems that come with everything you need to update your car’s fuel delivery system.

If you are handy enough to remove/install a water pump,  you have the basic skills necessary to do the job.

The cost of converting to EFI is typically around $1,500 or so for a complete, “ready to run” system. It’s not inexpensive, but put the price into context: Converting to EFI will cost the equivalent of three or four typical monthly new car payments – and then, it’s paid off – and begins paying for itself.

Your older car will literally run like new. It will be much easier to start (no more setting the choke, no more waiting for it to warm up), more responsive (stalling, surging and other such problems associated with carbs should disappear) and will no longer need yearly adjustments like the formerly routine Fall and Spring tune-ups one needed to get with a carbureted car because the air/fuel ratio will be ideal at all times. That also means the plugs won’t get fouled by an over-rich mixture – or burned up by one that’s too lean. Just like a modern car, you probably won’t need to change plugs more often than once every 50,000 miles  or so.

You also ought to see noticeably better gas mileage because EFI more thoroughly atomizes the incoming gasoline – and is much more precise in terms of fuel metering than a carburetor.

If you drive the car regularly, the fuel/tune-up savings alone could pay for the cost of the conversion – but the hassle you’ll save yourself is priceless. Plus, you’ll get to drive a cool old car instead of a boring new one.

Next up, overdrive transmissions:

Older cars – especially muscle cars from the ’60s and ’70s – can really benefit from swapping in a modern overdrive transmission. When new, these cars were hell on wheels 0-60. But they sucked if you had to spend any time on the highway because the combination of aggressive final drive gearing in the rear axle and a non-overdrive transmission (with the final gear being “1-1”) meant that the engine would typically be running at uncomfortably high RPM just cruising along at normal highway speeds. V-8 muscle cars (and trucks with low gearing for pulling) would be running 3,000-plus RPM at 55-60 mph. Even standard cars, without aggressive final gearing, operated at much higher cruise RPM than a modern equivalent. Constant high RPM operation kills a car’s gas mileage – and is hard on the engine, too. It also makes driving the car on anything other than lower speed secondary roads unpleasant, especially now that  highwayspeeds limits are often 70 MPH or higher.

Modern cars  all have overdrive transmissions.

The final overdrive gear (typically about 25 percent lower than the “1-1” final gear in a non-overdrive transmission) dramatically cuts down engine RPMs in top gear, even when the car is a performance car and has a very aggressive axle ratio for maximum off-the-line acceleration.

A new Corvette, for example, can trundle along at 75 mph with its 500 hp V-8 barely turning more than a fast idle (around 2,000 RPM thanks to its overdrive transmission. It can also  deliver nearly 30 mpg on the highway – only a few MPG behind many current-year four-cylinder economy cars.

In the ’70s, muscle cars with half or less the current Corvette’s horsepower weren’t out of the teens on the highway – mainly because they didn’t have overdrives and their engines were running at 60-70 percent of redline just keeping up with the flow traffic.

As with EFI, it is fairly easy to adapt a modern overdrive transmission to virtually any older vehicle/engine Some are easier to do than others, but transmissions (and kits) are readily available new/rebuilt and ready to go from companies such as TCI , B&M , Phoenix Transmissions  and many others. You could also pull the appropriate unit from a parts car in a salvage yard. (A little research will tell you what fits what.)

A new/rebuilt OD transmission will cost you anywhere from about $1,000 or so on the low end to $2,000 or more on the high end for a super-duty performance unit, such as a Tremec five or six speed.

The installation is more physically challenging than swapping in EFI, but even if you pay someone to do it for you, the end results are nothing short of spectacular. I know, because I’ve done this swap myself.

Though I still have a carburetor feeding my 1976 Trans-Am’s engine (mainly because it is not a daily driver and so I can comfortably live with a carb) I did install a modern overdrive transmission (2004R) in it. Even with very aggressive 3.90 rear axle gears, the big 455 V-8 now only turns around 2,200 rpm at 70-plus MPH versus 3,000-plus at the same road speed with the original, non-overdrive transmission.

Gas mileage has increased to reasonable (close to 20 on the highway) from catastrophic (single digits).

I could (and do) drive the car anywhere, including extended highway trips.

It is as comfortable to drive now as a new Corvette – only better because it’s free of air bags, DRLs, OnStar monitoring and all the rest of it. Plus, it did not cost me $50,000 and (trust me) the cost to insure it (and pay the taxes on it) is a fraction of what I’d be facing had I bought a new Corvette instead. 

But best of all, Big Brother is not my co-pilot.

What could be better than that?

Throw it in the Woods?

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29 COMMENTS

  1. Once the folks here in the great state of “Californicate” realize that folks are keeping their vintage iron going, either by stockpiling spare parts and living with the technical backwardness, or investing in tech upgrades like fuel injection and overdrive trannys (they prefer to promote another sort of ‘tranny’), the do-gooders and busybodies will convince the Legislature to outlaw old iron on California streets and highways in the name of “safety” or “clean air”.

    This type of overreaching had been done before. I remember about 25 years when there was a push to double traffic fines in “construction” zones, supposedly for the sake of highway worker s-a-a-f-t-e-e. Then I cynically remarked that soon the legislature would make an excuse to designate all the roads a “construction zone”, and sure enough, it was proposed in 2016. At least then there was enough outcry that this proposal died a quick death, thankfully.

  2. I have a 72 Bronco, I swapped in the entire engine from a ’91 Mustang, the EFI in the 88-95 Fords is a stand alone unit,the computer just runs the engine and nothing else, so its easy to swap in. 2 wires to the ignition, 1 wire to the oxygen sensors, new wire to the coil.

    bought an adapter and installed a NV 3550 5 speed used in the Jeep Wranglers, Dodge Dakotas and some Ram 1500’s

    bolt in swap, no driveshaft mods.

    swapped on disc brakes from a 75 Blazer, again a bolt on swap.

    my 15 yr old said he wanted a 68 Chevelle for his first car, although when we visited one of my friends, who owns a 71 Firebird and a 71 Torino fastback he said either one of those would do,
    said he wanted something cool, not a Honda or Toyota.

    this book
    http://www.amazon.com/Ford-Injection-Electronic-Engine-Control/dp/0837603021/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368400377&sr=8-1&keywords=ford+fuel+injection+%26+electronic+engine+control

    and this website
    http://oldfuelinjection.com/
    will tell ya everything you need to know to add EFI to an old Ford, and the 88-95 EFI is robust, it will crank and run with every sensor unplugged AND the upper intake manifold removed AND half the injectors removed. As long as the distributor and ECM are plugged in , it will run.

    on my 96 Toyota, if you unplug the mass air sensor, it wont crank.

  3. I exchanged the C-4 for an AOT in my 64 Falcon a few years back. It did drop the engine R’s about a grand at 65mph to 1500 R’s. But unless you have some savy, you may bite off more than you can chew. Be aware, there are some items you will have to change and/or modify. My tranny came from a 84/5 T-bird. On mine, I had to swap the flexplate, change the kick down from linkage to cable, move the rear tranny mount, and have the driveline shortened. I have gained about 5-7 MPG’s. I have thought about going with an EFI system on the engine. I’m open to a TBI, but wouldn’t you need to have an O2 sensor and a higher pressure fuel pump as well? Seems like return lines would be in order too. I’m open to the challenge, but on my buget, I would have to scrounge everything from my local bone yard. Any suggestions??

    • Some swaps are easier than others!

      I was lucky with my ’70s-era Firebird. The 2004R I used has the “universal” Buick-Olds-Pontiac (BOP) bellhousing mounts, so it did not require an adapter plate. It is also almost exactly the same length, overall,as the factory TH350/TH400, so I did not have to get a custom driveshaft made. All that was necessary to make it fit correctly was to get the correct yoke – and slide the OEM transmission crossmount back toward the rear a few inches to line up with the 2004R’s rear mounts. Other than that and hooking up a 12V lead to the converter clutch, it was a direct bolt in.

      On EFI:

      The aftermarket kits I have seen (Edelbrock, etc. see here http://www.edelbrock.com/automotive_new/mc/efi/pf_intro.shtml ) come with everything you need, except perhaps a fuel pump and O2 sensor. The former you’d probably need to get (electric vs. mechanical, for the higher flow needed) but I’m not sure about the O2 because, bear in mind, these systems don’t have to be smog compliant. Your ’64 Ford is pre-emissions. It does not have to meet smog check, or at least, it only has to comply with whatever emissions control requirements were in effect back in 1964, which means next to none. Maybe a functional PCV valve, etc. The point being, the aftermarket kits for use on such cars do not have to meet current (or even recent) emissions regs. when used on older, per-emissions cars. So, they’re much less complex than a current OEM EFI system. Check into the Edelbrock set-ups. The price isn’t too bad, either. If you drive the car a lot, you may make up the outlay in fuel economy gains over a couple of years.

  4. When I read this article I thought, “‘Has this Peters guy had me under surveillance?”. I’ve live and breath this ethos of beating the system through automotive hacking. I am a veteran of efi upgrades and tranny swaps.

    My dream project: A Ford F350, dually wheel, crew cab with a 6 speed manual and a Cummins diesel (engine swap out of a Dodge truck). A man’s gotta have a “tow” truck. The project would set me back about $15k, but it would give me utility at least equal to the effort and comparable to trucks that sell for roughtly $50k new.

    http://fordcummins.com/

      • Lately I’ve been worrying that high fuel prices and the weakening economy will make automotive hobbies an endangered activity. That would be downright un-American.

        • The hobby’s under assault from several directions – and it is, indeed, very un-American! In addition to the economic stuff – inflation, less discretionary income, etc. – there’s also the legislative threat, including efforts to require that older cars meet current emissions (and safety) standards, or be limited to “display use only.” I believe that in the near future, the government will pass laws requiring all cars be fitted with GPS transponders/receivers as well as have engine computers tied into the latter. It will be done on the basis of “congestion pricing” or as way to make insurance policing more “efficient” – and since it’s cost prohibitive to graft all that stuff onto an older car (leaving aside all the other questions) the net effect will be to make old cars legally unusable.

          Wait for it – it’s coming.

  5. Why are old designs not reused by car manufactures?

    Older designs can be reused, but with modern technology where appropriate. A 1952 corvette is one old car design that I would like to see again.

    • Simple – they’d never meet current bumper impact standards.

      This was one of the reasons why VW had to pull the old (old) Beetle off the market (in the US) in the late ’70s; the other was emissions.

      Here’s another example: The door height of my ’76 Trans-Am is probably four inches lower than the current Camaro’s. Reason? Side impact.

      I doubt there are any cars of the pre-1980 world that could be made to comply with current requirements without totally redesigning them – which of course, is just what has happened….

  6. Great advice. I suspect, and hope, this becomes trend. Very soon! It’s so hard finding good custom fab shops, even in southern California. I just saw a SEMA preview of an old 50’s car with dual A-arms, new EFI chevy block and transmission, refreshed interior and gauges. Very cool, but they kept the exterior untouched, with surface rust and faded paint. Proved a really cool point.
    The biggest problem is post-smog cars. You can’t make the car run better, pollute less and consume less fuel. Oh no, no, no! That would mean NOT buying a new car. Thus, all original smog equipment must remain as it was from the factory. But, with something like a Megasquirt, you can accomplish a lot, for little coin, even keeping a stock appearance.

  7. I’m totally ignorant when it comes to the mechanics of automobiles, but this article has sparked my interest. I have a 1992 oldsmobile custom cruiser 5.7 liter engine that runs fine (not planning on ditching it anytime soon). Any recommendations on what I should do to it?

    • Hi Alan,

      Your ’92 is “modern” – it has both EFI and an overdrive transmission. You don’t need to make any major updates to it – or rather, the updates discussed in the article won’t help you much because your car already has those features. But you could improve its efficiency and longevity by switching to synthetics (engine oil, axle lube, etc.) and bear in mind your car is free of a lot of the crap that comes “standard” with new cars, such as multiple air bags, black box data recorders, traction/stability control, etc.

  8. Just conjecture about something that should be possible to do cheaply. I have not done this my self. I know that in the 1980s, the auto makers went from carburetion to TBI. The TBI unit bolted on the same place as the carb did the year before. Or they went to a new intake manifold.

    So it should be possible to rob the entire EFI system from a similar car in the junkyard. Some extra work, but the total cost mught be 250 dollars instead of 1500.

    • For some cars that works. For others people have cobbled together pieces of other cars. Sometimes other makes entirely to make a system. The advantage of the purchased system is that it takes less time for most of the cars out there. No searching junkyards, no trial and error engineering your own system. Time or money. Your choice 😉

      • Brent,

        You are so right, Time or Money.

        All the same, Eric is on to something. There are a lot of cool cars out there that are gas hogs.

        I am thinking of a car my brother used to have. It was a 1968 Camero. SS 396. Automatic. It was a little old lady car. 23k by its original owner, an old Professor. Then my mother. White hair. never did hear the song Little Old Lady from Pasadena.

        The car was nice, but was rusty because it was from Salt Lake City. Lots of road salt.

        12 MPG. 15 then it felt like it. Quadratoilet.

        Given EFI, it would have done better. A modern transmission, maybe twice the MPG. Original equipment? BAA Humbug!

        • certainly. I’ve looked for 4th and 5th gear on my ’73 often.

          It’s a column shift though. I could put in a T5 with a floor shifter (mav’s could be ordered with floor shift too) but then that spoils the fun of baffling people. 🙂

      • Very true!

        This is another one of those areas where some people can work the system to their advantage. The system (via emissions and fuel efficiency mandates) pushed technologies like EFI and OD transmissions into mass production. But of course it did not stop there and now new cars are much more complex and expensive than they really need to be. Then government and its “partners” (like the insurance cartels) makes ownership of these vehicles extremely costly via premiums and property taxes.

        So, I thought, why not take something old (simple and inexpensive to buy, as well as cheap to insure and maintain) and update it a little to make it more everyday driveable?

        For example, a few years ago I had a friend who stumbled onto a really nice ’73 Maverick. It wasn’t a Grabber but it did have the 302 V-8 and three-speed auto. Also AC. A really nice driver with about 50k on the odometer. He bought it for about $3k. Put in an OD four-speed (direct bolt-in) and TBI FI system (also direct bolt in) and this car would get as good – and probably better – mileage than a new Mustang GT – for a total investment of about $6k (including the car). And it would cost a fraction of what it costs to insure a new Mustang, too. And property taxes would be virtually nil vs at least a few hundred annually in my area for the new Mustang.

        • Sounds like a nice mav.. except for being an AT 🙂
          But having both a ’73 Maverick (250 I6, 3spd) and ’12 Mustang GT Even with a 4or5spd and fuel injection the new mustang is way better… (that said there is a brand new cylinder head and intake manifold for my mav sitting just feet from me that will free the engine from the log intake and 1bbl carb, which cost me a lot of money because expensive to be weird)

          Not having to deal with rust and age is another big plus. Hopefully in the spring I’ll be able to start doing all the piled up work on my mav now that I don’t have to rely on it as the backup’s backup 🙂

    • I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that OE systems are integrated with other vehicle systems – whereas the aftermarket units are stand-alone. In other words, with a factory system, one would probably have to deal with a lot of wiring hassles and probably also pull/use the OE ECU. The aftermarket unit will come with its own ready-to-run ECU, which will be simpler because all it’s controlling is the FI system…

      On OD transmissions: Look for one that is not controlled by a computer. The 2004R I used in my car just needed a 12V ignition-connected hot wire to operate the torque converter clutch.

  9. EFI and overdrive transmissions are popular upgrades for MGBs. had I not traded my British roadster habit for my motorcycle habit, my now-sold B would have had some depot-level upgrades done to it a la what Eric did to his Trans-Am.

  10. When it comes to EFI, from my experience, I agree 110 percent that EFI makes a big difference when it comes to mileage, performance, reliability, and emissions. When the need to improve these things came along in the 70s, a key reason that many cars from then sucked in these areas is the carburetor’s imprecise fuel metering, which necessitated some cumbersome solutions, such as the Chrysler Lean Burn System and AIR pumps. My folks had a VW Rabbit with fuel injection in about 1979 that they traded their Olds Cutlass in on because it ate gas and needed constant tune ups. EFI is as precise as you can get with the mixture, which means less unburned fuel, which means less pollution, more reliability, and better performance.

    By the way, what did the AIR pump do again? I think it pushed air into either the intake or exhaust for a more complete burn.

    • Terrible things. They pump air into the exhaust manifold–in some engine designs such as the BMW M5’s S62, directly into the cylinder head just inside the exhaust port.

      The idea is to light off any unburned hydrocarbons on start-up, which heats the catalysts faster and eliminates those first few seconds of fragrant aromatics wafting out your tailpipe and causing–Oh Boo-Hoo!–ozone which makes deary’s eyes water.

      Problem with the cylinder head ones is they tend to foul up with carbon. On the bimmer, it means removing the head. Ouch.

  11. I think finding ways to subvert oppressive government is tantamount to giving a man a fish so he can eat today whereas working to change the oppressive ways is tantamount to teaching him to fish so he can eat everyday from now on.

    The problem is that if one’s “freedom” from oppressive government depends on their knowledge and expertise of that oppressive system – which is constantly changing – so they can subvert it then those w/o that knowledge are screwed. Whereas freedom is automatically distributed to everyone immediately; no prior knowledge required.

    One can still peacefully protest as the OWS and others are doing. Unfortunately, all the government knows is force and violence so it turns violent, but the methods used by the protestors is peaceful and certainly sending a much louder message around the world.

    That’s not to say I’m onboard with the OWS “demands” but they are physically occupying their country which is a good thing, and they are doing it peacefully.

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