Less Need for Speed

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When it no longer makes sense to do something, people tend to stop doing it.

One such thing is hopping up used cars, something people – especially young people – used to do almost as a matter of course. The appeal was that with some elbow grease and a handful of relatively cheap hop-up parts purchased from the local NAPA store, a high school-age kid could build a used car that was quicker and faster than most new cars.

But new cars are very quick and fast today – and not just a handful of high-performance cars, either.

A new Prius is quicker – and faster – than two-thirds of the V8-powered sedans of the ‘70s and ‘80s. A new V6 Camry sedan is much quicker than almost all of the V8 performance coupes of the ‘70s and ‘80s – and a new V8-powered performance car like a Mustang or Camaro or Challenger is twice as quick and nearly twice as fast – in terms of its top speed – than all of the highest-performing V8-powered muscle cars of the ‘60s.

None of which got to 60 in four seconds or less.

They are so quick and so fast that there is not much room to make them meaningfully  quicker or faster. Traction rather than horsepower becomes the limiting factor once you have the power to get to 60 in less than four seconds – which the as-delivered Mustang GT and Camaro SS can – and thus making more power amounts to the same thing as piling more muscle on an already 280 pound Mr. Olympia. His biceps get so big you can hardly tell them apart from his other muscles.

And they’re not much use anyhow.

Which is just the case – on the street – with a car that makes 600 or 700 horsepower (no longer particularly exotic; a factory-built Challenger Hellcat offers as much as 900).

What are you going to do with it?

It is fun, yes, to talk about getting to 60 in 3 seconds – which the Hellcat can – but where and how are you going to experience this? And what is the meaningful difference between getting to 60 in 3 seconds vs. 4?

Exploring a 200 MPH top speed – which many new performance cars are capable of approaching – takes more road and time than is commonly available east of the Mississipi.

That’s without raising the hood.

So why raise it?

During the time when car culture and youth culture tracked in parallel – which was pretty much from the ‘30s all the way into the early ’90s –  there was a lot of meaningful difference to be mined from hopping up the average used car. Because the average new car was underpowered, not-quick and very slow.

It was easy to make whatever you had quicker, faster and much more fun for much less money than it cost to buy a new car.

Put another way, one could have fun with new cars – including the new ones driven by those with badges and radar guns (who in those days usually just issued tickets, not death sentences, for abusing traffic laws).

Roscoe’s old Plymouth had less than half the horsepower of today’s Dodge. Hence, it was easy to give Roscoe the slip, if you had something hot. Today, Roscoe is retired and the shaved-head goon in the Hemi Charger is harder to give the slip.

Part of the reason you could become a King of the Road back in the day was because many of the run-of-the-mill cars, even the shittiest cars, of the era shared their basic layouts – and engines – with the performance cars of the era.

Or could.

Economy cars – Pintos and Vegas and Datsuns – were often rear-wheel-drive and some even offered V8 power, which meant that even if they didn’t actually have a V8 it was a relatively simple (and a purely physical/mechanical) thing to put one in. And to get it to produce twice or more the power it produced in as-made condition.

For example, the Ford Maverick of the ‘70s came with or could easily be fitted with the same V8s that fit in a Mustang because the Maverick was a Mustang, more or less, in terms of the things beneath its skin. The chassis and layout (which was rear-drive). The same was true of cars like the Chevy Nova and Pontiac Ventura of the same period. Both were closely related to the Camaro and Firebird of the same period and the V8s that came with the latter dropped right into the former.

A high school kid could do this – and afford this.

The results could be impressive. A Maverick  was generally lighter than a Mustang – because the Maverick was designed for economy while the Mustang wasn’t. Thus, a Mustang V8 built to produce more power than came out of a factory-installed Mustang V8 installed in a teenager-modded Maverick would outperform a new Mustang – perhaps the one his dad bought. For a third the cost of dad’s Mustang.

That made raising the hood worthwhile.

A little tuning work and a few relatively inexpensive bolt-on parts could achieve a huge difference in an afternoon’s worth of wrenching. The difference between 11 seconds to 60 – a typical time for a V8 sedan of the ‘70s – and 7 or 8 seconds to the same speed.

That may not seem speedy when stood side-by-side with today’s average car 0-60 time of the same 7 or 8 seconds but it was a huge difference – both in time and feel – back in the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

Your weekend-tuned and modded car was now noticeably quicker and faster than almost all other cars.

You can feel the difference between a slow car that needs 3 seconds more to get to 60 and one that gets there three seconds earlier.

It is much less easy to feel the difference between getting to 60 in 3 vs. 2.9 or 2.8 seconds and besides, 3 seconds to 60 is already so quick that the motivation to go quicker isn’t as urgent – though it will require a great deal more expense. 

And, expertise.

Swapping parts today often means plugging in  . . . to a computer. Sometimes one only a dealer has – which is something most teenagers can’t afford. The parts also have to be specific – usually – to that specific car. They are paired that way – electronically – from the factory. Thus, it is no longer merely a matter of turning wrenches to put a V8 from a Hellcat Challenger into a base Challenger that came originally with a V6.

And putting either into an entirely different car is improbable if not impossible because almost all of today’s run-of-the-mill cars do not share a common layout with today’s performance cars. The latter are still rear-drive/front engined. The rest – almost all of them – are front-wheel-drive and sideways-engined.

It’s too much trouble, to much expense and not much to be gained from raising the hood nowadays.

Which explains why most young people no longer do.

. . .

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  1. Im 32 and still into hopping modifying my cara. I jist picked up a 2000 mazda miata. I drove it stock. But now that winter is upon us im looking at replacing all the seals and adding some power. Ebay parts from china are still cheap and plentiful.

    • Hi Mooeing!

      This is good to hear; also that you’re still here! I, too, have been thinking about doing some wrenching. Chiefly because I’m going to need to. My truck is developing a high-performance exhaust system. I am thinking about installing one!

  2. It’s still out there. Video games and the Fast and Furious movies prove that. But the cost for more HP is much higher than the 80s when you could scour the junkyards for old parts. And the kids do hack their computers, just lookup VAG-COM for modding your Audi or VW, although it’s a game of cat and mouse that reminds me of the DirecTV encryption crackers.


    Difference, of course, is that you’re not hacking your vehicle’s computer to break copyright laws or steal entertainment. You are attempting to skirt the various emissions laws that may or may not be the law where you live.

    The fix is to get lots more automobile manufacturers. There’s really no reason to buy a car manufactured on the other side of the planet, with generic software written for the lowest common denominator (or the most restricting rules), except that it is so expensive to tool up a mass production factory so putting a lot of restrictions on manufacturing to prevent someone from undercutting your or doing a better job is the only way to insure returns on investment. Now we’re so far down the road that there’s little to no innovation in transportation and it’s not even wanted.

  3. Times change. People conform to the times. On a positive note what does not change is an eye for beauty or a man’s deep need to improve things. It’s how we are wired. I think the sexy lines of a 69 Charger or the ass end of a Trans Am will always sent an inspirational tingle in to the mind of a mentally centered man.

    We can’t improve on a 1963 250 GTO but we still gasp at the beauty of one when we see it. That’s why they go for $75 Million Dollars. Art. Beauty. Sex. Great cars are all 3.

    My grands may never know the thrill of flipping the dish and fishtailing Mom’s grocery getter on a dirt road, or having a second hand first car that teaches us to tinker but the passion of wanting and owing a great car that bears our signature will endure. So will the great times with our little 16 year old sweetheart in the car. It’s great to be a man!

  4. A vehicle that can do 0-60 in 5.5 sec. and the quarter in 14 is all the performance I desire in a street ride. My current driver, that somewhat exceeds those times, is a 2012 Infiniti G37 coupe – 330 hp V6, 7-speed auto.

    • Hi Libertyx,

      Yup. A 5 or so second 0-60 run and 14 seconds through the corner is quicker than practically every big block muscle car of the classic era. The latter felt fiercer because of the lumpy cam idle and the exhaust bark, the moan of the four barrel carb. But at the end of the dragstrip, it’s neck and neck.

      • Eric,
        And the G37 has overdrive gearing (22 mpg – 20 gal tank), outstanding BRAKES & handling, with good reliability. Would not have anything to do with the newer version or essentially any new vehicle.

  5. This lack of wrenching in favor of buying parts has also spilled over into racing. All of your major racing series are basically spec, and computerized to the gills, with very little wiggle room for teams to try any creative engineering. The only way to be fast is have a bigger budget and buy better parts than the next guy. Or try to fool them with “strategy”.

    The various racing series have also been dumbed-down, under the logic that fans want to see slower cars racing in tighter packs than faster cars spread out. That and driver safety, of course. The pole speed for the Indy 500 has been basically unchanged for at least 25 years. This year, Marco Andretti set a fast lap of 231.068. Tony Stewart set the track record back in 1996, at 233.100. The next year they banned turbochargers, and Arie Luyendyk went 218.263. Pole speed has’t been lower than 223 since, and most years it’s ~227.

    Drivers and teams no longer awe and inspire us because we know they’re not going as fast as they possibly can. There’s no more “balls” in racing anymore. Who, then, are kids supposed to emulate? There are no more AJ Foyts and Smokey Yunicks and Junior Johnsons. I don’t blame kids for turning their back on car culture. All their heroes are online now.

    • Hi Bardelys,

      This is well-said. Especially regarding the not going as fast they can. That used to be everything in racing; the whole point was to push the envelope – which of course was risky, which is why it took more balls – which is why it was so impressive and interesting to see men willing to do that with unflinching determination and amazing skill.

      I haven’t attended a Winston Cup (whoops… Nextel Cup) or other “stock” car race in 20-plus years because it’s just Pro Wrestling on wheels. I can get drunk and throw chicken bones at home, for less.

  6. Doesn’t help either that most small time race tracks are no more too. The few left are way out in the country, so it’s largely foreign to even suburban kids now too, not just the city ones. The city kids are largely divorced from the car culture and it’s happening to suburban kids now too.

  7. One of my favorite TV shows is Roadkill. Just a couple of car guys buying and fixing junk old cars, making them fast and having fun.

  8. Right on Eric
    my current ride, 300s v8 rwd says it does 0-60 mph 5.3 and Quarter mile 13.8. (no posi avail.)
    That’s darn close to my once owned GTO Judge Ram Air 3 with 4:10’s w.posi which we clocked in the low 13’s.
    Wow. And I enjoy the 300 immensely over the old GTO cause it’s actually very comfortable, handles decent, quiet, etc….
    Now I am always hoping FCA would bring back the SRT option for the 300. I would buy.

    The only thing I see kids mod’ing today is diesel-crap delete kits.

  9. Street racing scene is still hot as ever. We tend to over glorify the older days. But the truth of the matter, most kids who modified their cars Back then didn’t make them much faster. There was only a handful of us that really made their car fast. If you had a low 13 second street car (1/4 mile) you pretty much cleaned up 99.5% of all the modified cars out there. Plus so many parts did not deliver the power they claimed, in addition drivability suffered greatly. Today’s tuners deliver the goods. Yes it’s more complex and expensive. But tuning support is bigger then ever which was mostly all trial and error back in the day. Plus manufacturers claims are now verified on the dyno. The only thing that truly got worse is the states punishment if you get caught.

  10. Good call. Even if it were easy or even feasible to mod a newish car, why bother?

    Apart from the ridiculous lack of ability kids have these days to use basic hand tools, these new cars require expensive aftermarket tuners. I know, I’ve done it a bunch and it doesn’t feel at all like the old days when a set of heads/ a cam/ etc would make you feel like you did something.

    Another consideration is the complete lack of driving prowess kids have these days. They don’t know how to get a car into and out of a bad situation. I don’t see kids these days practicing drifting At the first snowfall in supermarket parking lots. It’s nothing but “driver aids”, which means they freeze when something happens the onboard nannies don’t know how to deal with.

    It’s a whole point and click thing- launch control and lane keeping, it’s too much like a video game. When is a kid supposed to learn how to control the thing they’re supposed to be able to control?

    Cars today are insanely fast- I rented a Kia to go and pick up my Corvette (which was a piece of trash, but that’s another story) and it was way faster than any of my old school V8 muscle cars.

    And that’s not a positive endorsement.

    Between not knowing how to handle a vehicle and the insane power and the friggin’ screens that distract drivers, it’s a recipe for something tragic.

    It’s pathetic.

    I have had lots of real world driving experience, sanctioned (on a track) and not sanctioned (because you need to do things on a real road to really know how to drive). I learned a lot more from real world driving, without “driver aids” than I ever did on a track, although both inform a serious driver.

    Regarding getting away from the police, I’ve done it dozens of times. Even in modern times. And it’s absolutely just. I recognize no authority other than my own (although I do recognize the ability of cops and judges to make my life hard).

    Sure, I’ve bent a rim and whatnot, but it cost me way less than some payin’ paper and I have the satisfaction of knowing there are a bunch of AGW’s out there who are upset because they couldn’t catch me. My theory is this: “Up your back door, Cochese!”

    Not to sound like a modern day Bandit, but I won every time. I’m no Snowman *or* Bandit, but I do have my fun, as every free person should.

    Great article, as always Eric, thank you for your excellent perspective.

  11. Which is just as well, since hardly any of the current crop of young’ns has the slightest aptitude, ability, or inclination to do anything that involves physical labor or mechanical ability. They desire to get as far away from the real world as physically and mentally possible.

  12. Another reason is our kids have been taught that the internal combustion engine is evil. No more auto-shop for you! Algore got his propaganda movie into science class and now the world is burning up and the oceans will swell unless the kids vote in the Marxist to fix all these hoaxes.

  13. Back in my day, there was lots of fiddling you could do even with no money. Flip the air cleaner lid for a little more roar, punch a few holes in the muffler for a little more rumble, fiddle with the carburetor or change the timing. Maybe none of that added any real performance, but it sure changed the feel and sound of the car, and was a lot of fun


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