Remember the Bolt-in?

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One of the more ridiculous things our parents in Washington (i.e., the government) did to try to get us to not drive faster than they thought was “safe” was to require car companies to install speedometers that read no higher than 85 MPH. That way – so their thinking went – we’d not be tempted to drive faster than that and we’d think we were really moving when driving 60, since that was two-thirds of the way to pegged.

Naturally, this egged us on to wind the needle all the way around back to 20 MPH – assuming the car was capable of it.

But this column is not about our parents trying to control our driving in a manner similar to the way abusive parents sometimes try to prevent their young children from learning how to tell time – so that they can trick them into going to bed early. It is about how easy it used to be to end-run our parents’ parenting.

The government’s, that is.

If you had a car that came from the factory with the parent-mandated 85 MPH speedometer and wanted to know how fast you were going – when you were driving faster than 85 MPH – all you had to do was replace the factory 85 MPH speedometer with one from an older model from a car similar to yours that registered higher. It was what was once known as a bolt-in.

Because you could do exactly that.

If the part fit, it would probably work – or could be made to, with a few modifications. There was no programming involved. Each part of a non-electronic car was a part that could be installed in another car – and not even necessarily the same model. So long as it physically fit (or could be made to). That’s why it was once not-uncommon to encounter a V8 Vega.

Chevrolet never factory installed a V8 in the Vega, which was a four cylinder powered economy car as it came from the factory. But people with a need for speed would sometimes put a V8 (any of several) into one because they could and because the result was a ferociously fast Vega.

It was common, once, to upgrade a car’s interior by replacing the factory installed steering wheel with something different. Maybe spoked. Maybe leather wrapped. Maybe made of welded together chain link (this was actually popular). Car parts stores used to display these options that anyone could install on the store wall. We no longer have the option, because our parents decided we ought not to have it. It is dangerous to try to remove an air bag-equipped steering wheel if you don’t know very well what you’re doing – and even if you do, all you can do is replace it with another of the same type because nothing else will work (and even if you could get it to work, it’s illegal to mess with a parent-mandated “safety” device).

Forget changing out your electronic, computer-controlled car’s speedometer with one you like better – as was easy to do with a car such as the 1980 Camaro I once owned. It came with the parent-mandated 85 MPH speedometer. It soon had a proper 130 MPH speedometer – from the gauge cluster of a 1978 Camaro picked from a parts car at the salvage yard. A 1978 Camaro was basically the same car as a 1980 Camaro and every other Camaro made between 1970 and 1981. Almost every part from any Camaro made during that period of time would fit any other Camaro made during the same period of time.

Not just the speedometer.

One could (and many did) swap out a two barrel carburetor and intake for a four barrel carburetor and intake (or an earlier-year four barrel that offered better performance because it had fewer parent-mandated restrictive “features” such as less-adjustable idle mixture screws) or a distributor from a newer model that was transistorized (as opposed to having points).

Things like seats were easy – because it was just bolts and tracks. Unbolt the seats that came with your economy or base trim car and bolt in a set of nicer seats from a fancier parts car version of your car.

Today, there is almost nothing that can be changed from the way a car came from the factory – because our parents have decided not to allow it. Not even the seats – which are now also an integrated part of the “safety” system our parents have decided we’ve just got to have. They have air bags of their own built into them and aren’t merely bolted to the floor. They are wired and connected to the computer.

It’s one-size-fits-all and it’s all for our own good.

. . .

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29 COMMENTS

  1. Actually in some instances you can easily replace the factory steering wheel with an aftermarket wheel. I removed the 100 lb air bag laden factory wheel on my 93 Corvette, with a gorgeous Sparco wheel and NRG adapter hub, and quick release.
    Illegal when I did it as a resident in the totalitarian shit hole NYS. I shortly moved to the free state of Florida where no cop or govt bureaucrat cares, because there is not even a safety inspection.
    I’ll soon be throwing long tubes, a hotter cam, and a tune on it.
    Yes Fla is an outlier, it’s a lot more difficult and expensive than the old days of hot rodding, but you can never discount hot rodder ingenuity.
    BTW other than this vehicular libertarianism FLA is a Mad Max lite shit hole!

  2. Boy way off topic but remember the Cosworth Vega? I saw a new one in the infield parking at MIS (Mich International Speedway) when I was 10-11 I always wanted one, more so because it had that bad ass JPS black and gold paint scheme! Just like Emo’s ride! lol

    • Hi Rob,

      Yes! The Cosworth Vega offered a black and gold paint scheme similar to the Smokey & the Bandit ’77 Trans-Am’s. It had a Cosworth four cylinder engine that didn’t make a lot of power but was still exotic and had a lot of potential. I thought the car looked good and it was probably much more fun to drive than an EeeeeeeeeeeeVeeeee!

      • The Vega makes a beautiful drag car tubbed, caged, fat rubber in the back and skinnies up front. Small or big block under the hood with a tunnel ram or 6-71 poking out of the hood. I used to perform repairs on a Vega street rod with a sick SBC and Powerglide at a shop I used to work at. As well as the Pinto, even though I hate Fords.

    • ‘Anne’, the Bot says, “Google is one of the best companies to work for,”

      Eric, let this one sit, for posterity.

      Google is probably, – The Absolute Worst – company to work for! Their employees work hard every day to enslave their fellow mankind, I dunno how those sellouts can look themselves in the mirror everyday.

      Do they have no conscious? No,… humanity?

      …Do their girlfriends, mothers, or children ever ask them that?

      I wonder.

  3. I had a base 2-dr ’67 Chevy II with a 250 c.i. six banger and 3 on-the-tree. I swapped the trans for a 4-speed floor shifter out of a ’65 Chevelle: SAME BELL HOUSING and SAME DISTANCE FROM IT TO THE DRIVESHAFT. I also swapped the crank for one out of a truck 292 c.i. block. All that left was an Offenhauser 4bb. aluminum intake. Whenever I floored that sucker too long, those hydraulic lifters would float and clatter their annoyance at me. Thankfully, letting off the gas and they’d quiet down in a minute.

  4. I cannot pass by a speedometer article without recalling the history as I remember it. Since about the late 1960’s (beginning 1967) there has been a war on high numbers on speedometers.

    Prior to the release of Unsafe at Any Speed in late 1965, the numbers on speedometers were all over the place. Economy cars had 100 mph units. Regular cars had 120 mph and performance versions of the same had 140 and 160 mph readouts (those were on Vettes and high performance european cars)

    Beginning in 1967, the industry defacto standard became 120 mph. Automakers like Ford highlighted speeds above 70 mph with RED. The best selling Mustang cut their max reading from 140 to 120 mph in 1967. GM did not do that, but kept with the defacto 120 mph standard. Higher performance cars still had 140 mph on them, but fewer did.

    Things stayed pretty much like that until the 1974 model year when Cadillac put in the first 100 mph unit in its Fleetwood model. It was interesting since the 55 mph speed limit had not gone into effect until later that year. This was planned.

    In 1975 and 1976, American automakers began releasing 100 mph units onto the general public. There were some 120 mph, but you could count them on the hand. By the time the 1975 models were released in September 1974, the speed limit was 55 mph.

    Beginning in the 1977 model year, automakers again cut their speedometer reading to 80 and 85 mph. This was a full 3 years in advance of the Joan Claybrook 85 mph speedometer which became FMVSS 127. In fact, these units were likely designed during the Ford Administration since it takes a while to get things from concept to production.

    When I refer to Automakers, its mainly the “big 3” (or 4) car companies, not European and Japanese carmakers. They kept with the old readouts.

    Why the automakers did this is beyond my understanding. Could it be that the carmakers had a faction in it that had the same contempt for its customers that the government had?

    For the 1983 model year, the automakers were free to put their own numbers back on to speedometer units. Honda, Porsche and Mercedes responded immediately to the relaxation in the government edict. They were followed by the rest of the European and Japanese makers.

    It wasn’t until the horsepower renissance that Americans began adjusting their numbers upward. The beginnings of the upward adjustment in numbers marked the end of the “malaise era” as was the advent of the relaxed 65 mph rural interstate speed limit that began appearing in April 1987. Chage was in the air, though car makers as a whole led from behind.

    Higher numbers on American cars did not start appearing on speedometers untill 1986 or so. Some 1987 model Mustangs had with 140 mph heads. Camaros started displaying higher numbers in 1988 or so. Same with Pontiac Firebirds. Other cars remained stuck at 85 mph. American carmakers didn’t start putting higher numbers on their other cars until around 1991 or so. The first car I remember seeing with a 100 mph unit again was the Caprice that was shaped like a bathtub. The 1993 caprice sported a 100 mph unit. Chrysler’s minivans began showing 110 mph units. The rest is history.
    Today, the defacto industry standard is 120 to 160 mph with many more at 160 mph.

    The question is if higher numbers encourage faster driving. The answer is no. Car speeds have been increasing 1/2 mph per year since the 1930s. The exception was from the fuel shock of 1974 which kept highway speeds below 70 mph until around 1987 or so. Highway driving speeds did not recover to their pre 1974 levels until 1992. Speeds have continued their march higher until 2014 or so. As highway capacity reaches its limits, flash traffic jams create unstable traffic flow that impacts prevailing travel speeds. Overall speeds are flat or declining in many areas.

    In the meantime Americans are really only using about half of their speedometers. It’s fine with me.

    • My 1971 Charger has 150 MPH speedometer from factory. I’m not sure what year these got reduced lower. Probably within the next couple of years as regulations became heavier.

  5. I did so many bolt-ins with my 1968 Oldsmobile Delta 88: replacing the 2-barrel and single exhaust with a 4-barrel and dual exhaust, adding a remote control mirror, upgrading to an electronic ignition system, among other things. It was easy and cheap to add quite a few, well, “Rocket Boosters” to that 455.

    The very last bolt-in I did was a 6-disc CD player/weather band radio for my WRX.

  6. Two comments:
    “once size fits all” was once ridiculed effectively during the Reagan years by Wendy’s:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpypTXccG2I

    My friend (RIP) bought an 80 corvette. He replaced the motor with a modern LS1 but is still had the 85MPH speedo. He took me for a ride, and we did what we did back in the day…bury the speedometer needle. It was fun.

  7. As a proud former owner of a baby blue Vega station wagon, I thank you for shedding light on the most wonderful first set of wheels a teenage boy could own.

  8. Yesterday I was in Grand Junction picking up provisions and running errands. I happened to pass the car dealers on North Ave and remembered the F-150 Platinum hybrid I had been studying online earlier this week, so headed over to the Ford dealer to see if I could kick the tires.

    They didn’t have an actual “Platinum” model in stock, but I guess some of the higher trim packages have the hybrid with 7.5Kw inverter installed, so we drove one of them. Nice truck for sure, especially with all the running boards, power seats, motorized gear shift thing, and full size back seats. And of course the codpiece bed was available in “short bed” -about the size of the cargo area in my Cherokee with the rear seats down, and “standard bed,” which is what used to be a short bed, at least back in 2011.

    I was mostly interested in seeing how the hybrid system worked around town. But I guess the battery had depleted itself because the engine started and just ran the whole time. Regenerative breaking is a little off-putting, but I could probably get used to it. For sure I knew it was happening because the vehicle didn’t freewheel coast when coming to an intersection. Best described as always going uphill.

    But the thing that’s a deal breaker is the dashboard. The thing is busy! Now to be fair, this was a loaded up model, but this has more buttons than a prom dress! It’s nice that you aren’t forced to use the touchscreen, but just the fact that there are so many functions, mostly unnecessary, that are installed at the factory (and you’re paying for) is nuts! There were buttons for the 4WD system, buttons for backing up a trailer, buttons for the factory-installed trailer brake controller, buttons for seats, HVAC, three different lighting controls, shifter, manual buttons, radio, power, hybrid mode… list goes on and on.

    Most of these are going to be set-and-forget or never used. Take HVAC. I set the temp to 70º F(reedom) in winter, 65º in summer and that’s it. Don’t touch it any more than that, except for the rare times I have to run the defroster. That’s the whole point of having climate control instead of just a heater.

    The instrument cluster has a ton of information on it, most of which doesn’t really matter. Yes, it’s nice to know what gear I’m in, but really not necessary unless I’m towing or engine breaking (which shouldn’t happen since the hybrid should charge downhill), Speedo, tach, temperature and oil pressure is good enough, if I need more I’ll hunt for it. Just far too busy but impressive enough for the test drive.

    One thing I was a little interested in was how much charge was in the battery, but that wasn’t available, at least not until I stopped at a light. Then I got a rating of my breaking ability… A gold (well green, actually) star for using all regen instead of friction! Electric teacher says I’m the best!

    They’re promoting the hybrid powertrain as a potential replacement for a job-site generator. That’s great but they’d better include a little mat for your muddy boots and maybe a place to change clothes before you get in. And if you’re hoping to stash the air compressors and hose lines in the bed forget it, there’s not enough room. Never mind getting anything large and heavy out of the bed. That’s going to require ramps or a lift. The tailgate is above my waist, over 34 inches off the ground when lowered and the sides are almost to my shoulders (I’m 5’11”), so anything up at the cab is basically going to stay there until you sell it. Odd thing is the cab was fairly easy to get in and out, so it isn’t like the truck is lifted. I’m guessing some of that bed height is because the battery is underneath it. And that raises a bunch of safety questions since they switched to aluminum beds a few years ago…

    This could possibly be my next vehicle, but only for the hybrid system, and then only if I go through with buying a travel trailer. Until then, I think I’ll keep what I have. Between the size of the thing and the unbelievably busy dash it is going to be a tough sell, especially for their asking price.

  9. Now with electronics that are married via VIN numbers if you upgrade a part you cannot sell it. For example I have a brand new speedo off a 2018 Harley Road Kink I cannot sell because it won’t work with any other motorcycle including another Road King of the same year. It’s married forever to the bike I sold. Many cars have gone that route as well seriously endangering the supply of good used parts. You can buy a ‘new’ part but it too will marry itself to the bike it’s fitted to in a few miles.

    So today you don’t even own the individual parts of the vehicle you spent gobs of money on.

    • A few months back I had dinner with an automobile product liability lawyer (for the defense). Of course the subject of Unsafe At Any Speed came up, and I goaded her into talking shop. The courts have basically ruled that any alteration made to a vehicle by the owner is not how it left the factory and so they’re off the hook. This even includes things like using different than factory tires. And of course most of this comes from courts not legislation.

      My guess is that Harley Davidson does that sort of thing to prevent lawsuits, since there’s a tradition of customization of their product, and I would guess a good bit of odometer tampering too. I’m sure there are work-arounds but they might involve desoldering flash memory chips.

      • That doesn’t make sense though.

        You’d think they would *want* you to modify stuff, in that case. Because if you change anything, then the OEM is off the hook for everything.

  10. That V8 Vega takes me back to the late 1970s. My younger brother was a Ford guy, and he built himself a 289 small-block Pinto. The main thing that was “ferociously fast” about it was the rate at which the rear end of the car tended to overtake the front end, when he’d dump the clutch and pour on the coal. He almost couldn’t NOT do donuts in that thing. Good times.

  11. Wasn’t the iconic speedometer in “Back to the Future” a bolt-in replacement for the factory original?

    I remember reading that the original speedometer wouldn’t reach the famed 88 MPH.

  12. ‘Almost nothing can be changed from the way a car came from the factory’ — eric

    Like the underlying code of Windows or IOS, the code of automotive computers is proprietary and subject to intellectual property protection. You can’t see it; you can’t adapt it (legally).

    On that note, Mickey Mouse — a 1928 cartoon character protected by a copyright extension muscled in by Disney — finally enters the public domain on Jan 1:

    ‘Mickey and Minnie will enter the public domain on Jan. 1. From then on, Disney will no longer enjoy an exclusive copyright over the earliest versions of the characters. Underground cartoonists, filmmakers, novelists, songwriters — whoever — will be free to do what they want with them.

    ‘Mickey Mouse has long been a symbol in the copyright wars. Beyond the practical impact, the expiration — 95 years after his debut in the short film “Steamboat Willie” — is also a major symbolic milestone.

    ‘Every Jan. 1, Duke University celebrates Public Domain Day, publishing a long list of works that are now free for artists to remix and reimagine. This year’s list includes Tigger, who, like Mickey Mouse, made his first appearance in 1928. Other 1928 works include “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman.”

    ‘The celebrations are relatively recent. After Congress extended copyright terms in 1998, twenty years went by when nothing entered the public domain.

    https://variety.com/2023/biz/news/mickey-mouse-public-domain-disney-copyright-lawsuits-1235844322/

    Copyright has been extended from its original 14 years plus a renewable 14 years, set by the Founders, to 95 years — longer than most humans live. That is, absolutely nothing that we read or see can be adapted during our own lives.

    This is the Corpgov prison we inhabit: locked out of our culture by the cupidity of Clowngress. Computerized vehicles are part of this off-limits, padlocked vault. Hack them, I say. Data wants to be fre-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e. 🙂

    • OK.

      So buy the car, then get an aftermarket computer/operating system that will let you do what you want.

      Where is the aftermarket on this? )aside from the hotrodders)?

  13. Just as there is no situation that can’t be made worse by calling the “police”, there is nothing that can’t be made worse by the government putting its hands on it, or us. And since they view us as children, does this make them pedophiles? Oh, wait, many of them already are. Arrogance, condescension, and psychopathy make a dangerous combination. Just ask 20k+ Palestinians. But you won’t get an answer, because they’re dead.

  14. The seat part really hurts me. There have been cars with uncomfortable seats from the factory (for me).

    Thankfully I had the option to replace the seats with some thing more comfortable.

    My mom’s Subaru driver seat were never very comfortable for long trips.

    I could never buy a Subaru for that reason.

    I was passenger to someone pegging the needle to the end of the speedometer. Thrilling&terrifying at same time. Thankfully it was only for short stretch. To be young and foolish.

    Off topic. Although not extremely practical. A caterham is looking better and better @ 40 to 50 k new than many other cars. Also has less nanny devices.

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