15 Secrets Every Great Car Has…
And How You Can Get Them For (Almost) Free
Every car build has a price tag. Whether it’s a creation of Troy Trepanier, the Pentagon, or something you cooked up in your own backyard—everybody has a budget. Give any of us more time, money, or resources and we’ll do more.
So if budgets are a reality for everyone, don’t look at them as a restriction—see your budget as a motivation to focus funds on the areas that matter most to you.
Every issue of Hot Rod showcases cars that stun, inspire, and polarize. It’s actually the car build-ups that force you to think differently about your own project that are the ones you can learn the most from. In this article, we’ll pull back the cash curtain and reveal the formula of the zillion-dollar customs that fill our dreams.
We’ve begun this section by identifying the 15 things all great cars have and how you can get them for free. Well, almost free. Next, we’ve called out 10 products all of us will buy for our vehicles and help you know which part is right for you. Finally, the HRM staff did some soul searching, looking for 10 cool cars that could be built on a 16-year-old’s budget.
This isn’t a one-way street though. Budget-built cars are vehicles that get driven and enjoyed—far more than any million-dollar machine. Never be afraid to say how little you paid to have as much fun as you’ve had. Now get out there and build some cool stuff…
1. Performance Engine
Great hot rods have impressive engines with names, numbers, and letters all gearheads know: Hemi, SOHC, Super Duty, HO, and LS7. Starting a build with any of these original power-plants could break the bank.
For a pocket-change power-train start your build with a mid-’80s-or-newer motor that came with a roller cam. Use care if buying a truck engine core, since roller cam in trucks often lagged behind car engines by as many as 10 model years.
Take one of these late-model motors and fit the engine with an intake and valve covers that match your car’s needs.
2. Overdrive Transmission
High-dollar cars all seem to have zillion-speed transmissions—but few of them see as many road miles as tight-budget-built machines do. The key here is to match your transmission choice with your engine’s power-band, vehicle weight, rear-end ratio, and actual usage.
The cheapest and most versatile option is likely a T5 five-speed manual (though they’re fragile in heavy or powerful cars) or a 700-R4 four-speed automatic from GM. The 700-R4’s biggest plus is it fits into anything and doesn’t require a computer to shift.
No other language speaks to fellow gearheads clearer than a big horsepower number. An 800hp anything is cool. Extra power can be had with all engines by optimizing every detail: polish the heads, port the intake or add a free-flowing exhaust. Yet, when it comes to bang for the buck, nothing really beats a big-displacement engine swap—except nitrous.
If your engine runs great but you’re out of cash, strip 100-200 pounds of weight from the car.
That’ll make the engine feel more powerful, and it’s free, too. Just be sure that whatever engine you have won’t blow up cruising through a parking lot—that’s totally uncool.
4. Paint Job
Spray bomb is your budget’s friend. Painting an entire car in spray cans is a bad idea, but painting areas around the headlight rings, inserts of the grille, and inner bumper are often good ideas.
Painting panels behind the bumper black, for example, creates contrast and makes your chrome—or what’s left of it—appear brighter. Remember pre-’80s factory color schemes never go out of style, and if all else fails, just paint the car black.
5. Killer Wheels
Late-model takeoffs can look good on older cars. They’ll be larger in diameter, wider, usually come with tires, and are all over Craigslist. If you don’t like the style or finish, painting things black makes lots of ugliness disappear.
Chevrolet’s most common five-lug wheel pattern is 5×4.75 inches (5×120.7 mm), which will fit many ’55-to-present GM vehicles. You can hypothetically retrofit ’12 Camaro wheels on a ’77 Impala or ’68 Corvette, although the wheel backspacing means the tires will likely rub on the body and suspension.
For Mopars and Fords, the most common wheel size is 5×4.5 inches (5×114.3 mm). The Ford 5×4.5 inch wheels date back to ’57 full-size cars. You could hypothetically fit an SN-95 wheel on a first-gen Mustang.