Every car buildup 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 issue, we’ll pull back the cash curtain and reveal the formulae 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. So send us photos and specs of your build to [email protected], and never be afraid to tell us how little you paid to have as much fun as you’ve had. Now get out there and build some cool stuff.
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 powerplants could break the bank, so for a pocket-change powertrain 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.
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 powerband, vehicle weight, rearend 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.
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.
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.com. 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-on-4.75 inches (5-on-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-on-4.5- inches (5-on-114.3 mm). The Ford 5-on-4.5 inch wheels date back to ’57 fullsize cars. You could hypothetically fit an SN-95 wheel on a first-gen Mustang.
Swap meets and Craigslist.com are the best places to find takeoff tires at a fraction of the cost of retail tires. Use care when buying tires that look good—but may be old. All tires built since 2000 actually have a date of manufacture stamped into the sidewall.
For street and strip cars looking for more traction, consider a chemical tire soak. This is a well-kept secret in the racing community and illegal in many classes. There are several companies that make products that soak into the tires. After applying heat through burnouts and hard driving, the soak will soften the rubber on the outside allowing it to stick better, without wearing out faster and coming a part. It’s a proven way to get more traction from worn-out tires.
Stealing exterior cues from racecars is a great way to make your hot rod look good, but it’s too often done in a tacky way. Decals and lettering often looks cheesy on street cars, but can be done right.
Spoilers are a great add-on that you can make yourself. A front matte-black spoiler can be done aluminum, plastic, or even wood. Use scrap pine board or plywood from the local hardware store, cut it to the right shape, and use metal corner brackets to screw it to the splash apron. Paint it black,and you won’t be able to eye the difference.
Use Plexiglas from the local hardware store for taillights, running lights, and headlights. Use colored bulbs to build and design your own custom lights.
A custom exhaust can be very expensive to have professionally done, so do it yourself. It’s time intensive, but the material can be cheap. Visit the local muffler shop for scraps and tubing with failed bends. You can normally snag those for next to nothing. The local muffler shop may also be willing to bend pipe for a few dollars a bend. Don’t forget to check Craigslist.com for takeoff exhaust kits.
Stripping your interior to bare metal can save weight but, if left unfinished, you car will just look ratty. Use exterior paint from the hardware store to coat the floorboards. While at the hardware store, look for thin stick-on padded insulation to cover the high-wear surfaces of the floorboards. Spend your money on the parts you touch, feel, and see the most, such as gauges, driver seat, shift knob, and door handles. No need for a complex stereo system—that’s what your exhaust is for.
Second-hand race-car parts are a great way to upgrade your ride. What might be year-old tech on the track is new on the street. Become friends with local racers and watch for changes in local track rules. If a local track outlaws a particular part (like engines or rear axles) look for those items to be cheap and plentiful in your area.
In Mooresville, North Carolina, there’s 2nd Chance Race Parts (2ndChanceRaceParts.com), which sells hand-me-down race car parts from some of NASCAR’s best teams. Many local race shops, if they don’t sell used parts themselves, at least have postings. Also checkout websites like RacingJunk.com too.
Buying a part “polished” basically means you paid someone to take a mass-produced product and grind, sand, and polish it until all the surface imperfections are gone. To polish something yourself you don’t need a lot of skill, just plenty of elbow grease and a lot of time. Aluminum is the easiest (and most common) metal to polish. If the surface isn’t smooth, cut down the roughest spots with a Dremel tool. Then make your way from coarse-to-fine sandpaper, before working from coarse-to-fine metal polish. Chrome trim that has aged and bubbled can often be cut down and polished as well. Be reaiistic when trying to salvage a part that will never shine again. When in doubt, black paint can hide a lot of ugliness.
Exclusivity is the breading ground of cool. Every car needs at least one item that no other car has, and ideally you’ll make that item yourself. The recipe of success here is to build a part that has a critical function, is made from an impressive material, and displays top-of-the-line craftsmanship. If the first version comes out looking like a hack job, redo it. Everybody loves fabricated parts, and no one has to know if there were multiple rough drafts before the final version was installed.
Air-Grabbing Induction System
Multiple carbs, Hilborn injection, or a blower sticking through the hood tells everyone that you’ve got a serious car—but all three come with a hefty price tag. The key to any intake is to deliver cool, dense, and clean air to the throttle body or carb. A conservative hoodscoop or cowl-induction hood always suggests there’s performance in the engine compartment. If you actually have some serious hardware to show off, let it poke through the hood. Just avoid overpromising and under-delivering—cause you’ll never be able to show anyone your 2bbl engine if there’s a Pro Stock hoodscoop on top of it.
Something That Looks Fast
Fast is a designer’s word for any sleek line or structure that draws the eye over, or towards, a car or component. Scoops, ducts, brake cooling vents, and spoilers all create this effect. Removing parts that slow the eye down can also provide an illusion of speed. This works especially well on four-door cars and vehicles that weren’t built with nice lines. Removing trim, door handles, sideview mirrors, and windshield wiper arms—or painting them to match the body color—will speed up the look of any vehicle.
Let’s start with the basics: Lower cars with a slight front-to-rear rake look higher-performance. The exception to this is the gasser stance that makes a car always look like it’s cutting a killer 60-foot time. Some racers use adjustable spring cups to reduce ride height without having to buy new springs. This is also great way to raise the front or rear of your vehicle for that perfect stance. Sometimes, late-model springs have an increased spring rate, as well. Depending on the car, you may be able to use late-model springs and cut a coil off to lower the car.
Buy This, Not That
1] AN Fittings vs. Pipe Thread Fittings
AN stands for Army-Navy, and its name alone will answer the question: They’re military-grade parts that work in the aviation world. They’re also the standard of motorsports for plumbing all kinds of fluids. AN fittings use a 37-degree flare, while most automotive fittings use 45-degree flares. They’re not interchangeable, but adapters are readily available. Steel and brass pipe fittings are more commonly found at the local hardware store, while AN fittings are—for most of the U.S.—a speed shop or mail-order-only part.
Buy AN Fittings: If you never want to worry about your car’s plumbing again.
Buy Pipe Thread Fittings: To save money and you can fix your car in a hardware store parking lot.
2] Crate Engine vs. Machine Shop
Figure out how much power you want—or need—and see if it’s available in crate engine form. If so, buy it! Crate engines are the best way to get horsepower especially when brand authenticity, bragging rights, or restrictions aren’t an issue. If you want to micro-manage every detail and part installed in your engine then go to a machine shop. If you do buy a crate engine, make sure it’s from a reputable source like Summit Racing, Chevrolet Performance, BluePrint Engines, or Smeding Performance.
Buy a Crate Engine: If what you want is already mass-produced and comes with a warranty.
Go to the Machine Shop: If you want to specify every single aspect and part of your engine.
3] Nitrous vs. Supercharger
An entry-level 120-to-150hp wet-nitrous system from Zex or NOS that fits a typical carbureted V8 costs around $600, and a single-carb Roots blower costs around $1,600. Intake-air temperatures become a self-limiter for superchargers when they are at their maximum boost output—unlike nitrous which basically acts as a chemical intercooler for the intake charge.
Standard nitrous kits include a 10-pound bottle, which usually refills for about $30 to $50, depending on where you live. That boils down to 14-24 refills to equal the same price as a Roots-style blower. According to Nitrous Supply, a 10-pound bottle with a 125hp shot will make as many as 10 quarter-mile passes before going empty. You’ll have to make 98-240 quarter-mile passes—depending on how friendly you are with your nitrous button—before you reach the cost of a Roots blower.
Buy Nitrous: If you want power on demand and like to visit the dragstrip.
Buy a Supercharger: If you want power all the time, for a long time.
4] Auto vs. Manual Transmission
If you have the weekend street/strip car, a manual transmission will usually be stronger for you, as the clutch often takes the harshness of competition. Clutches are far easier to replace than repairing the internals of an automatic. For the more serious racers, though, upgraded automatics are the only way. The biggest upside with an auto is the ability to spray nitrous for an entire dragstrip pass and no one can shift faster than a well-tuned automatic transmission.
Buy a Manual Trans: If you are a street/strip guy.
Buy an Auto: If you’re a serious racer and can afford to upgrade it.
5] Late Model vs. Collector Car
If you’re on a budget, a late-model car is a better choice. Banks will loan you money when you’re purchasing a newer car, and you should have fewer unexpected mechanical surprises. A collector car needs a separate budget. Don’t fool yourself. If you only have $5,000 in a jar, don’t buy a $5,000 car. Buy a $4,000 car and anticipate unforeseen circumstances.
Buy a Late Model: If you need a loan and need to drive the car everyday.
Buy a Collector Car: If you’ve saved up enough money to buy a well-sorted driver.
6] Race Mufflers vs. Quiet Mufflers
Glasspack mufflers are cheap and their lack of restriction makes for great sound. Schoenfeld’s header mufflers and off-brand glasspacks sell for around $20. Most performance exhaust creates interior drones that, with frequent driving, become a major headache—literally. Only expensive brands attempt to reduce the drone. Quiet mufflers are more costly, but won’t get you the sound or performance you want.
Buy Race Mufflers: If you have no respect for your neighbors.
Buy Quiet Mufflers: If you drive it a lot.
7] Carb Spacer vs. New Intake
Carb spacers can work to tune intake plenum volume for a few more ponies—but if you still have a factory manifold, you’re better off investing in a new intake. The cost versus reward is far greater. New aluminum intakes are around $130, and small-block intakes are common at swap meets. An intake can make a world of difference in drievability and power. Don’t buy one blind though, do your research and—again—buy a reputable brand.
Buy a Carb Spacer: If you already have a performance intake you’re looking to tune.
Buy a New Intake: If you have a cast-iron 2bbl intake.
8] Carburetor vs. Fuel Injection
Bolt-on fuel-injection systems are on their way to becoming commonplace in the hot-rodding world. Easy to install and tune, most kits include electronic tuning aids like a wideband O2 sensors and touchscreen monitoring. These EFI systems offer better gas mileage, throttle response, and are repeatable in any condition.
Companies like MSD Ignitions, Holley, Edelbrock, and FAST produce high-quality kits, but they cost much more than a carburetor. The cheapest throttle-body EFI retrofit kit costs around $1,100, while a new Holley four-barrel will set you back $269.97.
Buy a Carburetor: If you need proven performance and great value.
Buy Fuel Injection: If driveability is as important to you as horsepower.
9] Fuel Cell vs. Steel Tank
A fuel cell can potential shave 30 percent off the weight of a traditional steel tank, which is typically 6 to 12 pounds—not a huge gain for a weekend cruiser, but for the purpose-built race car a fuel cell is the obvious choice. New, both are comparable in price: $100-$120 for a 16- to 18-pound steel tank or 8- to 12-gallon fuel cell. A fuel cell often requires a unique and expensive fuel pickup and gauge. Mounting is another headache: in the trunk, cut out the trunk and make custom mounts, or let it hang low? A steel tank is an easy install, uses a standard fuel-pickup and gauge, and costs about the same.
Buy a Fuel Cell: If you’re building a race car.
Buy a Steel Tank: If you’re building anything else.
10] New Parts vs. Used Parts
When it comes to speed parts the line between “used” and “used up” is broad and varies depending on the type of the component in question. In general, items made from one material (preferably metal) and with few to no moving parts are OK to buy used. Buying an engine, transmission, axle, or steering box as a core is also fair game. Buying electronics, safety equipment, or anything that doesn’t come with a known background should be suspect. Remember, sometimes even “free” isn’t a good deal.
Buy New Parts: If you are looking for a guaranteed result.
Buy Used Parts: If it’s old, made of metal, or comes from a family member.
10 Best Hot Rods for 16-Year Olds
1. 1967-1979 GM X-Body (Nova excluded)
An Oldsmobile Omega, a Pontiac Ventura, a Pontiac Phoenix, and a Buick Skylark, are all less expensive versions of a Nova. Find a ’70s Omega or Ventura, and you’ll have a unique cruiser on the cheap that’ll accept virtually any GM engine. The ’74-and-earlier cars are like first-generation Camaros and Firebirds (F-cars) underneath, and the ’75-’79 are similar to second-gen F-cars.
The Late-Model Option:
2. Ford Crown Victoria Police Cars
Just like the Bluesmobile from The Blues Brothers, “It’s got a cop motor…cop tires, cop suspensions, and cop shocks” After they’re retired from police service, Crown Victorias, although usually high mileage, are immaculately maintained and auctioned off cheap. Current Highway Patrol versions have 4.6L mod motors, which are great engines for the guy who isn’t afraid of electronics. Emissions-legal hop-up parts are available if meeting smog is a concern.
Grandma’s Hot Rod:
3. 1978-1988 GM A/G-Bodies (RWD)
Still widely available, these full-frame Monte Carlo SS and Buick Grand National-like cars will accept almost any GM engine with the right motor mounts—ditto for transmissions and rearends. More commonly recognized as something your grandmother drove, they didn’t start using computer controls until around ’80-’81. Some models had diesel engine options, which in many states can be an emissions loophole.
At Least It Isn’t a Fox-Body:
4. Late ’70s Ford & Mercury
Sometimes referred to as “Box Cars,” the Fairmonts, Zephyrs, LTD IIs, Granadas, Versailles—and their related clones and relatives—are less costly Fox-body alternatives to the Mustang. Anything you can do to a Fox-body Mustang you can do to these. As a bonus for young drivers, you also cut down on insurance costs and not catch the eye of local law enforcement.
The Big Truck:
5. 1973-1991 Chevy/GMC C/K Trucks
The third-generation GM truck was made for 18 years, resulting in tons of interchangeable parts. GM sold 1,317,466 trucks in 1978 alone. The second-generation marked the beginning of the 454 offered in a truck. A big-block C/K is couch change compared to a Chevelle or Torino big-block. Don’t believe us? HOT ROD’s ’74 Muscle Truck project car is an example of cheap fun. If you didn’t know: The “C” means two-wheel drive, and the “K” means four-wheel drive.
The Little Truck:
6. 1982-1993 Chevy S-10 or 1983-1992 Ford Ranger
The earlier the better, these lightweight trucks are body-on-frame, easy to work on, easy to find parts for, and dirt-cheap. Many still didn’t have computers prior to ’84-’85, and V8 swap kits are readily available. These trucks can also carry the parts around for another hot rod. The regular-cab trucks are light and can also net cheap insurance rates.
7. 1994-2004 SN-95 Mustang
The SN-95 Mustang is a viable cheap-hot-rod option. They’re now more than 10 years old so new-car buyers don’t want them, but junkyards are full of them. They’re not as old as Fox-bodies—so rust will be less of an issue—and they have just as much aftermarket support. The last year of the famed 5.0L was ’95, but the upgradable Mod motor replaced it in ’96. That same year the V6 added 150 more horsepower.
8. 1993-2002 Camaro/Firebird
Starting out with the LT1 V8 and later the LS1, the fourth-gen Camaro and Firebird are a no-brainer for young guys. Kind of cool, they’re cheap with tons of aftermarket-product support. The ’96 model marked the return of the SS package with a 302hp V8. The 3.8L V6—an easier sell to the parents—had 200hp in most models (a 3.4L was an early option).
The Odd Ball:
9. 1964-1972 Buick and Olds A-bodies
The Buick Special, the Skylark, and the Oldsmobile Cutlass models are the less-expensive alternative to a Malibu or LeMans, but with the same basic chassis and engine compartment. These GM A-bodies are sisters of popular models and use a lot of the same hardware, making parts easy to find. The ’64–’67 models are the first-generation for the muscle-car A-bodies. While these cars are arguably the coolest on our list, they are possibly the most expensive.
10. American Motors Corporation (AMC)
Any of ‘em. An AMC makes for a good project if you’re looking for something from the muscle-car era without being tied to one of the mainstream brands. Be warned, all of the reproduction parts you buy may cost more due to the limited demand. Older Ramblers and wagons are recently more desirable, but you can find a driving ’67-’74 Javelin for around $8,000. The Pacer is another ugly car that has become retro-cool. It might bring you into hipster status, but at least it’ll get you into the Pre-’72 car shows.
How To Steal Your Next Car: From Counting Cars’ “Mack Daddy”
Las Vegas shop owner Danny “The Count” Koker has made a name for himself buying, selling, collecting, and fixing up hot rods and motorcycles, as a part of the History Channel reality show Counting Cars. With his rock-and-roll persona and outlandish way of doing business, he often finds deals on cool hot rods. Kevin “Mack Daddy” Mack is Danny’s right-hand man who helps run the shop and buy projects. He sat down with us to share hard-learned advice on how to buy hot rods on the cheap.
Once It’s for Sale, It’s Too Late:
“Once a ‘For Sale’ goes on a car it becomes high-dollar,” that’s Danny’s motto. “If you buy them before that, then you get a deal, because that person wasn’t intending on selling it. So you’re catching them off guard, and you’re getting a better price. As soon as they start thinking about their car and what they want for it, then the price goes up. They’re always going to ask more than what it’s worth and then maybe come down to what it is actually worth through negotiation. In this economy and car world, you never know something’s value, it’s all about what someone is willing to pay for it. But, if you catch someone off guard, they have a sort of spontaneous reaction, and you end up getting the car for less.”
“Let’s say, for example, there is this unique car you want to buy, but it’s not for sale. Sometimes you’re going to pay more because that guy doesn’t want to sell it, but that doesn’t happen very often. Danny has a collection of cars and for someone to buy one of his cars—he doesn’t sell his cars—they’re overpaying. They have to have it more than Danny does. It all depends on the car, too.
“For Danny, those are his kids, he is a different animal. A lot of car people think: well, I’ll just buy another one. That’s how I am. I don’t collect cars. If I’m not driving it, I’m getting rid of it. Danny sits with cars I can’t do that. Everyone’s different.”
Making The Offer:
“Cash is king, and in this economy people are going to take the money. Cash on hand works a lot better. The money right there up front. When people see those $100 bills, something clicks.”
“You can’t be crude. You have to respect what someone has done to their car. Never talk it down. You can merely say: I can’t pay that. There’s a way to do it. Everyone you’ll deal with is a car lover. People have emotional connections to their cars. It’s hard to describe. Unless it was this thing that got them from point A to point B, but very few people are like that.”
“He saved up and bought an ’83 GMC 1500. He loves that truck. I was going to buy him a brand new one, but he thought I was crazy and said no.”
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