Latent vs. Present Horsepower

We will one day look back fondly on the days just before Corona Fever hit as a golden era of vehicle design.

Or at least, a golden age of horsepower.

New cars come with a lot of it. Four-cylinder engines in family cars routinely produce more of it than most V8s in muscle cars did as recently as the ’90s when 220 or so horsepower was a pretty big deal, and you had to buy something like a Mustang GT or Z28 Camaro to get it.

Today, a four-cylinder Camry has almost that much power, and the V6 version has more power than a mid-90s Mustang GT (with a V8) had and runs quicker and goes faster while using about 30 percent less gas.

There is nothing old that came with the power you can get in a new Dodge Hellcat. Even a race-engined muscle car like the iconic late ’60, early ’70s Dodge Charger equipped with the dual-carbureted 426 cubic inch Hemi V8, one of the strongest muscle car engines ever, claimed 425 horsepower. It may have made as much as 500-something, as there was much fudging of the numbers going on in those days.

But it made nowhere near the Hellcat’s 700-plus no-fudging horsepower with air conditioning and an automatic transmission behind it.

However, the old stuff had latent horsepower. Huge potential, easily accessed, and in almost anything.

The Millennials and younger will probably not believe this, but it was once the case that V8s and rear-wheel-drive were as common as front-wheel-drive and four cylinders are today. V8s were used regularly in family cars and even economy cars. They were common as options in run-of-the-mill sporty coupes like ordinary Firebirds and Camaros, Mustangs, and Mavericks—not just the high-performance versions of those cars.

But the small block Chevy or Ford or Pontiac, Olds, or Mopar V8 in your nothing-special-mobile was fundamentally the same engine as the high-performance versions used in the special models like the R/T Chargers, Olds 442s, Trans-Ams, Z28s, etc.

Perhaps you can see where this is going!

A 350 two-barrel in a Camaro could become more than the equal of the same basic engine as delivered in a Z28 with a factory four-barrel, a hotter cam, and a low-restriction exhaust system. In essence, all of these parts easily bolted to the former or transferred from the latter if you had access to a wrecked Z28 just dragged to the junkyard.

Or a catalog.

A phone book’s thickness of horsepower-enhancing parts, most of them not beyond-reach expensive and well within reach of a determined backyard wrencher with some wrenches. If it physically fit, it could be adapted and made to work, often well.

This is no longer possible today because modern cars are integrated systems—all the components tied together into a single monolithic thing that cannot abide by the non-authorized.

It was just a matter of nuts and bolts and adjustments to fit a four-barrel where a two-barrel had been or two four barrels where one four-barrel had been. A performance cam slid in place of the low-performance cam. It was not necessary to “chip” or “reflash” anything. So long as there were air and fuel and spark and all three came together in roughly the right way, the thing would run.

It was especially fun to tap the latent horsepower of the not-so-high-performance cars of the mid-late 1970s and early ’80s, which the same forces that are ruining everything today had also ruined in those days – using the same technique. The government officials were using the Slow Kill technique of requiring that with the passage of each new model year, each new car had to be incrementally “cleaner” as well as “efficient,” defined as achieving “x” MPGs, as today (only more so).

It got so bad that by 1976 a Pontiac Trans-Am—with the biggest available engine, 455 cubic inches (7.5 liters in today’s metric-speak) only managed 200 horsepower, and that was the most horsepower you could get in a new American car that year. A ’77 Z28’s 350 four-barrel barely moved the needle off its stop.

Just 175 hp. But 275 hp or 375 was just a Saturday away.

These engines were so detuned that they were capable of the almost unbelievable. And it was all so accessible, so easy and so much fun.

I had a ’78 Z28, same basic car as the ’77, with the identical 350 four-barrel under its fake-scooped (but very sexy-looking) hood. It came with a limp cam, not much compression, and an exhaust seemingly designed to strangle it. A pair of crimped 2 1/4 inch pipes led to a single-inlet catalytic converter.

The result of removing this impediment was spectacular. Now wick up the ignition timing (free) and install richer jet in the carburetor (almost free) to get more gas to the fuel-starved engine.

It began to sound and feel like a Z28—a 1970 model. With a 1970 cam, it effectively became a ’70 Z28, just for a lot less.

The same technique worked on any old Camaro or Malibu or Chevy, so long as it had the same basic engine, which millions of nothing-special old cars did have.

Hellcats are lots of fun if you can afford one.

Once upon a time, almost anyone could afford to get Hellcat-esque horsepower out of practically anything and for almost nothing.

Maybe post-Corona, we’ll be able to do that again!


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