Old Car End Run

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I’ve written before about peacefully finding alternative ways of doing things that makes it possible to avoid the edicts of oppressive government. Here’s a way to do that on four wheels: Update an older car with a few key pieces of modern technology — electronic fuel injection and an overdrive transmission.

You’ll get most of the important perks of a modern car — including the modern car’s everyday driveability and fuel economy — without the modern car’s high cost (including associated costs such as insurance and property taxes, which are based on the car’s average retail value), its nannyism (air bags, belt-minder buzzers, GPS, black boxes, etc.) and lack of personality.

It’s a great way to do an end-run around Big Brother — without giving up decent gas mileage, a car that starts easily (even in the dead of winter) and works as well on the highway as it does trundling around town.

First, fuel injection (EFI):

Carburetors have a number of virtues, including low cost, but they don’t include set-it-and-forget-it operation (nearly maintenance-free) or automatic/instantaneous adjustment of air-fuel ratios for optimum performance and economy under all driving conditions — cold or hot, high elevation or sea level, full-throttle or just cruising along. EFI does all those things for you — which improves both driveability and gas mileage (as well as lowers emissions, especially at cold start) which is why carburetors were retired in the late 1980s — more than 25 years ago.

One can usually adapt EFI to a car originally fitted with a carburetor in a Saturday afternoon and get all these same benefits, but without Big Brother riding shotgun.

Aftermarket companies such as Edelbrock sell bolt on EFI (typically, a throttle body that you simply drop in place of the carb on the original intake manifold) systems that come with everything you need to update your car’s fuel delivery system.

If you are handy enough to remove/install a water pump, you have the basic skills necessary to do the job.

The cost of converting to EFI is typically around $1,500 or so for a complete, “ready to run” system. It’s not inexpensive, but put the price into context: Converting to EFI will cost the equivalent of three or four typical monthly new car payments — and then, it’s paid off — and begins paying for itself.

Your older car will literally run like new. It will be much easier to start (no more setting the choke, no more waiting for it to warm up), more responsive (stalling, surging and other such problems associated with carbs should disappear) and will no longer need yearly adjustments like the formerly routine Fall and Spring tune-ups one needed to get with a carbureted car because the air/fuel ratio will be ideal at all times. That also means the plugs won’t get fouled by an over-rich mixture — or burned up by one that’s too lean. Just like a modern car, you probably won’t need to change plugs more often than once every 50,000 miles or so.

You also ought to see noticeably better gas mileage because EFI more thoroughly atomizes the incoming gasoline — and is much more precise in terms of fuel metering than a carburetor.

If you drive the car regularly, the fuel/tune-up savings alone could pay for the cost of the conversion — but the hassle you’ll save yourself is priceless. Plus, you’ll get to drive a cool old car instead of a boring new one.

Next up, overdrive transmissions:

Older cars — especially muscle cars from the ’60s and ’70s — can really benefit from swapping in a modern overdrive transmission. When new, these cars were hell on wheels 0-60. But they sucked if you had to spend any time on the highway because the combination of aggressive final drive gearing in the rear axle and a non-overdrive transmission (with the final gear being “1-1”) meant that the engine would typically be running at uncomfortably high RPM just cruising along at normal highway speeds.

V-8 muscle cars (and trucks with low gearing for pulling) would be spinning at around 3,000-plus RPM at 55-60 mph. Even standard cars, without aggressive final gearing, operated at much higher cruise RPM than a modern equivalent.

Constant high RPM operation kills a car’s gas mileage — and is hard on the engine, too. It also makes driving the car on anything other than lower speed secondary roads unpleasant, especially now that highwayspeeds limits are often 70 MPH or higher.

Modern cars all have overdrive transmissions.

The final overdrive gear (typically about 25 percent lower than the “1-1” final gear in a non-overdrive transmission) dramatically cuts down engine RPMs in top gear, even when the car is a performance car and has a very aggressive axle ratio for maximum off-the-line acceleration.

A new Corvette, for example, can trundle along at 75 mph with its 500 hp V-8 barely turning more than a fast idle (around 2,000 RPM thanks to its overdrive transmission. It can also deliver nearly 30 mpg on the highway — only a few MPG behind many current-year four-cylinder economy cars.

In the ’70s, muscle cars with half or less the current Corvette’s horsepower weren’t out of the teens on the highway — mainly because they didn’t have overdrives and their engines were running at 60-70 percent of redline just keeping up with the flow traffic.

As with EFI, it is fairly easy to adapt a modern overdrive transmission to virtually any older vehicle/engine Some are easier to do than others, but transmissions (and kits) are readily available new/rebuilt and ready to go from companies such as TCI , B&M , Phoenix Transmissions and many others. You could also pull the appropriate unit from a parts car in a salvage yard. (A little research will tell you what fits what.)

A new/rebuilt OD transmission will cost you anywhere from about $1,000 or so on the low end to $2,000 or more on the high end for a super-duty performance unit, such as a Tremec five or six speed.

The installation is more physically challenging than swapping in EFI, but even if you pay someone to do it for you, the end results are nothing short of spectacular. I know, because I’ve done this swap myself.

Though I still have a carburetor feeding my 1976 Trans-Am’s engine (mainly because it is not a daily driver and so I can comfortably live with a carb) I did install a modern overdrive transmission (2004R) in it. Even with very aggressive 3.90 rear axle gears, the big 455 V-8 now only turns around 2,200 rpm at 70-plus MPH versus 3,000-plus at the same road speed with the original, non-overdrive transmission.

Gas mileage has increased to reasonable (close to 20 on the highway) from catastrophic (single digits).

I could (and do) drive the car anywhere, including extended highway trips.

It is as comfortable to drive now as a new Corvette — only better because it’s free of air bags, DRLs, OnStar monitoring and all the rest of it. Plus, it did not cost me $50,000 and (trust me) the cost to insure it (and pay the taxes on it) is a fraction of what I’d be facing had I bought a new Corvette instead.

But best of all, Big Brother is not my co-pilot.

What could be better than that?


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