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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

Edelbrock 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.

3. Horsepower

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

Chevy ChevelleSpray 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-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.

6. Wide Tires

Swap meets and Craigslist 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 made 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.

7. Distinct Look

Brushed Metal HingeStealing 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.

8. Loud Exhaust

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 for takeoff exhaust kits.

9. Cockpit / Interior

Custom Ford Interior

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.

10. Race Connection

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 (, 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 too.

11. Something Shiny

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 realistic when trying to salvage a part that will never shine again. When in doubt, black paint can hide a lot of ugliness.

12. Something Custom-Made

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.

13. 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 over-promising 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.

14. Something That Looks Fast

Chevy Camaro SS

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.

15. Stance

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.

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