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NutJob: Performance Modifications And Diminishing Returns

NutJob: Performance Modifications And Diminishing Returns

Yesterday, Rodney wrote a really interesting piece on the cost of building a high performance car and how in many cases it may make more sense to purchase a finished product if you in any way value your time, money, or marital status. Not surprisingly, more than a few of you guys and girls tore into him for daring to suggest that a decent car couldn’t be built for less than $50k.

I’ll admit that my initial reaction was similar to many of yours, and I even shot a message to Brian to that effect:
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I’m a champion of the “bang for your buck” performance build, as can be witnessed by my fondness for the DeathMobile RX7 and the XJ-R Cherokee. Heck, the Cherokee was built for less than $2k and regularly beats down on more expensive cars at the autocross. So, how dare he suggest to the son of a family friend that he just go out and buy a new car? That is the most un-BangShift response I could ever imagine.

Then, it hit me: I wasn’t taking into consideration the neighborhood that Rodney lived in. Well, not where he actually lives (I have no idea where Rodney lives, and he probably wants to keep it that way…), but the metaphorical neighborhood that consists of his automotive peers.

If you’re like me, you’re probably living in the “automotive suburbs”, where you may be that guy or girl in your area that your neighbors refer to as “The one that’s really into old cars” as they read the latest MotorTrend article on which Hybrid has the best cupholders. Sure, there may be a few other cool cars around, but the relative quality bar is pretty low, so it may not take much to stand out in the crowd at a local car show or event.

Meanwhile, Rodney’s car lives and performs in the equivalent of Beverly Hills, where the old adage of “Cheap, fast, good: Pick two” has morphed into “Fast, Beautiful, Exclusive: No exceptions”. This is the land where spending $4000 in wheels and tires means that you most likely bought used, and if your front calipers don’t have at least 13” rotors and four pistons, you’re slumming it.



Lest you think I’m being my normal sarcastic self, I’m not (Well, not entirely, anyway). This is just the reality of what it takes to have a competitive car at the major Pro-Touring events. Rodney’s car is awesome, and I have mucho respect for everything he’s done and the time and effort that it takes to build a “budget” car that can stand toe to toe with the big name Pro-Touring cars at these events. So, when he says that you can’t build a car from scratch for less than $50k, be mindful of the fact that this is close to the floor, if not slightly beneath the floor, for the typical high-end Pro Touring event. It’s like an Ivy League school where you’re nothing if you weren’t the valedictorian of your high school class, because all of your new college classmates were. Every one of these cars would be a showstopper at a “normal” show or event, and now there’s an entire field of them. Hate to say it, but like attending an Ivy league school, hard work alone is most likely not going to hack it: You need to be able to cut the monthly check as well.

The thing is, do you really want or need a full-blown top shelf Pro-Touring car, the one that will be covered in all of the magazines and be hung up on the walls of fellow gear heads as inspiration to keep wrenching away on those cold winter nights? We all naturally want to say “Yes” because we all want to have built something beautiful; it’s human nature. That said, beauty is relative, which we all need to consider when building our cars (I realize that you may be worried that this is going to turn into some sort of “love what you have” self-help nonsense; stay with me here…).

What I’m really trying to say is that I want to see more cars being built with a focus that allows you to get the most out of your money in regards to the performance returned for the time and effort put in. Sure, you can call that function over form, but I’m not saying to completely toss form out the window: Slot car handling doesn’t mean much if your slot car looks like tetanus on wheels.

As with anything else, there’s sometimes diminishing returns to scale when it comes to dollars spent versus performance gained. Let’s use wheels as an example: I’m may not be winning many fans among some of the more exclusive wheel manufacturers, but for 90% of builds you don’t need a three-piece billet “hope the kids get a scholarship to college because I just blew their tuition money” set of wheels.

Here’s my personal checklist:
1. Do I like the way that they look?
2. Do they clear the brakes?
3. Do they fit without any clearance issues in regards to frame and/or body?
4. Do they fit the size tire that I need? (Notice I said NEED here, there’s a reason that the new Camaro 1LE uses relatively narrow tires on the rear wheels…)
5. Are they reasonably light for their size?

If the answer is Yes to all of these questions, then those wheels should be a serious contender when it comes time to spend your money. Where the “diminishing returns” comes into play is when you convince yourself that you need the lightest and strongest wheels on the market and/or eleven-inch-plus wide wheels to fit a tire with a width that begins with the number “three” when the overall performance theme of the car doesn’t deem them necessary. I am not saying that you shouldn’t buy those wheels, but think long and hard about the potential added expense (If there is any) over another set that also satisfies the above checklist. Are you really going to get $xxxx more performance value out of the money spent? Maybe, but that needs to be seriously considered before opening your wallet.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend money on good parts for your car, just that as gear heads it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying the equivalent of the gnarliest camshaft on the page when you’re planning on building a motor for a street car that will see an occasional quarter mile blast.

A well-sorted “True” budget car with money spent on the right parts can stomp all over a car that may have twice the cash spent on components that may deliver twice the performance on paper but do not work twice as well in unison (As a quick example, at a Pro Touring event I may have witnessed a well-sorted, sub-$15k invested car owned by one of the “setup” guys for the autocross portion hold its own against $$$ professional builds.). Nothing wrong with those high dollar builds as they were all very nice and very fast, but sometimes there’s more than just being pretty and having top-shelf parts.

Other than random G-body trivia, I am admittedly not an expert on anything automotive-related, but I’m always willing to learn. One of the things I’ve learned is that you need to thoroughly plan out a build and research as much as possible if you want to get the most performance value for your time, effort, and money. Unfortunately, I learned this by spending what has amounted to thousands of dollars on the “wrong” parts (Nothing actually wrong with them, but they didn’t meet the goals for my car), although I did get to install two engines, three different fuel injection systems, and disassemble a front suspension or two as part of this learning experience. A good chunk of this money was spent on parts where I gave more attention to my wallet than to the quality of the parts themselves, so you do often get what you pay for. The inexpensive set of overseas-manufactured gauges installed in my SS that work MOST of the time are a testament to that.

The older vehicles that we love often don’t come from the factory perfect in every respect, and with the right parts installed it is possible for them to perform as well as any of their more modern brethren. The question is, are you out to chase down the guy next door in his new BMW or Porsche, or the guy in Beverly Hills with the exotic? Both goals are possible, but you need to figure out which one you really want.

So yes, it may take $50k+ to build a car that will fit in at a local Pro Touring event, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have 90% of the performance and the appearance for 50% of the cost if you spend the money in the right places.

Just food for thought.

Monte Carlo autocross

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14 thoughts on “NutJob: Performance Modifications And Diminishing Returns

  1. Andy

    Ok…. I have a problem with the HONESTY of everyone claiming a dirt cheap build number.
    Did you keep track of EVERY SINGLE DIME SPENT? I have and the results are SCARY
    The starting point of you build also plays a HUGE role. Rodney basically started with nothing. Stupid little stuff costs money.
    Check out the parts total for me to bring my buddys ’71 C20 back to road worthy. I didn’t just buy new parts either!! Junkyard/Craigslist/Rockauto/Advance, hell I even GAVE HIM stuff from my personal stash!!
    Total cost was 4000 bucks, to just make it road worthy and a TOUCH of performance with a cam and used intake and free 4barrel carb.

    People who claim CHEAP project cars seem to bee somewhat selective on what the include in their builds. A quart of parts house oil is 3 bucks a quart, oil filter is $4, antifreeze is $11. So 5 quarts of oil+filter and two gallons of antifreeze is 40 bucks. Does that count in a “budget build”. It still takes money from the overall budget, BUT they are “consumables” like gasoline. It gets confusing when guys claim a number, what parts they are including.

    Heck Dave, I’d love to see you list the TOTAL from EVERY SINGLE part bought from your “Suspension Screw Up” blog. I wouldn’t be surprised at ALL if you spent 3/4 the budget of the XJ-R Cherokee….to just LOWER your Monte and add new rubber…

    I LOVE the XJ-R Cherokee!! But claiming budget numbers…..is really tough.
    Ask David Freiburger how much he spent on the “Orange Duster” project to basically have a mild street car….and that was back 13 years or more…

    1. Dave Nutting Post author

      Hey Andy,

      All good points, and I’ll admit that I’ve made the mistake of keeping and tallying up all of the receipts for my SS (Each motor swap, suspension swap, etc). Yeah, that’s a bit depressing.

      I’m hoping that my original point wasn’t lost, which was that Rodney is right in that it takes *a lot* of money if you want to build a muscle car that can compete at the level that he competes in (The Optima Challenges and similar events), as there is more than just performance: The car needs to be a show car as well as hold its own on the track. I believe that he said that he had $20k in the car in the last few years, which in itself is relatively cheap when you consider the “true” cost to build other cars that he is competing against.

      At the same time, I really do believe that you can build a really fun and fast car for less money, but that is hugely dependent on the type of car you buy, its condition, your parts selection, and the amount of labor you’re able to contribute towards building it.

      I’ve got a ton of respect for him and his car, and the intent wasn’t to “pick” on him, just to make the point that yes, this hobby can be and is expensive, but it is only as expensive as you make it.


      Good point about tallying up the cost for each of the projects on my LS! I’ll start doing that with future blog posts.

      Here’s the total cost of parts from the suspension install (Doing this “Grassroots style with fair market value for parts I already owned). Rounded to the nearest dollar.

      Wheels and tires:
      – Iroc wheels: $160, Craigslist
      – Centercaps: $20 shipped, Ebay
      – Falken Ziex ZE-912 tires: $242 shipped after $50 mail in rebate, Discount Tire Direct
      – Mounting and balancing: $Free at a friend’s shop

      – Steering linkage (Tie rods and adjusters, centerlink, idler arm) and ball joints: $185 shipped, Speedway [Item # 9173236]
      – Sway bar end links: $8, Summit
      – Front Bilstein shocks: $123 with 20% off coupon, Autozone
      – Rear Bilstein shocks: $123 with 20% off coupon, Autozone
      – Eibach springs (Owned, so using fair value): $200
      – B-body brake swap (Owned, so using fair value): $400
      – New copper caliper washers: $8, Advanced Auto Parts
      – Brake fluid: $5, Advanced Auto Parts
      – Entire jug of Fast Orange to get all of the undercoating off of me: $10
      – Box of cotter pins: $10, Advanced Auto Parts
      – Grease for grease gun: $10, Advanced Auto Parts
      – Alignment: $80, shop down the street

      Total: $1584

      So yes, it looks like you’re spot on in regards to that costing about 75% of the XJ-R.

      With the purchase price of the car itself I’m into it for about $4500 at this point if you also include the snow tires I just bought and wheels to mount them on.

      1. Andy

        Thanks for the parts break down!!
        You can see why I have to kind of call BS on the 2000 dollar budget of the XJ-R…. BUT! I’m sure they have done some Enron accounting to make the numbers work! And when you travel in their circles, the “good buddy” discount on used parts makes a HUGE difference! (I know the best deals I’ve gotten are from friends!)

        I LOVE Brian’s Buford project…but I would guess if you added EVERYTHING he has added to that car….it would be close to 10K. (Just the heads, trans & driveshaft should be over 4K)
        Should it still be considered a budget build?

        I’m just tired of everybody screaming “I can build car X for under 10 grand and it will kick everybodys ass”. It can happen. But its rare.

        1. RealCheapStreet

          It is possible to do, but less possible if it’s you’re first couple of builds. Not just because after building a few cars you have a bunch of parts laying around and ask “how can I use these?” but more by learning how to pick a direction and go at it without distraction.

        2. Greg

          If you like I can should you the budget and recites for the Jeep 🙂 Since it was built for the Grassroots Challenge we had to keep track of every cent we put into the project. The parts used are nothing special and a lot were homemade. Even free stuff we have to claim a fair market value on.

    2. tigeraid

      Maybe I’m in the minority here, but for me it’s never about ABSOLUTE budget, it’s about how much money needs to be dropped in one go.

      All of my builds in the past have been “budget,” as is my current V8 S-10. But it’s not so much that the entire build might be “$30,000” or whatever, it’s that I can nickel and dime it to death–I just can’t come anywhere NEAR paying, say, $4000 for a complete set of wheels and tires! But a used set of wheels for $200, and tires for $80 a piece bought individually, suddenly it’s affordable!

  2. 440 6Pac

    The only car I’ve spent 50 grand on is my wife’s 2013 300 srt8. I’ve built several cars that ran like hell and looked badass for well under that. A lot depends on how much of the work your willing to do yourself.

  3. cyclone03

    Thats what I was trying to say in my comment.
    Normal is relitive. If your peers all hang out at the Optima challenge,or the fast pit area at a Good Guy event then you have to have a $6000 set of wheels to fit in.

  4. Strube

    Time + Money + Knowledge + Mechanical Skills = Hot Rod… If you don’t have one of these, you will need more of the other two. If you are missing two, you’ll need a heck of a lot of the last two… and lastly, if you are missing three, you’re screwed. There are a lot of people out there that have a lot of knowledge but lack mechanical and fabrication skills. They seem to be the ones who poo-poo guys who build chicken soup from chicken shit. We all know guys who throw money at things and end up with nice cars. I think the majority of us want “bang for our buck”. Even when I have had the money to spend… I always enjoy building something that has a high fun factor and low build cost. Sam

  5. jerry z

    I been buying and selling cars/parts for 30 yrs now, some great deals and some really bad burns but now building a 95 Caprice with a 6spd manual capable of running 12’s in the 1/4 for under 5K. Its going to be close but will try real hard to reach that goal!

    How reliable will it be, that another situation entirely!

    If you do this a long enough, it will be beneficial to you.

  6. Travis

    Less than $2k in a 84 Camaro(that includes $550 for the car), Pretty ugly but runs low 8’s in the 8th mile. Definitely one of the “fastest-per-dollar” cars in the street lane.

  7. O Chrisman

    I will give you two examples I had. Had a ’73 Chevelle that I paid $700 for, threw about $5,000 into it. It still looked like a $700 car and only ran slightly better. Had a ’75 Cutlass that I put about $2000 into and it ran better than the Chevelle. I had a good friend of mine help me with the labor on both. The more you can do yourself will help to keep the cost down. Along with many other things that others have mentioned here. How many of those guys with the high dollar stuff can say “Yeah, I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that car”, and not just a lot of money??? It shows.

  8. John T

    I gotta say the thing that annoyed me in Rodney’s initial post is that he really didn’t say ` I’m keeping up with the pro touring Joneses’ – he said if you’re building any car its going to cost you shit tons of money so you may as well go buy something. As you say, very un bangshifty thoughts. What really pissed me off though is people who can’t get their head around the fact that you CAN build a car cheaper than the numbers he says, and it doesn’t have to look like shit either. I had people answering my comments about how I’ve built my car on a budhet basically saying I’m a liar because they can’t concieve of how to make stuff themselves rather than spend a shitload at the nearest speed shop. There are all sorts in the car building game – nobody is more ` right ‘ than somebody else – some do it cheap off their own back, some flex their credit cards and I don’t have an issue with either, but if your only answer is to throw a shit ton of cash at getting your car right, don’t call people liars because they do stuff themselves or on the cheap…

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