In honor of the 10th anniversary of OnAllCylinders, we’re asking some of our regular contributors to write a few stories on the automotive industry. Next up, Jeff Smith gives us his thoughts on ten of the most game-changing aftermarket performance parts over the last decade.
It has been ten years since the creation of Summit Racing’s blog, OnAllCylinders. To celebrate this milestone, we’ve collected a list of ten aftermarket tools and parts that have made a significant impact in the gearhead hobby thus far into the 21st century.
Now, the issue with any list like this is that our readers probably have a favorite or two that they would contend we overlooked. That’s fair and we encourage you to let us hear about it in the comments section below.
Take a look at the list and see if you agree. Add your own contributions and we’ll see where all this takes us. The great thing about the world of high performance vehicles is that there are darn few rules—it’s all up to your interpretation.
1. Throttle Body EFI
If there is one over-riding development that has made a significant impact on both racing and street performance—it has to be electronic fuel injection. High performance EFI systems began appearing back in the late 1980s, but around 10 years ago the affordable, self-learning throttle body EFI packages began making their mark.
These systems became instantly popular as they offered both ease of installation combined with small, hand-held monitors that precluded the use of much more complex laptop computers. Add in the ease of establishing air-fuel ratios with feedback self learning and it wasn’t long before enthusiasts had several versions of these systems to choose from. Fuel Air Spark Technology (FAST), Holley, and FiTech were among the first, and now MSD, Edelbrock, and Summit Racing also offer similar throttle body EFI packages.
There are multiple throttle body systems that can now feed well in excess of 1,000 hp on gasoline up to even the strongest big block. Plus, there are blow-through-capable versions now that can push this capacity even higher with as many as eight large injectors in one throttle body. Pushing this idea into the multiple throttle body world, there are also 2×4 and even 3×2 type systems.
Among the ancillary systems that drove these conversions were also dedicated high-pressure fuel delivery systems. These components like Aeromotive’s Phantom conversion and later Holley’s Sniper complete fuel tank conversion kits have become extremely popular. This is mainly because even the best EFI system will not function properly if a constant source of high pressure fuel is not available. The best way to do that is with a complete in-tank fuel pump system.
EFI has changed the high performance induction world forever with systems that not only perform well, they add a little flash under the hood too.
2. Bushing Mechanical Roller Lifters
There’s been a secret killer of engines out there that has never really made headlines, but was nevertheless destroying engines for a while at an alarming rate. The culprit was a combination of several factors that combined high valve spring pressures, abusive cam lobes, poor lubrication, and a other factors into a killer result. All of these factors ganged up on those tiny little needle roller bearings in mechanical lifters. When those needles let go, they quickly scored cylinder walls, killed pistons, and caused other expensive internal engine mayhem.
The solution began with Isky and several other lifter companies who created bronze alloy bushings that are now the choice with both pure race and hot street engine builders. Among the most popular are Isky’s Red Zone lifters and the company has extended its reach into the hydraulic roller lifter market too.
This is an extremely elegant solution to what used to be a real engine killer. Thanks to these bushings, the problem is now rarely an issue.
3. Boutique Oil
While specific high performance engine lubricants have been around since the 1950s, the high performance street market and especially the world of flat tappet hydraulic and mechanical lifter world was in a state of desperation back in the late 1990s when the American Petroleum Institute (API) decided to reduce the zinc and phosphorous levels in off-the-shelf engine oil. This is common knowledge now, but back in the day this simple change killed flat tappet lifters and camshafts—and continues to do so even now.
It took a few years, but soon there was a wealth of high performance engine oils produced specifically for use in older high performance flat tappet cammed street and race engines. More specifically, dedicated Break-In oils like Driven’s BR30 are now common choices to make sure these flat tappet engines will survive their first few moments of operation.
These formulations now have expanded into several different areas with options for specific engines along with a wide variety of viscosities. It’s worth the effort to look into the advantages these specific engine lubricants offer and it’s also considered cheap insurance—especially after investing so much time and money to build the engine correctly.
4. Tremec Five-Speed
If asked to fill in the blank on the statement:
“What the world needs is a good _____”
…We would fill in the blank with “five-speed overdrive transmission.”
And that’s exactly what Tremec delivered. This all started with the early five speed TR-3550 that was quickly supplanted by the TKO that was eventually replaced by the TKO-500 and 600 transmissions. Only recently has Tremec further upgraded these transmissions to the now current TKX version. This latest gearbox has been heavily modified with a narrower case that now fits snugly underneath multiple platform floors and strengthened with wider gears and superior synchronizers.
Beyond the Tremec’s big splash, we should also mention that Richmond Gear and Ford Performance also offer rear-wheel-drive longitudinal five-speeds that offer alternatives to the Tremec box. And it should be noted that all of this was started by the original T-5 manual gearbox that appeared in the 1980s behind 5.0L Mustangs and Camaros. It’s been a good ride.
5. Dual Disc Clutches
It makes sense that with the appearance of heavy duty five- and six-speeds capable of handling 600 to over 1,000 lb.-ft. of torque that you would need an equally aggressive clutch assembly to hold all that additional power. Dual disc clutches have been around for decades, but it’s only been in the last few years that these clutch assemblies have become sophisticated enough to be livable on the street.
The early dual disc clutch assemblies were just race pieces adapted to the street. They suffered from high input shaft loads from large clutch discs with too much mass that tended to tear up synchronizers. These systems also made lots of noise that came from the backlash of the floating hub rattling on its stands.
Among the early champions of a streetable dual disc clutch was the Centerforce DYAD system that eliminated the noise by using a spring-loaded floater plate between the two clutches. Combined with smaller discs that reduced the input shaft loads, these clutches have become extremely streetable with low pedal effort and smooth engagement operation that is difficult to differentiate from a single disc clutch.
Of course, other companies also offer dual disc systems with offerings from Ace, Advanced Clutch Technology, McLeod Racing, Ram Clutches, Spec Clutch, and others. With horsepower now so easy to make and manual gearboxes capable of handling gobs of torque, this sets the stage of the popularity of these now completely streetable twin disc clutches.
6. Better Boost
The battle cry of the 21st Century power hungry has been “Give me Boost” and nothing says boost like a fast-spinning turbocharger, or a centrifugal or Roots type supercharger.
Superchargers and turbos are certainly nothing new. They’ve been around almost as long as the internal combustion engine. Even turbos are not new. Accel offered a complete, bolt-on turbocharger package way back in the early ‘70s, but it never earned much respect.
What helped turbocharging more than anything was its combination with EFI. Once that connection was established, the real innovation began with improved impeller designs, better turbine wheels, and A/R ratio housings. The biggest improvement that really made a difference was reduced turbocharger exhaust back-pressure. Now people are re-discovering turbochargers for the street and finding just how easy it is to make a ton of power with what one wag once called an exhaust-driven pinwheel. They are far more than that today.
Similar technical advances are also happening in the supercharger world. Centrifugal superchargers have made huge gains in terms of efficiency and airflow like those from Paxton, Procharger, and Vortech. The same can be said for positive displacement superchargers from companies like Edelbrock, Magnuson, and others. There are a ton of options now for almost any engine to enjoy anywhere from conservative single digit boost gains all the way up to strong packages that can deliver boost levels as high as you want to go. The hardest part might just be deciding which way you want to go to make that boost.
7. Electronic Transmission Controllers
While electronically controlled automatic transmissions have been around since the early 1990s, only in the last 10 years has there been a wealth of aftermarket stand-alone controllers that have made electronic overdrive trans swapping a national pastime. Most of these controllers are stand-alone units that simply plug into the transmission and, with a few other simple electrical connections, allow you to make specific changes to shift patterns and shift firmness that only just a few years ago were only available to factory controlled EFI engines.
Do a short search on Summit Racing’s website and you’ll quickly find many different companies offering transmission control for the popular GM and domestic automatics. There are also integrated kits that offer control over engine spark, fuel, and the transmission. As an example, the Holley Terminator-X Max system offers this kind of overall control. Electronics are the wave of the future.
8. Affordable Tools
It wasn’t all that long ago that the search for specific engine building or other specialty tools involved some expensive steps. But in the last 10 years, that scenario has changed much for the better. The examples are almost endless, but today you can buy an extremely handy dial caliper for less than the cost of a big lunch at a fast food burger place. Not long ago, it was a search to find one of those slick, tapered ring compressors. Now all you have to do is click on SummitRacing.com and there are several to choose from.
Now degree wheels and dial indicators with magnetic bases are both plentiful and affordable. It’s never been easier to build your first engine now that most of the tools are at your fingertips. The days of homemade tools are nearly over because factory stuff is both affordable and easy to find. So now all there’s left to do is buy the tools and get started on that next engine build.
9. Better Carburetors
Here we are, a solid 20-plus years into the 21st Century, and there are more carburetors to choose from than ever. So much so, that the big guys like Holley continue to sweeten the mix with new and better fuel mixers every few years. Holley’s built the Ultra XP standard flange fuel mixer that is really a joy to use—even for finicky, high-strung race engines.
Then look at what Edelbrock debuted a few years ago with the AVS2 carb using annular discharge boosters. Both are amazingly good carburetors that are far more sophisticated than their older brethren. Beyond new carburetors are upgrades like billet metering blocks, tuning parts, and upgrade kits that make improving your existing carburetor a very simple process.
10. LED Lights
Sometimes the simplest little things can make a big difference. Lighting for 1960s cars was almost an afterthought. On our personal Chevelle, the taillights are almost invisible from more than 30 feet behind the car. But enter light emitting diodes (LED) and suddenly there are a few more possibilities. Beyond brighter taillights, there are replacement dash lights bulbs, side marker lights, and custom interior lights like for center consoles and even for your rear seat occupants. Holley now offers RetroBright LED headlights for many cars that retain the OE appearance yet deliver many times more lumens to lighten up those dark highways.
Used with discretion, LED lights can add a custom touch to your car that is subtle yet impressive. There are several companies offering options and you can get creative and come up with your own application.
Beyond changes to your vehicle LED lights also offer a multitude of options for individual working lights that you can hang under the hood or under the dash and even to overhead illumination inside your shop. If your garage is closer to working in a coal mine than a hot rod shop, a couple sets of LED overhead lights can also make a huge difference. Turn your shop into an operating room and you’ll notice how much easier it is to get jobs accomplished. Plus, LED shop lights use less electricity so you’ll be saving money on top of being able to improve your work.
It’s all about being illuminated.