I think that I was finally inspired to write this editorial when 'Customer X' came into my shop last month. I'd spoken to 'X' on the phone and he seemed like he knew what he was doing. We talked about his modifications and what he wanted to achieve. 'X' drove a Civic with a B-series swap, among other modifications. A pretty common setup (about half the Hondas I dyno are Civics with a B-series engine, which means that about 25% of all cars I dyno have this configuration - amazing, even in SoCal) and one that is reasonably well understood by a variety of mechanics, do-it-yourselfers and general enthusiasts.
During my phone conversation with 'X', I explained to him the test and tune procedure, what I needed from him (money, fuel and wheel lock key so we could remove the wheels) and what to expect when finished. He knew his modifications pretty well and seemed to have reasonable power goals for his combination. When the appointed day came for his dyno session, 'X' showed up on time (I value punctuality), but sadly not ready to go. Oh, he thought he was, and I suppose I should take some responsibility for not asking him important questions like, "Do you have all your engine sensors?" or "Does your car have all its wheel studs?" Now that may sound a bit sarcastic, but I increasingly have the feeling that I really should put up a website explicitly listing all the things a car owner should check before bringing in a car for tuning. Most of them seem like common sense to me, but I've been doing this for a while so maybe I'm biased.
Getting back to 'X', I am fortunate enough to have a pretty competent Honda mechanic across the street from me, so we were able to get 'X's problems solved in a minimal amount of time and get his engine tuned to as finely fettled a trim as possible. But my experience with 'X' was the last straw, so to speak. It crystallized an issue that has bothered me for some time about our fair hobby of car modification. It is certainly not just a Honda issue, but these days Hondas do tend to be the most visible offenders. The issue? Why shoddy modifications of course. Half-assed improvements, unfinished business, sloppy workmanship. Call it what you want, but I know you've seen it. The car driving around with an expensive body kit, but still in primer. The one with the 18" rims and low profile tires but tons of body dents, rust, etc. I know you can think of more.
For a dyno operator, it gets even worse. Not only do we have to deal with the worn out CV joint spewing grease onto the floor, the rather large oil leak from an undetermined location, or the wiring harness that shorts out when you shift just so. We also have to deal with the missing water temp sensor, or the intake air temp sensor that is not reading anything remotely like the intake air temperature. Or the even more fundamental problems like trying to make a ton of hp with a 2.5" exhaust that exits through a 1.5" muffler core.
Which brings us to the primary question facing anyone who has seen, dealt with or built one of these cars - Why does it happen like this? In my opinion there are a variety of causes. For example, you can make a case for plain ignorance. When I began modifying my first Honda many years ago I knew little about engines, let alone engine theory. The concept of moment of inertia meant nothing to me when selecting wheels and tires. And I will admit that how things looked played a pretty important role to me when selecting modifications. I think that's part of the price of being young and inexperienced and there is nothing wrong with having to learn - even if it means being gullible enough to think Splitfire sparkplugs were going to make some sort of difference (well they did, actually, when I melted one of the electrodes on a high speed run). In some respects it was a little easier 15 years ago. While we didn't have the selection of parts to choose from, that also meant there were fewer sources of information to be vetted, fewer mistakes to be made. I actually got through to Oscar Jackson on my first phone call back in 1991 and learned a lot from him. Try getting through to a known expert these days, it is not as easy. Furthermore, its a lot tougher to figure out who the real experts are. I had Neuspeed, King Motorsports, Jackson Racing and Lightspeed. Today you've got, oh, about 100x as many companies to deal with when modding your Honda.
Another driving cause is, of course, financial. It gets expensive to modify a car, even an old Civic. Taking a shortcut on a mod, buying a used part of unknown quality, or delaying a fix to a failing, but still functional, part saves money. But it usually only saves money in the short term. Which brings me to the real cause, in my opinion, of mods gone bad - impatience. I won't have been the first to point out the ever increasing need to have what we want now, or even yesterday. As a nation, nay a world, the juggernaut of instant gratification gains momentum with each passing day. Its not an age thing, not generational, not market specific - its a pandemic. Why else would someone put on a body kit and drive around without painting it for 6 months? Lack of money is the symptom, but impatience is the cause. If primer guy could wait an extra 3 months he could save up the money needed to both install and paint the kit at the same time. Of course, with money in the bank he's likely to be tempted to satisfy a different need for instant gratification, which is how he got into the mess in the first place.
Sadly, its a dilemna most of us have faced at one point or another. And the best deterrent is experience. I learned the hard way that you buy the best part first, because if you don't, you'll be buying it second after you've spent money on the inferior part that broke, or just didn't perform. Fortunately, when modifying a car today most enthusiasts can take advantage of the lessons learned by those who came before them. Outside of a select few truly innovative enthusiasts that test and develop new parts and concepts, most of what people are doing to their cars has already been done. For better or worse, you can usually find out about it somewhere on the web. And you have more sources than ever before where you can see what a truly good set of modifications looks like. Be it an enthusiast mag or your favorite website, there are a lot of really well done cars out there (check out the new mag C16 if you can find it, there is an absolutely gorgeous Civic featured on the cover that I had the pleasure of tuning - it was so good that I was tempted to go out and buy a Civic to duplicate the effort).
Having identified the problem, I would be nothing but a whiner if I didn't offer at least an attempt at a solution. And that solution is, in a nutshell, planning. Sounds trite, I know, but that really is the best way to ensure maximum value for your dollar. The first step is to decide WHAT you want out of your vehicle. Do you want to specialize in drag racing? If so, how fast do you want to go? And you should be prepared to optimize your car around less than streetable tires (i.e. slicks or drag radials). Or perhaps you want a smooth, good looking street machine with a moderate performance gain over stock. If you drive it everyday, just how stiff and low are you willing to take the suspension? Is this your only car, or do you have backup? That will tell you how aggressive you can get with modifications that may reduce longevity and reliability.
The next step is to decide HOW you will go about achieving your goals. Swap engines, or throw a turbo on the stock motor? Full body kit, or just smooth out the stock lines and clean up the paint? Re-upholster the stock interior, or replace the seats with some Recaros? Bling-bling wheels, or lightweight race spec stuff? This is where the research aspect comes in. Do your homework. Talk to other owners who've used the parts you're interested in - it isn't that hard to find them. Find the experts in each area and get their advice. As a dyno operator I specialize in the horsepower side of things and I can tell you pretty quickly if one of the parts you've chosen will be a restriction in trying to reach your power goal (a la the 1.5" muffler core, or using a T28 turbo with a 350 hp target power level, or using Skunk2 stage III cams on a 10:1 compression motor). You've got start with the end in mind and then select parts that will work together to meet your goals. There are many ways to create a 200 whp B-series engine, but when the parts are selected as an integrated whole, you not only get the top end power, but you get drivability, better midrange torque, better fuel mileage and better reliability. And you may even spend less money to boot.
The final step is to decide WHEN you will do these modifications. Alternatively you might call this step determining how you will PAY for the modifications. For example, it really makes no sense to slap on a primered body kit and then wait 6 months to paint it. You'll end up having to do extra work to reprep the kit anyways, so not only do you look like a dork for 6 months, but you're spending more money too. It also makes no sense to install your Hondata and get it tuned only to put in some big cams, a new intake manifold and new header soon after. Now you need to retune the engine, which means you just threw away money on the first tune. Again, as a specialist in horsepower, I recommend starting with the simple bolt-ons. Put on the intake, header and exhaust. They'll still run pretty well on a stock ECU. When you're ready for the headwork and cams, then get a good engine management system and go to the dyno. Trust me, you'll save money and be a lot happier.
Of course, all this presupposes that people will be able to resist the siren song of instant gratification, even if, in many cases, "instant" is synonymous with "inferior". If I can change one or two people's minds, I'll be happy. And in the meantime, I'll still be seeing a Customer 'X' every now and then. Which reminds me, I really need to get started on that website.....