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Where to From Here?

Time for a new direction for car modification

by Julian Edgar

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A recent reader email....

Hi, how are you, love your work.

Your articles regarding the future of the automotive industry, the rise of alternative fuels and the necessity for attention paid to "green" cars has changed my perspective of cars entirely.

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I bought a WB [Holden] ute, and was planning to put a Toyota UZ [Lexus V8] into it, but given the rising price of fuel and the relative uncertainty which the future holds in relation to the availability of oil, I’ve been forced to take a step back and reconsider.

What’s your recommendation? Is it worth the trouble now, to look at the option of an alternative fuel or engine type and invest in a growing movement towards alternative fuels, or is it still not too late to write off large displacement engines?

The car will be regularly driven, the original aim was for moderate performance and reasonable driveability, but is the fuel situation dire enough to sacrifice those goals in favour of the longevity of the technology which I decide to place in the engine bay?


loyal reader


Is it time to re-think the whole direction of modified cars? Is the situation with regards to oil so catastrophic that we should abandon large engines and embrace, say, electric power? Is James right to be thinking about things anew?

Let’s take a step back and have a look.

Empty Fuel Bowsers?

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Firstly, despite gloom about discovery prospects and the concept of Peak Oil, we’re not all about to head to the local fuel station, only to find that there’s no fuel left. Although the price of oil may rise a huge amount in the next 5 or 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years, oil (and so petrol and diesel) will still be available.

The current predictions regarding oil supply and usage need to be considered within a historical context.

When I was a kid in the mid Seventies, oil was going to run out before the year 2000. I can quite clearly remember wondering why an older brother was going into a job with aircraft when it was certain that well before he finished his career, no planes would be flying – how could they, without oil-based fuel?

That idea now looks like madness. Equally, those who suggest that we will be living in an oil-less world within our lifetimes are probably wrong.

So James, the fuel situation is not dire enough to prevent your modifications involving large engines - and won’t be for so long that by the time there is no fuel for it, the Lexus V8 will be a highly prized historical curiosity.

But let’s look at the situation another way.

No one - not even the biggest energy-using redneck – would suggest that oil supplies are unlimited. It would also take a pretty amazing person to suggest that the way we’re using up that finite resource is the best approach.

The profligacy with which we blithely use oil is madness, both in terms of squandering something irreplaceable and also in the generation of massive emissions, including greenhouse gases. (I include far more than just transport energy use in this sentiment.)

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So, while oil is not about to run out tomorrow, from a moral perspective (what right do we have to waste the resource of future generations?), climate change perspective (the link between CO2 and rising earth temperatures may not yet be categorically demonstrated, but the signs don’t look good), and strategic perspective (shouldn’t we be using the scarce resource of oil primarily to invent replacements for it?), it makes far more sense to use less oil, not more.

I have not said much about price of fuel in the discussion. But as I have written on other occasions, I’d be quite happy to see petrol in Australia costing three or four dollars a litre: that would immediately create the political pressure galvanising government to massively improve public transport; it would force car manufacturers to put their engineering resources to far better use than the current focus on gadgets and trinkets and styling; and it would change drivers’ perspectives on the use – and abuse – of petrol.

It would also massively improve public health by encouraging us to do more exercise, not least by pedalling machines.

What Use?

So if there’s going to be fuel available to run them, why not keep modifying large, relatively thirsty cars? Even if the fuel is expensive, it will still be priced sufficiently low for enthusiasts to enjoy driving their cars – maybe not as daily drivers, but certainly frequently.

Well, I think there’s another reason not to head in that direction.

James, putting a Lexus V8 into a WB Holden Ute (or any similar idea) is so out of date that I think it would be more interesting modifying a horse and cart.

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The Lexus V8 – while a lovely engine for its time – is about 20 years old; the basic Holden design is about 35 years old. The concept of such a modified car is perhaps 60 years old. (I have a book on modified cars that was published just post WWII. The author would have immediately understood the performance idea of a V8 engine swap into a Holden ute!)

But the primary reason I think such a car is outdated is not because of its fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. It is outdated because such a performance car is now of little fun use on the road.

Such a car would do great skids - but that’s now sufficiently illegal that the authorities confiscate your car. It would have a wonderful exhaust note - excessive noise tickets are given out every day. It would be a good point-and-squirt machine - but where exactly can you do that?

Start to think about such a car and it soon looks an anachronistic as 8-track cartridge players and fax machines.

What to do...

So what cars make sense to modify? What’s a good starting point and what are appropriate goals?

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Firstly, forget huge cars. Here in Australia, the local current Commodores and Falcons are just ridiculously enormous – massively heavy, very unwieldy and just so much larger than is necessary. It’s "mine’s bigger than yours" gone absolutely crazy.

It is unarguable that large cars are more difficult to stop, more difficult to accelerate, more difficult to corner, and more difficult from which to gain good fuel consumption.

And, hell, aren’t those criteria every driving enthusiast would think important?

What are now called small/medium cars (like the Mitsubishi Lancer, as big as yesterday’s "family car" VL Commodore) make sense for all the above reasons. Unless you’re hugely fat, have a lot of kids, or are very tall, it’s hard to see why such cars aren’t big enough. (And James your desire for a ute? If stuff needs to be carried on other than a daily basis, put a towbar on the car and use a trailer as necessary.)

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Secondly, in terms of conventional internal combustion engines, those with turbos provide the best compromise of power and economy. A turbo 2-litre four cylinder is an engine that can, on demand, literally grow in breathing capacity to be a 4-litre engine.

In everything but absolute razor-sharp throttle response, a downsized turbo engine is more than a match for the torque spread, power and fuel economy of a larger naturally aspirated engine.

(But of course, that only applies if the engine is modified to retain these characteristics – more on this in a moment.)

Medium size turbo diesels? Definitely yes – excellent economy, the power where it is really needed (at the lower half of the rpm range), and increasingly straightforward to modify.

And both types of car lend themselves to alternative fuels.

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In the case of the petrol turbo, sequential vapour LPG systems are now available with minimal – if any – trade-offs in driveability. (And despite the greater fuel consumption of LPG cars, the lower energy production costs of LPG mean that environmentally, you’re still well out in front.) Ethanol? Yep, with the potential for increased boost and even more performance.

The diesel can also use ancillary LPG injection for improved performance and emissions, and the likely greater availability of quality bio-diesel in the future fits like a hand in a glove.

So what about hybrids and pure electric cars?

No, not yet.

Unless you’re the sort of modifier who would (to give a historical example) have been happy putting a Skyline GTR driveline into a Commodore, or something else equally major, modifying a hybrid to gain greater performance is a very big ask. Not impossible: just a major challenge.

Electric cars? Well, you currently can’t buy any from mainstream manufacturers, let alone find one that’s a few years old and so is much more affordable.

Hybrids and pure electrics are certainly the modification cars of the future, but (by definition!) the future’s not here yet...


Whether it’s a diesel or petrol engine car, the modification direction needs to massively change.

James, if you’re modifying a car for road performance (and so not for dyno or drag strip competitions), major criteria to aim for include grippy but forgiving handling; good fuel consumption; throttle responsiveness; bottom-end power (or torque – same thing in this context) and all-round pleasant on-road manners. The latter include steering and brake feel, ride quality and so on.

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To show how different some of these criteria are to those currently prevailing, achieving them on a turbo car would often require staying with the standard turbo, or – in some cases – actually fitting one that’s smaller. It would also entail not lowering the tyre profile, but perhaps making it higher!

However, traditional modifications like spring and damper changes, free-flowing exhausts and intakes and engine management modifications all still apply. So also do effective aerodynamic changes.


A medium sized, turbocharged, four cylinder petrol or diesel engine car (with a towbar!) is an excellent starting point.

With improved volumetric efficiency (better intercooling, less restrictive intake and exhaust); engine management modifications to improve fuel economy and bottom end torque; a high-quality road car suspension; and perhaps running biodiesel, ethanol, or LPG; you will gain good fuel economy, good handling and good performance.

That’s right, ‘good’ rather than ‘extreme’ – but in all categories, not just one.

Yes, that sort of vehicle is a very long way from a Lexus engine V8 Holden ute. But it’s also a car that would be great fun on the road (even with a cop behind you), let you be largely unconcerned about fuel prices, and won’t make you feel like an environmental vandal.

Compared to the V8 ute, it would (and this of course depends on its exact make-up) use about half the fuel (and therefore have about half the CO2 emissions), have similar performance, have a similar total cost, and have much better handling and brakes. Driveability would be very similar.

It’s all achievable and straightforward and justifiable; it just needs the strength of mind to ignore what bogan mates say...

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