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All Things Manly: Horsepower on a Budget

Gentlemen! Time for another edition of “All Things Manly”. If you were like me as a kid, you were playing with matchbox cars before you could walk. I still remember crawling across the kitchen floor making engine sounds as I pushed the cars as fast as I could. I can remember sitting in front of the television and watching the NASCAR drivers do their thing every Sunday and just imagining what it would be like to sit behind the wheel of that much power. Next thing you know, you’ve passed the driver’s education course and walked away from the DMV with a brand new license. Ah, the first vehicle. It didn’t matter how new or expensive it was. It could’ve been a ragged out hand-me-down that was ready for antique tags. It made no difference. But think about the first thing you did with it. If you were like me, you started making upgrades and modifications. And most of those modifications were to essentially make your new found freedom go faster. Men, hopefully that feeling has not escaped you. It doesn’t matter if you drive a ’69 Camaro or a brand new Honda Civic. We all want the same thing. We want to go faster. I decided to explore some modifications that the average guy could go for without breaking the bank. So fasten your safety belts and keep an eye out for ol’ smokey. Let’s talk about horsepower.

“If you want to go fast, don’t buy a hybrid. The engine is supplemental and there are no need for upgrades.” That was one of the first things Daniel Naff said to me. Daniel is a certified mechanic out of Blacksburg, Virginia who has been working on cars for years. I first met him while we were volunteering at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities. Daniel considers working on cars not just as a means for income, but because he loves it as well. I contacted Daniel about doing an article on how an average guy could add horsepower to his ride without breaking the bank. Just as I thought, the gearhead was jumping at the chance to talk shop. Now, I’ve made my own modifications on vehicles throughout the years and have some basic knowledge on the subject, but for the article I wanted a professional opinion. And a professional opinion I got.

What is the best way to define the engine under your hood?

“The first thing to realize is that an internal combustion engine is, in essence, a big air pump. Air goes in and air comes out effectively. Well, with some fuel mixed in. We also we have some other stuff going on as well, but that is the simplest way to think about it.”

I’ve heard that adding an aftermarket intake system can boost some power. Any truth to that?

An intake delivers the fuel and air mixture to the intake valve where it can be introduced into the combustion chamber to be burned. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, an intake upgrade can make varying degrees of difference. An intake with a large runner volume will help with higher R.P.M. horsepower. If you are skilled enough to replace your own intake, here is a trick to get even more bang for your buck. Port-matching. Port-matching involves placing the intake gasket on the intake and marking inside the gasket runner seal, and removing metal until the runner is as big as the gasket opening. The same can be done on the head(s), being careful to clean all the shavings. A magnet works well on steel heads, but before you start removing metal, place it inside the runner. The main reason for this procedure is to allow the air and fuel mixture a nice clean path to the intake valve instead of crashing into blocked up space. In my opinion, intake upgrades are good for people who want to tax their engine occasionally such as the weekend mudder or a guy who visits the drag strip on Saturdays. The daily driver who goes easy may want to rethink this option, as intakes can be rather expensive ranging from $100-$500.” A cold air intake system will tack on about 20 extra horsepower. It will improve your fuel efficiency depending on your make and model of vehicle, and it may actually make the engine sound better. K&N make good intakes as well as AEM, AIRAID, and Volant.

What about something as simple as an air filter? Can it make a difference?

“In my honest opinion, air filters play a bigger role than the intake. Most daily drivers are designed by engineers for longevity and fuel efficiency. Most intakes from the factory will handle anything your right foot can throw at it, right up to the point of irreversible failure. But factories with go with the cheapest air filter they can find. So, putting a K&N filter or other high flowing filter (I prefer K&N) will allow the air to move much more easily. Remember, the internal combustion engine is a large air pump. Air in faster + air out faster= more horsepower. A cold air kit is by far the best bang for your buck. If you are penny-wise, you can create a nice cold air intake from the plumbing store. For example, pvc and fernco’s( I have built many for Toyotas and Hondas).” Expect to pay around $50 or so for a K&N air filter. But it is well worth it because they are washable and reusable. Plus, they have a one million mile warranty. You can expect around an 8-16 horsepower increase.

What about exhaust systems like headers?

“We have good airflow coming into the engine, now we need to get it out. Headers are a perfect combination when paired with a high flowing induction. The right header will give you good horsepower increases throughout the power band width. You can get crazy with prices on headers, but probably not necessary. A good header pipe will have a flange that at bare minimum will be 3/8″ thick. The 5/16″ flanges all warp and you are forever putting manifold gaskets on. They’re a waste of time and money. No need in getting crazy on the header tube size either. 1 5/8″ header tube will bring a small block v8 to life and is good up to 450horespower! So sometimes smaller is a bit better. Mufflers and exhaust pipe size are kind of the same as the exhaust header.” Headers can add up to 25 horsepower depending on the motor. I’ve found some good brands are Hooker, Flowtech, and Hedman. Headers can increase fuel efficiency as well.

What about the exhaust piping itself?

“Let’s look at exhaust pipe size. In my experience, 4cylinders do well from stock size all the way to 2″ for modified engines. The drawback is you need a $1000 stereo for music and a bullhorn for conversations with passengers. v6’s & v8’s will handle 2 1/2″ just fine much more than 3″ is a waste, (unless it’s a diesel, then i would say go with 4″-5″)…anything more needs to be highly modified, so let’s just stick with moderation. Sometimes less is more. Mufflers work as such, the quieter the more restrictive, the louder the more free-flowing. Ever heard a quiet drag car? Muffler position can play a role also. You can go with a louder muffler and place it closer to the engine and it won’t be so loud you can’t think. Rule of thumb, closer to the end of the exhaust pipe the louder it will be. Mufflers are like neckties, pick what YOU like and what fits you.” With a good aftermarket exhaust, you can expect up to a 35 horsepower increase. Some well known exhaust systems are Flowmaster, Magnaflow, and Borla. A good exhaust system will also increase your fuel efficiency. You can expect to shell out $150 for the exhaust but expect to dig deeper if you want the tubing as well. Let’s be honest men, exhaust systems just sound cool. 


I’ve heard people say they’ve put a “chip” in their car and it improves their performance. Any thoughts?

“Let’s look at performance chips. Holy Smokes! Easy, adjustable horsepower! But it’s not exactly cheap. The right chip will make you smile…all the way to the gas pump. Using the wrong chip could grenade the engine. Ask lots of questions when getting a chip. Most chips now just plug into the OBD II data connector and you’re done. No tools, no weekends, and no rags for greasy hands!! Hopefully you will be able to find a combination that works for you in here that will give you some inexpensive horsepower and not break the bank!” Expect to shell out a few hundred bucks for a performance chip. Bully Dog and DiabloSport are two well known companies. Expect up to 90 horsepower increase depending on the brand and how much you’re willing to pay. Expect to shell out about $200+ for a good system.

So, we’ve just discussed how to add 100-200 horsepower to your vehicle. Guys, most of these modifications will only run a couple hundred bucks. The expensive part is paying some other guy for the labor. So, if possible, try to do some of these mods on your own. If you’re thinking about making some of these adjustments to your vehicle, chances are, somebody has already done it and put it up on YouTube. But if you don’t feel confident, turn it over to a professional. Also, check to make sure these mods don’t void any warranties you might have on your ride. All of these modifications will give you horsepower, but they will also improve your gas mileage as well (barring the performance chip). I hope this article helped answer some questions you might’ve had about adding horsepower to your ride. Men, your vehicle is an extension of your personality. Get the right vehicle for you. Because at the end of the day, you should be able to walk into the driveway or across the parking lot and see your ride, and it should put a smile on your face. That smile might not be as big as the day you got your license, but it should be within a car length. So man-up, get behind the wheel, and let those ponies run!

Paul Craft
Paul was born, raised in the historic town of Fincastle, Va (just outside of Roanoke). He lives on a registered “Century Farm” that has been in his family since 1906 in a house that was built in the 1790s. His farm has over 300 hundred head of cattle, 6 donkeys, 17 chickens and various other animals along with his dogs, Mike, Buster, and Loki. Paul is married and has three step-children. Paul graduated from Emory and Henry College in 2004 with a degree in Geography and an emphasis in environmental studies. Paul works as a Mental Health Counselor and is currently working towards his Masters Degree in Counseling through Liberty University and will soon be a Christian Counselor.

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