Saturday, November 29, 2008


Is putting a fart muffler on your car going to increase performance or just empty your wallet, make your car loud and unreliable, and mark you as a dork?  Yes, to the latter.

Further to my previous article is one I wrote quite a while back, which really pissed off some folks in the car hobby circles, particularly those who like to sell expensive add-on accessories to young kids who can least afford them.

As I noted in my previous article, when evaluating how far to go with any hobby, you need to keep in mind three basic principles:

1. Don't take it a step too far.

2. Be aware you might outgrow the hobby.

3. Don't fall for the hype of the hobby industry.

With regard to automotive accessories, it is easy to fall into all three traps. You can easily overmodify a car, spending thousands more than the car is worth, with less than stellar results.  As you get older, such a "modded" car may seem less desirable.  And the aftermarket accessory industry is certainly full of its own hype.

Anyway, here is the controversial article:


For as long as there have been cars, there has been an “aftermarket” of automotive accessories and add-ons. I’ve read old catalogs from the days of the Model-T, listing hundreds of things you can buy to make your car “better.”   But are they really worth it?

The aftermarket business is quite brisk.  Take a trip to the SEMA show sometime and see all the junk you can buy for your car.  It staggers the mind.  Television shows such as “Pimp my Ride” and their ilk, glorify the concept of “customizing” a car with aftermarket goodies.  It sure is fun to look at.  But do you really NEED or WANT all this stuff?

Before you pull out your wallet for the latest coffee-can muffler, consider the following points:


On many automotive websites, one common posting I see is “I just bought a (brand) car, what should I ‘upgrade’ first?”  The real answer is often: nothing.  But you will find someone posting a response of the “must have” upgrades for such-and-such a car.  Only a lamer would fail to install a power-widget!

To begin with, bear in mind that many, if not all, of the car chat boards are monitored and shilled by representatives for aftermarket products.  Sometimes, these shills are careless enough to be caught, on boards where domain addresses can be traced.  In once case recently, a poster claiming to be a customer, lauded the service of a used-parts company.  However, this “customer” had a domain address from that company.

SO, when you see a posting on a car board saying “Oh, you MUST get the power chip and performance intake!  It will double your horsepower!” be wary.  Oftentimes, these laudatory postings (and the inquiries that generate them) are put-up jobs by shills for the aftermarket companies.  In short, they are advertisements and attempts to brainwash you.


Most of the marketing for aftermarket parts is directed towards males aged 16-35.  You can sell this group ANYTHING if you tell them it will make them look cool and more masculine.  Young adult males are horribly insecure, and you can sell them a clear taillight, if it comes with the implied promise that it will make them look less faggy.

The cold hard truth, however, is that most of these “performance upgrades” do very little to enhance the performance of a car, in terms of performance per dollar.  And many of these “upgrades” are purely cosmetic in nature - even (or especially) the ones marketed as performance upgrades.

For young kids today, the “in” thing is the “rice racer.”  These are older Japanese cars that they hop-up to make into (alleged) race cars.  The reason the kids today use these Japanese cars is the same reason kids in the 1970’s hopped up old 60’s coupes. The source cars are generally whatever hand-me-down they get from their parents, or whatever car can be cheaply bought.

But, like the jacked up '68 Oldsmobiles with big slicks, Crager mags, and “Thrush” mufflers we drove in 1975, these “rice racers” are little more than stock cars with cosmetic bolt-ons that do little to enhance performance and sometimes make the car less safe to drive.


Your typical kid, having such a car, will first gravitate toward cosmetic “upgrades” and then (if ever) add performance upgrades.  Bear in mind that much of what you might think is “performance” is actually cosmetics. In the 1970’s the first thing we’d do is add a loud muffler (not much has changed!) and if we could not afford that, take the muffler off, poke holes in it, or just let it rust out. The thinking was, LOUD=FAST.  The lack of horsepower robbing “back pressure” was good for at least 20-30HP, right?

Well, not exactly. What you are really getting is just LOUD, and maybe a noise violation ticket. Lack of back pressure can actually burn valves, and in some instances, decrease performance.  In many modern cars, loud mufflers do very little, as most of the back pressure is a function of the catalytic converter system, which in most instances cannot be removed due to emissions requirements. So what you get is just LOUD.

And today, exhaust systems last a good long time.  So ripping out a perfectly good exhaust system to put in a “stainless” job just makes the car louder and your wallet thinner.  The sound gets annoying after a while (especially on long trips) and no one will want to ride in your car.  In most instances, aftermarket exhausts are a pure waste of money.

The purely cosmetic items like clear taillights, turn signals, little blue lights on the hood, neon lighting and other junk really need not be addressed at all.  If you think this stuff looks “cool” and is worth the hundreds (or thousands) of dollars it can cost, go for it.  Much of the lighting stuff is illegal, and makes your car an excuse for the cops to pull you over.  Moreover, much of it is of very low quality (more on this later) and will cause all sorts of reliability problems down the road.  How “cool” are clear taillights that don’t work?


Your typical teen today also wants to spend a lot on air dams, giant wings, side skirts, rear valences, and other “ground effects” to make the car look like the race cars you see on TV.  Again, this is purely cosmetic.  For street driving, most of this junk makes no difference in performance. Aerodynamics and downforce play a role only at high speeds (60 mph and up) and most street cars are run at an average speed of 20-30 MPH over their lifetime.  The only place a car can really be run safely on the street at high speeds is on the Interstate.  And on the Interstate, there are no reverse-camber hairpins or other challenges where down-force will really make a difference.

Aerodynamics are a true waste of money.  And since most kids are on a budget, much of the aftermarket air dams and the like are poorly made, fit badly, and look worse.  Most of these kids never get around to painting them to match, and even then, they tend to look “tacked on” not “built-in.”  In the real world of steep driveways, parking lot curbs and dividers, the average fiberglass air dam lasts about 6 months before it has a huge crack in it.  All that money spent, and the car looks like hell!


But what about performance upgrades? What about them? Most provide only incremental improvements in performance at a huge expense.  A recent posting in the ROADFLY BMW forum was most illuminating.  A fellow tried to “upgrade” his 1997 328i by adding a cone filter, “chip”, exhaust header and loud exhaust, aftermarket cam, and a high performance intake.

Total cost was over $3000 to install, including labor, and the gain in rear wheel horsepower, as measured on a dynamometer, was 25 bhp (from 149 to 173) or a 16% increase in power.

Bear in mind this was $3000 worth of unnecessary work on a car worth maybe $8000 to $9000 on a good day.  For 1/3 the price of the car, he gained 17% increase in horsepower.

For $12,000 he probably could have bought outright, a car with much more horsepower.

The point is, it is far cheaper to buy horsepower (or handling) from the factory than it is to try to “add” it to a stock car.

The other side of the coin is that much of these add-ons can make the car worth less in the resale market, or make the car nearly impossible to sell.  If you take a Honda Civic and bolt on all sorts of fiberglass crap, put a loud muffler on it, and all sorts of glitzy kid stuff, no one (other than one of your friends with similar tastes) will ever want to buy it.  As a result, the car is worth less, as the market for resale is smaller.

And frankly, no one wants to buy a car that looks like it was hot-rodded.  Aftermarket performance upgrades usually mean the car was driven hard, which in turn means the car will have reliability issues.

If you have a friend who says he will “do you a favor” by selling you his hopped-up Civic, WATCH OUT.  Chances are, he’s beat the tar out if it, and you’ll end up with the repair bill.

In the 1960's it was possible to buy a car and literally bolt-on horsepower.   Large American V-8s were overbuilt and under-carburated.  By putting in a hotter cam and a bigger carburator, you could easily and inexpensively add horsepower - lots of it, too.

But modern cars are designed to much more stringent emissions and fuel efficiency standards. Engineers can no longer afford to leave horsepower lying on the drawing board.  Engines are built as small and lightweight as possible, with the most specific horsepower than can be reliably had. You can't change a cam or a carburetor (the latter doesn't even exist) and expect to add 50 HP to the mix. Any major changes are likely to make the car fail emissions.   Even if you don't live in an emissions testing State, this means it will be much harder to sell the car later on to someone who does.


So why do people buy this stuff? Well, as set forth above, much of it is sold on marketing – that the chicks will dig you and the guys will respect you if you have a “hot ride.”  While this may be true, trust me when I say that the chicks will dig you more, and the guys respect you more if you drive a Porsche rather than a lime-green Civic with a big wing on it.  And for what a lot of kids spend "modding" their Civics, they could buy outright, a secondhand Porsche or BMW.

The other part of the equation of marketing is blatantly false advertising.  Aftermarket sellers sing the siren song of unleashing “hidden horsepower” from your car, that somehow the factory engineers forgot to give you.  Nowhere is this more true than with so-called “performance chips”.

Modern cars use an engine management computer to control the fuel injection and ignition timing. While this may sound all sophisticated and complicated, it really is not that high-tech.  The timing and duration of the ignition and fuel injector pulses is controlled to provide the power and acceleration for given conditions. This programming is a compromise between performance, emissions, gas mileage, engine service life, and what we call “drivability issues.”  The latter includes stumbling and hesitation, NVH (Noise Vibration and Harshness), and other things that affect how the car feels when you drive it.

Since the fuel/air mixture has to be controlled to the 14.7% stoichiometric ratio for optimal emissions and catalytic converter operation, the only thing a “power” chip can do really is advance the timing.

This is a trick that has been around since the early days of hot-rodding.  If you advance the timing by twisting the distributor a few degrees, the car will accelerate a little better. These “power chips” just do this electronically.

Many chip companies claim HP gains of 20HP or more.  But if you read the fine print, it usually says “up to” 20HP or whatever.  You might get 20HP more out of that 400HP car, but your 150HP grocery-getter might only get 5-7HP at most.  And this IS at the expense of gas mileage.  Often, these HP gains are also mostly at or near redline, where you really shouldn't be running anyway.

Now in racing, a gain of even one horsepower makes the difference between winning and losing a race.  But in commuting to work, it will make no difference whatsoever.

By the way, right behind the “chip myth” is the cone filter myth.  I’ve owned a few of these, and they have provided mixed results.  They certainly SOUND cool, creating a throaty intake noise.  The stated HP gains are not always in line with some of these manufacturer’s claims.  One filter maker at least posts honest HP numbers on its website.  I was chagrined to discover that the horsepower gain on my 5.0 Ford was only about 8 bph at redline, and more like 3-5 hp elsewhere.  Is that worth $250? It is even noticeable on a 200+ HP engine?

These cone filters also need to be oiled RELIGIOUSLY, and the oiling kits cost more than a typical stock filter. So you are not really “saving” any money there.  Many mechanics I have spoken with hate them.  Since many owners do not oil them properly or frequently enough, they let a lot of dirt into the engine, resulting in premature engine failure.  In addition, if you over-oil them, the red oil will wick up the intake, gumming up the works, and possibly damaging your MAF (Mass-Air Flow Sensor) or TPS (Throttle Position Switch).

I've given up on cone filters and gone back to the plain old factory paper filter.  Guess what? I can't tell the difference at all in terms of performance.  The car is merely quieter.


Another area of real “performance” enhancement that is of dubious value is in suspension “upgrades.” For many enthusiasts, a strut tower stress bar is de rigeur as is upgraded shocks and lowering springs, urethane bushings, and the like.  And most kids simply HAVE to have oversized “bling-bling” wheels with wide tires.  Extreme camber is a new trend, or was, and makes the car barely driveable.

Are these “upgrades”? YES and NO.  Stress bars are a popular upgrade, but I am not convinced they are little more than deer whistles.  Drivers SAY they “feel” better in the ”seat of the pants”, but again, for commuting purposes, I doubt you’ll notice much.  In addition, adding weight to a car really just seems like the opposite direction to go.

They certainly LOOK cool when you open the hood, and everyone will know what a “serious” driver you are when the see it!  Tellingly, most are sold with flashy chrome or stainless finishes.  If these were really all about performance, they’d be painted flat black.

I have never seen any stress bar manufacturer post performance data proving these improve handling.  Most advertise that they make the car "feel" better, and some are just blatant about how shiny and cool they look, which pretty much tells the story.

A good set of shocks is probably the best upgrade to your suspension (best upgrade PERIOD) as they will provide you with better handling and wheel contact.  However, I question the value of ripping out perfectly good factory shocks to do this.  Consider waiting until replacement time to “upgrade” to  Bilsteins or whatever.

And upgrade carefully.  Some shocks are too stiff and may result in less tire contact.  Also some shocks work best with aftermarket springs, or vice-versa. The wrong combination of strut and spring can result in pogo-stick like handling, which is dangerous.  Experimenting with suspension design is not for amateurs.

Lowering springs are another attractive “upgrade”, but again, I would advise caution. For daily driving, you may find a lowered car a pain-in-the-butt in terms of scraping air dams, bottoming out suspension, and a harsh ride.  Let’s face it, most people go with lowering springs because the car LOOKS COOL when it is “lowered.”  The supposed benefit of a “lower center of gravity” (1”?) is pretty illusory for the daily driver.

A lot of other suspension “upgrades” should probably just be avoided PERIOD. Just because the racers use something does NOT mean it will work well on the Beltway.  In the 1970’s the big thing for racing a 2002 was “camber plates.”  These worked well for racers when used in conjunction with other suspension upgrades. But bear in mind that a racing suspension is often designed to be UNFORGIVING.

Today, it is "coilovers" which are pretty expensive and can make a car harsh to ride in and unforgiving when you push it too far.   What works for the track often doesn't on the street, no matter what you saw in "The Fast and the Furious".

When carmakers design cars, they want the steering and handling to be forgiving.  As such, cars tend to “plow” and tires “squeal” long before you reach the limits of handling. They want the car to FEEL like it is going to “let go” long before it actually does.  For racing, this is an anathema.  Racers want a suspension they can push right up to the limit.  However, once you reach that limit, it quickly comes unhinged with little or no warning.

For an experienced racing driver, this is not a problem, as they practice a lot, and can “spin out” into a gravel patch or the infield with little damage.  For you, the street driver, this can mean wrecking the car or killing someone.  Just because you bought it, does not mean you know how to drive it.

Before you spend a lot of dough on esoteric suspension parts, see if you can ride in or drive a similar car with the same parts. You may find the difference negligible, harsh, or even scary. Like I said, for driving to the Safeway, you won’t notice a thing, other than all the expansion joints in the road.


Big wheels are often a performance DOWNGRADE, as they make the car slower and handle worse. They are worse than purely cosmetic!  Your average kid wants the largest wheels possible, preferably as gaudy as possible as well.  Hey, all the rappers have them, so they must be ‘da bomb”, right?

The problem is, if the overall diameter of the larger tire is GREATER than that of the stock tire, you have effectively increased the final drive ratio of the car. Net result? Slower acceleration. An “upgrade” that makes a car slower than stock is NOT an upgrade at all!

In addition, many of these really tacky wheels are HEAVIER than stock.  The whole goal of good suspension design is to “reduce unsprung weight.”  Unsprung weight includes the weight of the brakes, the spindle, the hub, the wheel, and the tire.  This is the part of the car than oscillates up and down in response to bumps in the road.  The more unsprung weight you have, the less responsive the car will be.  The tires will be less likely to be in contact with the road, and the handling will SUFFER.

There are also daily drivability issues as well.  The boards are abound with sob stories from folks who bought 19” rims, only to bend them within a few months on potholes.  Really over sized rims, rims from the wrong car, and/or rims with the wrong offset can rub against fenders and wheel wells, which is downright unsafe and can lead to catastrophic suspension failures. Rims that are really big or have huge offsets also can accelerate suspension wear.  Ball joints and wheel bearings in particular, are stressed more by larger wheels, as they act like a pry bar on these components.  If you horse the car around a lot in the corners, expect to visit your suspension mechanic more often.

Truly huge wheels are all the rage in some sectors. Folks are wedging 19”, 20” even up to 24-25” wheels into cars.  Oftentimes the only way to do this is to jack up the suspension, usually using rudimentary techniques. These wheels are recognized even by their owners as purely cosmetic upgrades.  Often setups like this are so unwieldy, that the owner cannot drive much more than 50 MPH, even on the freeway.  If this sounds appealing to you, go for it!  But bear in mind you are basically tossing money away trying to impress people.


Brake upgrades are one area where it would seem there should be no argument – better brakes are a good safety feature.  And in that regard, you’ll get no argument from me.  However, before you spend, think about where you are going with this.

Most “big brake” kits, with larger rotors, calipers and pads, may require larger rims.  So a $2500 brake upgrade might require a $4000 rim and tire upgrade.  And the problem is, you can’t put your stock rims back on.

I hate to say this, but a “big brake” upgrade is often purely cosmetic.  If you read the boards, you’ll see over and over again, messages from youth who want to paint their brake calipers.  Why? Well, so they look cool poking out from behind those new Italian rims!

The same can be said of “big brakes.”  Nothing looks more ridiculous on a car than huge rims with teeny, tiny brake rotors behind them (and worse yet, drums in the rear!).  It just screams “lame!"  Big wheels and big brakes certainly look cool, that’s for sure.

Stainless steel brake lines are another area where one has to wonder if cosmetics are at work.  The theory is that stainless steel braided lines will expand less, resulting in less mushy pedal feel and less fade.  However, as a guy who majored in industrial hydraulics at GMI and worked at an Aeroquip distributor, I am not sure this is really the case.  Hose is hose, and the stainless steel braiding on the exterior of a hose is to protect the hose from abrasion, not prevent it from "ballooning". Braid expands quite nicely when flexed.  So much for the "pedal feel" theory.

(And yes, when I worked at Aeroquip, I made umpteen zillion sets of stainless steel lines for bikers and hot rodders.  It was mostly for show).

I’ve experimented with cross-drilled, slotted and other rotor types. Again, they look “racer” (or “ricer” take your pick) but I am not certain they really improved my braking performance.

Again, if you are driving to work every day, maybe stock brakes will work just as well for you, for a lot less money.  Many racers use stock rotors, but will change pad compounds to improve braking. Racing pads often are not suitable for street use, however.  They may wear fast, create a LOT more dust, and tend to “stick” to the rotor when you come to a complete stop.

And please, don’t buy your pads on the basis of which ones leave the least amount of dust on your precious bling-bling rims!


Another area where young folks like to add-on is the big “boom-boom” stereo.  If you are a real audiophile, and like to listen to accurately reproduced sound, then go for it.  Just bear in mind that most of the aftermarket junk is just that – flashy looking stuff that makes a lot of NOISE and really doesn’t reproduce sound very well.

The next time you are in your stereo store, take the time to notice how much of the stuff they sell is cosmetically enhanced.  All the stereo “headend” units have displays what would put a Japanese Pachinko Parlor to shame.  They are chromey and glitzy, and usually have two or three garish lighting colors, faked-up “equalizer” displays and the like.

I, for one, would like to upgrade to a better stereo in my car. But until I find one that doesn’t look like a pinball machine on crack, I’ll have to take a pass.  From what I read on the Boards, this is a common complaint.  But, since the aftermarket sells to mostly young folks, don’t expect restraint from the stereo boys anytime soon.

The same is true even of components that under ordinary circumstances, you never even see!  If a subwoofer is an audio performance item, then why does the enclosure need to be gussied up with plexiglass (excellent acoustics there!) and even neon?  And wouldn’t it make more sense to protect the sensitive woofer with a grill than expose it to the elements?  Why do power amplifiers have all those flashing LEDs on them?  Isn’t this something that is supposed to be bolted under your seat or in the trunk?

Well, as you might have guessed, cosmetics sells, even in something like stereos, which you would think would sell on sound alone.  The reality is, kids want something LOUD and something that LOOKS COOL to impress their friends.  Gee, sounds a lot like the aftermarket mufflers!

The other problem with aftermarket stereos, and you see this all the time on the Boards, is that kids get paranoid about someone stealing them (because other kids will do just that).  So they spend a couple of grand on the bling-bling radio, only to discover the window smashed out the next morning. The aftermarket stereo leads to the aftermarket alarm (again, loud and annoying).

The reality of automotive stereo is that the car is a horrible place acoustically, so spending a lot of dough on high resolution sound makes little sense, unless you plan on living in your car. Most of the stuff sold these days is more “boom-boom” than high resolution, anyway.

Considering what passed for a “factory” radio back in 1975 (Delco mono AM radio), today’s “factory” CD players don’t seem so bad to me. I never have to worry about them being stolen, they sound pretty good, and with the top down you generally don’t notice much finesse on the sound.

I have installed a subwoofer on one car, and it was a big improvement. I plan on replacing some (blown) speakers on another.  But for my purposes, I’m not sure I need to go much further than that. From what I read on the boards, the results of aftermarket systems are mixed at best.

And please, don't think for a second that spending $2000 on an aftermarket stereo increases the value of your car by even a dollar.  And by the way, when it gets stolen, chances are, it isn't covered under your car insurance, unless you declared it when you bought the policy.

Another problem with aftermarket stereos is that they often draw a staggering amount of power and can lead to electrical problems.  The Pioneer AVIC Z2 I installed in the X5 was great, but it drew so much juice (it was basically a PC for your car) that it would drain the battery flat in 30 minutes!   Many young people report electrical problems with their cars after installed aftermarket stereos, as these usually aggravate weak batteries and charging systems.


One of the un-talked about topics when it comes to aftermarket accessories is quality.  There are some manufacturers that make aftermarket (usually replacement) parts that are of the highest quality. I’ve been impressed with Bilstein shocks, for example.  But that is a company that is also an OEM supplier.

A lot of the other stuff leaves much to be desired. Why is this? Well for starters, your average aftermarket product has a service life of only a couple of years.  A teenager with a Honda Civic will either crash or destroy the car within a year or two (this is a basic fact of life).  So a bolt-on “ricer” accessory need not be of the highest quality.  Even if the car is not destroyed, most folks change cars every 3-5 years or so, and if the aftermarket product is bolted on halfway through that cycle, it need last only 2 years, tops.  They aren’t selling to the second owner!

The other part of the equation is that many aftermarket suppliers simply don’t have the R&D budget and manpower to life-test products for 10 years or more. When GM builds a new car, hundreds are made and destroyed and driven to death to find all possible defects before production takes place (and even then, they miss a few!).  Your average aftermarket purveyor cannot afford that. You, the consumer, ends up being the test lab for new products.  The better suppliers have generous warranty return policies.  The worst ones won’t return your phone calls.

In the electronics business, the problem is exacerbated by what we call “infant mortality.”  For an OEM supplier, electronics are “burned in” by running them for a few hours before shipping. Defective products will tend to fail during this “burn-in” period and are culled from the crop. The remaining units will have a higher reliability rate as a result.  Small time suppliers don’t have the space or labor to do “burn in.”  As a result, you the consumer, do the burn-in for them.

A LOT of aftermarket products are sold by companies making racing products.  Racing is a pretty limited market, so it pays if you can sell some racing goods to the street market.  The more of a product you sell, the lower the cost to make it.  Some suppliers will unscrupulously try to persuade you to buy racing gear for your street car, even if such gear is not really suitable for street use.  I guess you can’t blame them for trying. But you can blame yourself for buying.


The easiest way to “upgrade” you car is to buy a faster one.  If you have a four-cylinder BMW, fix it up, polish it real good, and sell it.  Spend the money you would have WASTED on an “upgrade” and buy a six cylinder BMW.  You are going to have to buy a new car some day anyway.  Better to spend the upgrade money buying more car than to make your existing car worth less.  Or, you could just learn to appreciate the car you have for what it IS, instead of what it will never be.

If you already have a six, and that’s not fast enough, think about getting an M3.  If you already have an M3, think about getting a Porsche.  If a Porsche isn’t fast enough for you, then no one can help you.

Faster cars have better suspensions, better brakes, and better handling – all tested and certified by the factory.  In terms of cost per HP, they will cost LESS than a “modded” car, as they will carry a higher resale value.  Your “modded” car is worth less than the plain-jane stock model your kindergarten teacher drives.

And for God’s sake, don’t try to “make” an M3 out of old parts and a 318.  I’ve seen this on the Boards many times, where some high-schooler tries to “upgrade” his 318 by bolting on all the M3 parts he can find at the local junkyard.  If this is your idea of a hobby, go for it.  But bear in mind the resulting car is NOT an M3, and don’t come whining to me when your subframe rips out of the chassis.  The 318 did not get the reinforcing plates!

Of course, the other alternative is to keep what you have and appreciate it for what it is, not what it is NOT.

A 4-cylinder BMW is never going to be a rocket ship.  Adding a supercharger, turbocharger, or nitrous is just going to shorten your engine life.  And the rest of the car (suspension, brakes) will need a corresponding upgrade to keep up.  These cars were never designed to go fast.  They handle decently and provide a nice ride.  Acceleration is not their strong suit.

In that vein, suspension and brake upgrades probably make the most “sense” as they are going to at least improve (hopefully) the safety of your car.  But wait until the existing components wear out before throwing a lot of money into upgrades.  Bear in mind that the car will have its share of MAINTENANCE expenses, and if you blew your wad on clear taillights, you might not have enough left over for a transmission fluid change.  If you “upgrade” at the expense of basic maintenance, you are really throwing money away.

What I see on the boards a lot is young men who spend thousands of dollars on “upgrades” only to find they have drivability and reliability problems, and then get socked with a hefty repair bill, whcih they have no cash to pay for.  An older car will require more maintenance, so think about setting funds aside for things like brakes, tires, and radiators, before you max the credit card on that aluminum wing.

And often, after so many upgrades (taking the hobby too far) the car is so weird that no one in their right mind would buy it.  One over-modded 4-cylinder automatic Z3 (the lamest of the lot) was recently auctioned on eBay.  The owner had removed the steering wheel to replace it with a poor quality aftermarket job - with no airbag.  As a result, it would be hard to register in any State with safety inspection.  Not surprisingly, it failed to meet the sellers "reserve" price.

The only real “upgrade” I plan for my E36’s is to replace the struts with Bilsteins when the OEM ones wear out.  I have had good luck with Bilsteins and I’ll stick with that brand.  The jury is still out on lowering springs.  Bear in mind the E36 bottoms out on speed bumps as it is.  I am not sure I need to make it more undrivable in real-world conditions.

Besides, if I really want to “upgrade” the performance of my BMW, all I have to do is move over one bay in my garage and slide behind the seat of the M Roadster.  That car is more than fast enough for me.  Believe it or not, some folks will tell you that even an M car is a total POS and any “serious” driver will tear out the shocks, springs, etc. for aftermarket “upgrades.”  I think this is more shilling going on, personally.


I get flamed a LOT on car boards. SEMA (Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association) members do not like what I have to say.  After all, if teenagers stop buying their ugly airdams, how are they going to put their kids through college?

I used to work for GM many years ago and studied Automotive Engineering there.  I’ve owned over 30 cars so far in my lifetime, and I’m now outside the “while male, age 16-35” age group that SEMA members market to.

And I’ve done a LOT of the upgrades listed above, with mixed results, and some regrets.  In many cases, the results were less than the spectacular performance improvements promised by the manufacturers and touted on the boards.  In some cases, the results made the car unpleasant to drive and ride in.  Loud mufflers and bone-rattling suspensions are not enjoyable for more than a few minutes.  Four or five hours behind the wheel of such a car can be torture.

And if a car can no longer serve its intended purpose (general transportation) then what good is it?  It no longer is a car, it is a talisman of a car.

The myth that your stock car can be converted into a “race” car using aftermarket parts is just that: a myth.  If you are going to be a racer, great! Join SCCA and buy (or build) a race car.  However, what you will find, if you carefully examine even the various “stock” classes of racing, is that a true race car has little in common with a street car, other than exterior sheet metal.  The labor and parts needed to build a true race car is far more than the cost of a few aftermarket bolt-ons.  And a real race car is no fun to drive on the street.

Rather than spend all your money on aftermarket “goodies”, consider putting that money in the bank. When you’ve saved up enough, then you can afford to buy a really nice car – one with all the performance enhancements that come standard, not bolted on.  And by then you’ll be able to afford the insurance on it!

Good Luck!

P.S. –My apologies to all SEMA members. The emperor has no clothes!