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Michael's Speed Zone

23rd July 2002

By Michael Knowling

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It seems to me a lot of people into modifying cars have lost their way. In the struggle to lay claim to the biggest power figure or to have the most ridiculously oversized turbocharger on a given engine, they've lost sight of a couple of key factors - the first one is reliability.

All too often the cars that we drool over spend ninety percent of their life gathering dust in a workshop waiting for major engine repairs.

Many of these vehicle owners justify their engine blow-ups with comments like "but that's not surprising, because it was making X power."

Why? Unless it's a pure mechanical breakage due to a lack of strength - like the toy conrods in the Mitsubishi Lancer GSR, for example - I'd be sitting down, scratchin' my head and thinking hard about the cause.

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The biggest killer of engines is detonation. In case you aren't aware, detonation is an uncontrolled combustion of air and fuel. Detonation is particularly nasty, hitting everything associated with the combustion chamber with the force of a jackhammer and - when severe enough - destroying pistons, rings, valves, damaging cylinder heads and blowing head gaskets.

Another common cause of engine damage is poor tuning.

Tuning an engine to run bulk rich has always been seen as the safe thing to do, but go overboard and you'll likely cause carbon problems, wash the oil off the bores (causing ring wear) and (sometimes) increase the likelihood of a backfire - not what you want when a forward-spinning turbo or supercharger is fitted to the intake... On the other hand, tuning an engine to run lean is a sure recipe for disaster - the temperature inside the combustion chambers skyrocket, potentially leading to melted pistons and detonation.

There's no excuse for outa-the-ballpark mixtures these days - not with the availability of sophisticated aftermarket engine management systems, cheap management add-ons, quality wide-band air-fuel ratio meters and chassis dynamometers. Don't settle on a substandard tune.

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If you strive to ensure your engine maintains the right mixtures and doesn't detonate - and assuming there's no mechanical weak link - it should serve a very long time. Still, you'd be amazed how often we see professionally built engines that run poorly and/or are pushed right to the limit of detonation - and, even worse, the owner has no idea that's the case. Many modified car owners don't know the 'tink-tink' sound of detonation and are blissfully unaware of the consequences of using sub-standard fuel.

And that brings me to my next point...

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I'm constantly astounded by the number of people I see mistreating their vehicles - I don't know if it's through ignorance or a lack of caring. Yeah, sure, get out there and enjoy the horsepower you've invested so much time and/or money in, but for godsake use a bit of nous for the remainder of the time. Some mechanical sympathy goes a long way. I cringe when I watch people jump into their car, crank it over cold and then proceed blast out onto the road at full noise.

In the hundreds of thousands of kilometres I've driven modified turbo cars, I have never once had a major engine failure. That means (a) I'm a lucky bastard, or (b) I'm doing something right. I like to think it's the latter.

The only engine replacement I've had to pay for was for a little Daihatsu Charade turbo, and even that engine was on its way out when I bought it.

So what measures do I take to keep my engines ticking over?

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Only a couple of basic things, really. I stick to oil change intervals and don't skimp on oil quality. I'm familiar with the concepts of heat soak and know when an engine is most likely to detonate. To reduce the potential for detonation I also ensure I fill the tank with the highest-grade fuel available. I don't even bother looking at the price-per-litre on the pumps.

Finally, I let the engine warm up gradually and cool down gradually. And note that the engine's oil takes longer to warm up than its coolant - just because your water temp gauge has moved away from Cold, it doesn't mean the engine and/or turbo is ready to be caned quite yet.

As I said it's basic stuff, but these things are often forgotten and make a hell of a lot of difference.

The second part of vehicle ownership everyone seems to forget about at the moment is usability.

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There's not a lot of point having a Holden Commodore VL turbo that rockets to 10s over the quarter mile only when running slicks, Avgas, more-than-usual boost and a fully stripped interior - and then telling everyone it's the quickest streetcar in the area. (A street car qualified by the fact the owner still pays rego and has number plates attached...)

Imagine how embarrassed you'll be when - in 'street trim' - you get beaten away from a set of lights by a near-stock Impreza WRX... It all turns to bullshit.

Things also become very dangerous when you start to push the limits of a vehicle design.

Having recently installed a boost control valve to my exhaust, intake and intercooler equipped VL Turbo I'm no longer confident handing the car over for other people to use in an emergency situation. The fact that it can break traction on a wet road in third gear - despite its factory LSD and grippy tyres - severely limits the number of people I trust behind the wheel.

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I'm no Mark Webber either, so I am extremely careful of dangerous situations that might unexpectedly arise. Like, what happens if it breaks traction at speed while going over an awkward bump? I would image the VL's ol' live axle suspension system would spit the dummy and dump me off into the scenery...

To me, the ultimate performance streetcar must be reliable, usable and quick. I'd be more than happy driving a reliable 13-14-second car that doesn't break things or carry on in adverse conditions, rather than unreliable, barely usable half-arsed drag car that masquerades as a streetcar.

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