KJ Jones
September 9, 2013
Contributers: KJ Jones, KJ Jones Photos By: KJ Jones

In our last report on Project Cheaper Sleeper ("Spoiler Alert," May '13), we detailed all of the undercover changes that Rocco Acerrio (A.R.E. Performance & Machine) and Stevie Morrow (Stevie's Garage) made on the virgin-stock '91 Mustang LX (5.0/AOD). This time around we are highlighting several cool concepts that were implemented in the 'Stang's makeover. However, one component that was added—Modotek's BlackBox v2.0 ECU—stands out among the project's headlining upgrades.

Call it perfect timing, as we received word of the BlackBox v2.0 just a few days after your scribe assumed ownership of the project Fox for $1,000. Shortly thereafter the idea of installing a low-dollar EFI 331/nitrous combination under its hood spawned. When weighing the options of how to control the engine package, we knew the Modotek ECU would be perfect for bringing our Pony's 331 stroker to life and dialing-in its performance on the street, strip, and chassis dyno.

In the old days, once performance mods went beyond adjusting timing and fuel pressure, it was time to tune EEC-IV engine management with a chip. These chips are small data modules that contain programmed timing and fuel commands that override the stock programming for a modified 5.0. They plug directly into a PCM's circuit board. While effective, chips are old news because they are fixed calibrations that cannot be manipulated on the fly.

Through the years, piggyback processors were a saving grace, of sorts, for street Ponies making big steam. Of course, the next level on all of the aforementioned tuning variants are the various stand-alone systems. While any of these systems can be used for moderate-performance applications, like our project car, they're a lot more elaborate than we really need. Typically such systems are used for high-powered Mustangs loaded with race parts.

There's one thing that we said about BlackBox v2.0 in our last report that definitely deserves repeating here: Many of the standalone systems, while excellent, are often a bit too advanced for some setups. Modotek addressed cost (the basic BlackBox v2.0 system is only $1,349) and user-friendliness head on by designing the first plug-and-play management system for EFI Foxes that connects directly (one-to-one) into a stock wiring harness. Furthermore, it allows users to precision-tune engines and power-adder systems (using a laptop) for maximum performance, the same way it's done with a stand-alone system that requires all-new wiring.

This is basically all the BlackBox v2.0 consists of. Modotek also offers free calibrations that handle most of the basic bolt-on 5.0 upgrades, as well as additional wiring harness options that can solve some of the potential challenges caused by the OEM wiring’s old age.

Enough about its potential. Let's get down to how it installs, and more importantly, how well it works on Cheaper Sleeper.

Horse Sense: We hope after reading this, you'll head down to your local newsstand and pick up a copy of our annual special issue, 1979-2013 Mustang Performance. This year, instead of focusing on one particular platform or year range of Mustang, we're bringing you a magazine filled with features and killer tech ideas that follow a budget-build theme. Look for copies on your favorite mag rack starting August 18, and drop us a note on Facebook or send a Tweet to let us know what type of Mustang projects you're working on.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery
Project Cheaper Sleeper, our stealthy, low-dollar ’91 Mustang LX, makes moves through its natural habitat, the streets of Southern California. We have to send a shout of thanks to Big Stevie Morrow of Stevie’s Garage in Simi Valley, California, for imparting his creativity and infinite mechanical talent on Project Cheaper Sleeper. If you have a cool upgrade idea for a late-model ‘Stang, Stevie definitely has the know-how and skill to make almost any concept a reality.

On the Dyno

The break-in period (approximately 300 miles of road testing) for Project Cheaper Sleeper's new bullet allowed your tech editor and tuning wizard Brian Macy of Horsepower Connection to work with the new Modotek BlackBox v2.0 engine-management system. This affordable ($1,349) plug-in ECU can use short-term and long-term fuel trims to determine the amount of fuel correction necessary for achieving a targeted air-fuel ratio (13.97 for cruising).

In the tuning world, the short-term fuel trim is the amount of fuel that the O2 sensor is allowed to change instantly, while the long-term trim is fuel values that are stored in another table and applied to a calibration by the tuner when and where desired or necessary in the map.

We actually started calibrating with the basic 5.0 startup tune programmed in the BlackBox v2.0 by the factory, and used the unit's Closed-Loop, Long-Term Factor Table (or in basic terms, the "learning option") to help get our fuel map in check rather quickly while driving down the highway. One of the neat things about this system is that (with a laptop, of course) you can watch this table real time to see how far off you are in your tune and apply changes to the whole table or just small sections.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery

While everything went well with achieving great driveability, we were anxious to strap our Mustang on the rollers of GTR High Performance's Dynojet chassis dyno to see how the ECU would measure up when it was time to calibrate the engine for power, naturally aspirated and with a hit of spray from the Nitrous Oxide Systems plate that is secretly swedged between the 331's upper and lower intake plenums.

We made several runs, steadily changing values in the PCM's Base Fuel Table until air/fuel ratio matched the target we set in the Closed-Loop Table. Once that was achieved, we experimented with the timing to see where the engine made the most power. At WOT, 32 degrees of total timing and 12.7:1 air fuel netted us 278 horses at the feet. That's a solid 100hp gain (through an AOD) over Cheaper Sleeper's original bullet, thanks to a few more cubic inches, a slightly better (but still OEM 5.0 Ford) cylinder-head/intake-manifold package, and a lumpy camshaft, all of which can be scored for minimal cash outlay.

With the naturally aspirated calibration set, we then focused on building a nitrous tune. For nitrous, ignition timing typically is retarded when the unit is activated while fuel is enrichened. With target air/fuel set at 12:1, Sleeper's stroker responded best to 6 degrees of timing retard, hitting the dyno hard with 354 horsepower and 427 lb-ft of killer torque at the feet.

As an expert who works with all types of high-end engine-management systems and consults with manufacturers on ways to improve them, Brian gave his thoughts about the Modotek BlackBox v2.0. "BlackBox is a great ECU for the price," Brian said. "The system is full of awesome features, and there is no shortage of modifiers in the software that will allow beginner and advanced tuners to get almost any engine combination running well, as long as all of the general specifics for the engine are in order. Honestly, had this system been around when KJ's T-top Coupe was built, that supercharged Mustang could actually have a mass-air sensor and be tuned to make the same 1,000 hp that it currently makes," Brian said.

Drag Day

As you can imagine, we were really excited about taking Project Cheaper Sleeper to the dragstrip and evaluating how the additional power (hopefully) improves the Pony's previous-best e.t. and speed. In the spirit of your tech editor's experience participating in Hot Rod magazine's Drag Week 2012, the decision was made to conduct a "Drag Day," loading all of the racing essentials into the ‘Stang's hatch and driving to the dragstrip in Bakersfield, California…140 miles away (one way) from KJ's home…and back.

In a nutshell, the effort was a total success! The project ‘Stang was flawless in both driving segments of the road trip. And on the track, the gain of nearly 1.5 seconds and close to 10 mph over the best factory-stock performance (naturally aspirated) is awesome when you consider the car's 3,500-pound weight and that passes were made without manually shifting the AOD. The Performance Automatic tranny was run in D for the duration of our test day to replicate the manner in which the ‘Stang was driven (with the stock engine and AOD) in our baseline runs.

Unfortunately, time ran short on our test day and we were not able to fire the nitrous system. However, we're happy with the results and what we learned by running the car in naturally aspirated trim first. Now, of course, we know there are plenty of similarly configured Foxes out there that post better numbers than this and may be just as capable of performing as efficiently on the street. The important thing to keep in mind for our ‘Stang is that from the project's outset we noted there's no desire to set the world on fire with this Pony. Doing that typically carries a hefty price tag, even when you're smart shopping and finding good deals.

The horsepower and torque gains that we saw on the dyno and in the mile-per-hour increase in the quarter-mile are strong indicators that by simply adjusting the TV cable (to extend the transmission's shift points when racing in D) or by manually shifting the AOD, Sleeper definitely is a 13-second/100-plus mph ride. We also know that by installing a looser torque converter, swapping heads and intake for better airflow, putting the heavy Pony on a diet, and focusing on a few more racier mods, Sleeper probably would be in the 12s—without the nitrous.

Other than possibly knocking off a few pounds, don't count on seeing such changes any time soon. We're proud of the solid accomplishments that were made thus far, and remember, we still have a 150hp shot of nitrous to play with the next time Project Cheaper Sleeper is at the track.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery
The track and back trip totaled 285 miles. Project Cheaper Sleeper completed the journey with zero problems, confirming that it has the run-hard-on-the-track-and-drive-it-anywhere cred that we hoped it would at the outset of the project.

More Hidden Pleasures

There are all sorts of cool upgrades that are buried within Project Cheaper Sleeper. This is a sampling of a few more sneaky mods that we came up with—cool yet functional and efficient changes that play right into our stealth street/strip ‘Stang concept.

While we've emphasized throughout this project that mods like these can come cheap through smart shopping, deal-making, and so on, we must add one caveat. Custom-made wheels like the big ‘n' little-style 10-holes that Pico Wheel Service created are among the few pricier items. You probably won't come across a set of hoops like that on the used market, and by the time you have a set made, have the wheels powdercoated (notice the black accenting on our wheels), and then add Mickey Thompson rubber, you'll have spent a little more than a grand.

Yes, that's a pretty big ticket for cool. However, if you plan well and make good moves in other areas, scoring nice custom pieces certainly can happen despite a tight budget.

Spy photos of Sleeper’s modified 15-inch, 10-hole wheels created quite a buzz on our Facebook page.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery