Kevin Tetz
October 23, 2013

Streetable and well-equipped vehicles with all the features of late-model cars are everywhere these days, which is one of the best things to happen to the vintage car world in a long time. Seeing, creating, and especially driving these cars is a great experience, but it's a delicate balance of technologies that has emerged 40 years apart; to say the least, mashing up decades worth of automotive advancement is a careful science.

We're all comfortable with late-model engine swaps into early cars, and comfortable with the rock solid reliable power levels that are double that of our vintage Pony cars, not to mention 20-plus mpg, but this can lull us into complacency and a false sense of reliability that goes along with the newer donor vehicle. It's easy to assume that along with a modern engine swap goes the modern reliability of the donor engine into the rest of the vehicle systems, such as brakes, steering, suspension, and electrical components…but that assumption can be dangerous. Let's face it, not many of us gearheads are engineers. Sure, there are a probably a few, and a few more that think they are, but the truth is that most of us are just people who like to work on our own cars. Restomods have come a long way, but balanced components are the key to a well-built and fun project, and nothing takes the place of good planning and excellent execution.

Once the logistical challenges of blending modern and classic have been hammered out, the fine tuning begins. Part of that is tuning the engine for best performance and efficiency. With the advent of the OBD-II interface around 1994, we now have the opportunity to easily plug in and communicate with our engine's brain, known as the PCM, ECU, and by other acronyms describing the vehicle computer, to optimize the function (aka tune) using external computers, sensors, and software. The icing on the cake is that tuning can be affordable and is more and more accessible.

Tuning Access

As Ford geeks, we're fortunate to have companies like SCT that specialize in handheld programmers, which make it really easy to safely increase power levels for mostly stock vehicles. SCT (www.sctflash.com) is well known in late-model Ford high performance circles with mass air meters, chips, power programmers, and software, and it was the preferred interface of our shop, DBR High Performance (www.dbrhighperformance.com) in Spring Hill, Tennessee. There are a variety of "canned tunes" that can be loaded into our PCM via the OBD-II port, and they've been tested to safely deliver increased performance on most cars.

Our test car is different, due to the high performance mods we've done, and the unique nature of the blend of components. Plus, the computer doesn't need to recognize emissions restrictions either, since we're not disabling any emission systems mandated on a '66 Mustang. A great source for tested custom tunes that go to the next level of performance for almost any configuration and combination of mods is Lund Racing (www.lundracing.com), who we worked with to tune the Pro Touring '66 Mustang "Jaded" later in this story. Utilizing the experience of a company like Lund Racing takes experimentation off the table, and still gives added performance over off-the-shelf programmers. To optimize the perfect combination of air, fuel, and spark and verify chassis and drivetrain safety, function, and limitations, a tuning session on a chassis dyno is the way to go and that goes for any year, make, model, or style of vehicle.

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Dyno Testing

We've all heard the horror stories and seen the videos online of bad things happening on a chassis dyno. It's true; bad things can happen during a dyno tune, but with education and preparation, they don't have to. Dyno tuning is nothing new; it's simply load testing with tons of information attached.

Without a chassis dyno, how are you going to test and tune your vehicle at full throttle? Where are you going to be able to find at least three blocks of totally safe paved roads with no traffic and excellent visibility, not to mention good weather and perfect temperatures to get a full throttle run and see what's happening with air, fuel, heat, oil pressure, and driveline components. Answer: other than a racetrack on a perfect day, nowhere! You'll probably end up with a couple of traffic violations to say the least, and you still won't know what's going on internally in your engine. A chassis dyno-tune makes more sense the more you learn about it, and knowing that it's much safer than tuning on the street is an added bonus.

Will a chassis dyno blow up my engine? Chances are much greater that you'll break something doing a street-tune than strapped to a chassis dyno, even if you're hooked in to the PCM logging with a laptop. The stresses of a hard launch on the street or at the track, followed by three or four gear changes, are far greater than a controlled, single-gear pull at WOT (wide open throttle) on a chassis-dyno. Power pulls are made in a gear that provides a 1:1 ratio between the engine and trans, typically Fourth gear in a T-5, Tremec TKO, or T-56 (or Third gear in a four-speed auto). On a chassis dyno, you can have the opportunity to actually see in action what's going on with every aspect of your vehicle, including wheels, tires, driveshaft, transmission, and all of the information that's coming off the engine sensors into the computer, as well as out the exhaust if you've got a street car and you have to pass emissions. The shock loads of a hard launch as well as going through the gears at WOT are amazing and dangerous if your vehicle is untested; a chassis-dyno allows full power testing with a very controlled and safe environment.

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As with anything, there are some shops that are simply better and have more integrity than others, and with dynamometers becoming more affordable, it's simply easier to "call yourself" a tuner these days. It's up to you to find a tuner that has your best interests at heart, so we wanted to give you several points to consider when qualifying the shop that will flog your project.

8. Rowing up to Fourth gear, a full-throttle pull to 4,500 rpm was recorded and analyzed. Everything looked safe, air/fuel was balanced, but ignition timing was low, netting a conservative 363 rwhp and 490 lb-ft of torque on 93-octane pump gas. After three more 6,600-rpm pulls with a couple more degrees of timing, (19 degrees), the average was a respectable 428 rwhp/481 lb-ft of torque. Standing beside a blown Mustang with headers and a short exhaust is an exhilarating experience! You feel it as much as hear it.

5 Ways to Qualify a Dyno Shop:

1. Appearance

The outward appearance, and especially the shop area of a garage or service center, speaks volumes about the work ethic of a tuner. If things are dirty or cluttered, or if the area looks unsafe and disorganized, this could be a reflection of the employees and more importantly, the owner's quality of work. If they don't think much of their tools and equipment, they might not think much of your vehicle.

2. Customer Service

If someone is rushed, impatient, or even rude to you in person or on the phone, dig a little deeper, but also realize that anyone can have a bad day. Service centers need to understand that you are the customer and they need you to survive, so being dismissive or arrogant does not serve them well. A good customer experience, combined with excellent work and achieved goals creates a repeat customer, and a repeat customer provides the most valuable advertisement on the planet…word-of-mouth.

3. References

If the shop is unwilling to provide a list of past customers for you to call, don't just walk away. Run away! If they're afraid of what someone that has already spent their time and money there is going to tell you, that's a major red flag and is cause for concern. Keep in mind that there is always the potential of an unreasonably disgruntled customer, and that this feedback can often be explained. If you hear negative things, approach the shop owner and listen to his/her side. You may be able to find the truth in the middle, so keep your ears open!

4. Listen!

Is the tuner listening to you? Do they have an interest in what your goals are for your car? If you feel like all you're hearing is bragging about what they got at the wheels of "this car" and "that car" and nothing about how they worked with that customer to achieve his/her goals, this may indicate what we call a "paper tiger" shop. It's not about numbers, even though that's what the Internet forums reinforce. Tuning is about balance and realistic goals for a specific vehicle with specific and unique equipment. Numbers should be incidental, with the primary goal being the optimization of the performance of your vehicle. The best tuners are calibrators that don't have a vested interest in high horsepower bragging rights. Yes it's fun to see a ton of rear wheel power, but sensors, input, and parameters can be adjusted to "report" increases in power with no real changes to anything in the computer or on the engine or chassis. Communication is the key. After all, the dyno operator is going to repeatedly push your vehicle to its maximum output and rpm (with your permission, of course) and you're paying him to do it.

5. Insurance

Ask if the shop has garage keeper's liability. This is expensive, but necessary, coverage for any public service center that protects you and them from an unforeseen catastrophe. You may still be required to insure your vehicle while it's there, so check your personal policy to see what your coverage is. The collector car policy on our subject vehicle covers transport, trailering, liability while at the tuning shop, limited track time, as well as unlimited street mileage. Insurance costs money, not having insurance costs more.

Be Prepared

Part of having a successful tuning session is being prepared for it. Here's a check list that DBR gave us before we even brought the vehicle to the shop. Going through this list gave us the opportunity to closely inspect important components for safety and function, and more importantly avoid problems before they happen. A tuner can't tune out mechanical problems. Having everything mechanically sound before you drop in saves everyone time and money.

Tire quality: check for cracks and adjust air pressure to what the tires are rated for. Your rear wheels will be spinning well past 100 mph in most cases, so check the speed rating as well.
Driveline: U-joints, axle seals, torqued lug nuts, brake cylinders, transmission seals, and more.
Fluid levels: Engine oil (fresh oil and filter), trans fluid, gear oil.
Fluid leaks: Leaks can lead to problems…investigate every one.
Fuel filter: Always install a new fuel filter, no exceptions.
Full tank: Always fill the tank! Use the octane level you'll be using most. This eliminates any starvation potential; sometimes vehicles are not level while on rollers and a half tank may not provide full fuel delivery if the car is not sitting level.
Air filter: New or freshly serviced.
Drive Belt Condition: Replace belts with cracks or glazing…no exceptions.
Vacuum lines: Visually inspect and check vacuum lines and sources. Vacuum leaks create dangerous lean conditions, especially on boosted vehicles.
Fresh plugs: Consult your tuner before the tune; discuss gap and heat ratings.
Exhaust Clearance: Make sure nothing is in contact with exhaust; it will get hot! You can't really ever look under your car at highway speed while it's on the road, but you can on many above-ground dynamometers. A visual inspection of the driveline in action is a unique opportunity, so take advantage of it if the shop allows!

Power In The Palm Of Your Hand

We're going to be focusing on a fuel-injected '66 Mustang with a modern drivetrain donated by an '04 Cobra, a full-frame Schwartz G-Machine chassis, and ISIS electrical system. "Jaded" is the name of this coupe, and it's been a build in progress for the better part of three years, finally debuting at the 2012 SEMA show. Jaded borrows the engine, transmission, and most of the interior from a wrecked Terminator Cobra, (RIP '04 Mystichrome Cobra!) and shares many of the mods that Cobra guys are familiar with, including a ported blower, a larger throttle body, a smaller 2.76-inch blower pulley, long-tube headers, and larger injectors. Ford rated the Terminator Cobra powerplant at 390 hp, and as much torque, but the Cobra boys found out quick that uncorking a Terminator nets impressive results, and with an unusually strong bottom end and deep-breathing four-valves-per-cylinder heads, these engines can be pushed to amazing power levels and still live a long and reliable service life; thus the popularity of the '03-'04 Cobras, and the attractiveness of this engine swap into a vintage vehicle.

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We wanted to see the net gains of all the bolt-ons, as well as what the more detailed modifications would do for project Jaded, especially since we see so many Terminator Mustangs reporting rear-wheel numbers north of 500 hp, and that was the target power number for Jaded while planning the build. More importantly, and way more important than hero-numbers at the wheels, we wanted to make sure there was no danger of detonation, or any other dangerous condition that might be hidden under a bunch of shiny paint. Then, once things were balanced and safe, we can really see what "Terminator" horsepower and torque feels like in a car much smaller and lighter than its intended vehicle.

14. Know your vehicle, have your goals clearly defined before you begin, consult with your calibrator, and more importantly, educate yourself to what system you’re using to measure power. Realize that you may be comparing apples to grapefruits if you compare your numbers with someone else’s. The bottom line is that this author knows that we can beat on Jaded all day long—the drivetrain and all of the vehicle components are tested, calibrated, and balanced together. Jaded is a handful to drive and it’ll be many miles before we feel the need to improve on the performance. When the time is right, the aftermarket is filled with upgrades that will take us as far as we want to go with power…and with a well-chosen dyno shop it will be safe power!