The Best ‘First Mod’ for Whatever Old Car You Just Bought Is Always the Same Thing
Restoring rubber parts and doing basic maintenance will take you further than aftermarket upgrades.
I haunt quite a few automotive forums and online car groups these days. One theme, in particular, that’s been floating around since the days of mailing letters to the editors of Sport Compact Car still persists — somebody’s just bought an old Make Model Whatever and wants to know what mods to do first. I’m happy to answer that for absolutely everybody: Start by fixing whatever’s broken.
Another common refrain from old (wise) heads in the car scene is that “the best mod is the driver mod,” meaning you should improve your driving skills before adding horsepower. Well, yeah, that statement has a lot of merit, but it’s also a little unsatisfying. Building driving skill takes time and if you want to go to a proper performance school, it takes a lot of money too.
So yes, you should absolutely take every opportunity to become a better driver. But that journey will span your entire car-owning career. And I totally understand the excitement of picking up a new-to-you car and immediately wanting to tinker with it. It’s very satisfying to put your own hands and mark on your machine, after all. You want to start wrenching right now! I hear you.
I’ve also been to a lot of car meets in my 30-odd years on this Earth, and I’ve seen a lot of vehicles with shiny new wheels and lowering springs paired with cracked engine mounts and steering bushings that have the suppleness of a tumbleweed. See also: Cold-air intakes running right next to cracked vacuum lines. Or a knock-off racing seat that somebody’s strapped into with a floppy seat belt that doesn’t retract properly.
If you really want to improve the way your old car drives, it pays to start by building a good baseline. And you do that by replacing tired old bushings, mounts, and hoses before adding bling or power. All those soft parts that you can’t always easily see connect critical components of your steering, drivetrain, and your engine’s respiratory system. And if the car you just bought was under $10,000, over 10 years old, or both, I promise, years of heat cycling and vibrations will have taken their toll on those things.
The annoying thing about doing bushings and rubber lines is that they don’t look very cool, and often are quite physically laborious to replace. But the upshot is that you will almost definitely feel a noticeable improvement in your old car’s performance just by bringing that stuff back up to factory spec. Speaking of factory spec, I do recommend sticking with that when it comes to bushings. You’ll find plenty of people claiming that aftermarket polyurethane bushings improve a car’s responsiveness, and they often do, but the tradeoff in harshness is brutal and rarely worth it.
So yeah — I’m not trying to shame anybody who wants to mod into just doing a lame stock restoration. On the contrary, I hope my advice helps more people build cooler cars that last longer. I’ve been there myself, wondering why my car drives kind of crappily despite riding on expensive performance tires. Trust me when I tell you that the difference between riding around with your engine and transmission clinging to their mounting points with ancient rubber versus fresh factory rubber bushings is absolutely immense even if you’re barely making 150 horsepower.
A better-maintained car is a smoother car, a smoother car runs longer, and guess what? Once you do add those sweet tires and coilovers, they’re going to multiply the car’s performance even more once they’re supported by good bushings and related pieces.
So if I personally just picked up an old car on the cheap, and wanted to get the most out of it for the least money, this is the order of operations I’d generally go through:
Tires that are cracked, worn, or just old are not only detrimental to your car’s performance, but they can actually be pretty dangerous. You don’t necessarily need high-performance tires on a Craigslist car but you should make sure whatever you have is at least safe to drive on.
Filters and Fluids
On a younger car or something with great service records, you might not need to replace every single fluid. But on a random four-figure pickup, I’d recommend changing out every filter and fluid including what’s in the transmission and differentials with nice new stuff. Unless of course, you’ve bought something with a catastrophic leak, in which case, fix that first.
But old automotive fluid can get air and water in it. Air and water reduce responsiveness and increase rot. Air and water bad.
Vacuum Lines and Hoses
Vacuum lines are a big deal on ’80s and ’90s cars, and I can’t tell you how many weird issues (car idles oddly, hesitation under acceleration, etc.) that I’ve fixed just by replacing the vacuum lines these old cars use to breathe. And that took me a long time to learn. Those lines often “look fine,” but a hairline crack can really screw up the way your car runs. Silicone tubing’s cheap, just replace it all.
Chunky pieces of rubber sit between many of your steering components. They live a hard life, and after a decade or so of being beaten up they might not be as taut as they’re supposed to be.
An experienced and trustworthy mechanic should be able to tell you if your bushings really need to be replaced or not. They do last a long time, but not forever. And even if they look OK… if they’re very old, there’s a high likelihood that they’re causing some slop in your car’s behavior.
Engine, Transmission, and Driveline Mounts
Your car can be driving pretty much fine on janky driveline mounts. But if they are indeed bad, once you replace them, you won’t believe you’re in the same car afterwards. These chunks of rubber do way more work than we give them credit for, especially more advanced fluid-filled hydraulic ones. Replacing the motor and transmission mounts in my ’84 300ZX made the car feel about 500 pounds lighter, I swear, it was that much smoother.
Another thing that amateur tuners, myself included, sometimes forget to give proper credence to is automotive safety. Unfortunately, older cars are inherently (generally) far less safe than new stuff but we can mitigate this by making sure the safety systems that are in place are doing the best job they can. Does your seatbelt dangle when you unclick it? Does it have to be force-fed back into your B-pillar? Yeah, you might want to try cleaning it (Google around for tips) or simply getting it rebuilt. It’s often a pain to remove them, but a seatbelt rebuild is typically not terribly expensive and a taut harness will make you more comfortable while improving the odds of surviving an automotive brutality.
Anyway, I hope some of those tips inspire you to let your car live its best life. I wish I’d known this stuff 15 years ago before I started throwing expensive sparkly parts on shitbox cars that were rotted from the inside out!