Winding Road Guest Blog: Why Production Cars Are Production Cars
By Winding Road Staff
February 02, 2011
Friend of Winding Road, Evan Frank, helps us to kick of the new Guest Blog series with this piece on his misadventures with tuning, Mustangs, and the shock of road-car realities. If you’re interested in becoming a WR guest blogger, check out the details, here, and then send us your best effort at email@example.com.
In the fall of 2005 I acquired my first new car, a 2006 Mustang GT. It was quite the upgrade from the 250,000-plus mile 1994 Mercury Villager I was driving up to that point. I was not much of a car nut at the time, but that quickly changed as I learned to drive stick and started to explore the car’s limits. Surprisingly, I found my limits far before those of the car. Shortly thereafter, and well before the expiration of the manufacturer’s warranty, I was lusting after ways to go faster in both straight lines and curved ones. I scoured the internet and learned all about cold air intakes, performance ECU calibrations, and rod-ended suspension links.
It was all pretty simple: sacrifice a bit of the comfort and quiet of something like a rubber suspension bushing for the precision and stiffness of a spherical bearing. This is a sports car after all, and what’s a bit of noise, vibration, and harshness in exchange for a Mustang that takes to the twisties with the same eagerness that it attacks the quarter-mile? I decided it was well worth it and proceeded to order new suspension links with rod ends for that silly three-link plus panhard bar live axle rear suspension in my car.
It was Christmas in March when all the parts arrived and I set out to install them—in my college parking lot. Things went quite well considering the motley bunch of tools I had borrowed from my Formula SAE team. I even got some encouraging comments from passersby, while the car was up on jack stands, along the lines of, “That car looks like it’s floating” and. “Maybe the wheels are just really small.” (Testaments to rigorous college admissions standards, all.) Within a few hours I was out driving and things felt basically the same, but I’d be darned if I hadn’t gained .001 g of cornering acceleration.
Fast forward through the next month, which I would spend driving through snowy, salty roads that were slightly smoother than a freshly carpet-bombed runway. I had read lots online about the gear whine and vibrations that rod end bearings heim would transmit to the cabin—that never really bothered me. But the slop! Every bump and pothole created a noise one would normally associate with words like “breaking,” “failure,” and “wheel(s) falling off.” I even changed my driving style as I noticed that being on throttle, while hitting bumps, reduced the noise. A quick visual inspection revealed that the joints were not happy and that the Teflon liners had seen better days.
Out of shame I won’t even go into the details of all the inane fixes I tried, while trying to convince myself that it wasn’t the actual rod ends that had failed. After all, these were race parts, so how could they fail where the stock parts had survived?
The next year I spent the summer interning for a local professional race team that was running a prototype car in the Grand-Am Rolex series. It was here that I realized the full extent of my folly. Yes, racecars endure high g-loads for hours on end. Yes, everything gets very hot. What they don’t suffer are: potholes, road salt, rain (not often at least), and general grime. Where my car gets washed once a month if it’s lucky, these cars get washed top to bottom, inside and out after every race. (Believe me, as the resident new guy at the shop, I was intimately familiar with brake cleaner, simple green, and the parts washer.) The rod ends are not allowed to ingest road grit or soak in salt water. They are not shock loaded by road imperfections. On the rare occasion that some slop developed in one of the joints, meaning once or twice in the whole summer, it was simply popped out and replaced as a part of the post race inspection. In my experience it’s not quite this simple on my car.
The point is that race parts are race parts because they only have to do one thing: run around a track a few hours at a time. Just because a rod end is stronger and stiffer than a rubber bushing doesn’t mean that it is better for all applications. Engineering is full of compromises and in this case the tradeoff was a reduced service life. The same applies to various other race-derived modifications for street cars. A lightened flywheel may let you run through the revs faster but few of us are going to enjoy having to do a jerky pit-out style start from every stoplight. Lumpy cams are awesome until you realize that, combined with the lightened flywheel, you are forced to pull away from said stoplight at a minimum of 3000 rpm.
Car forums are chock full of enthusiasts upgrading their vehicles and then reporting back that, “This is how the car should have come from the factory.” High-end performance models aside, the manufacturer must often build to the lowest common denominator and let the aftermarket take care of the rest. Production cars arrive the way they do, complete with rubber bushings, soft springs, and softened electronic throttles (major grrr on the Mustang) so that Joe Consumer can drive them and be comfortable. And comfortable in this case includes not having to keep up with high maintenance race parts. They need to be reliable in the present and durable for the future.
In my case I thought I could outsmart the OEM engineers. Turns out that the bushings are rubber because they’re quiet and zero-maintenance, not solely because Ford was being cheap. And while rod ends are certainly the opposite extreme of rubber bushings, I would like to note that even a polyurethane bushing requires substantially more maintenance than most consumers, and even some enthusiasts, are willing to perform.
My car’s suspension is currently back to stock parts and will likely stay that way until the Mustang can become a secondary vehicle. I am in no way opposed to modifying street cars, but I will always approach new projects with a keen eye on the practicality gauge, lest the needle dip too far into the “race” range. Although now that I mention it an aluminum flywheel sounds like fun…