By on June 8, 2009

ABT Sportsline press release: “For many years ago people used to wear their hair, even in Kempten, in styles which seem strange to us nowadays. ABT Sportsline, however, already knew how to properly “style” cars from the VW group 50 years ago. Since then the motto ‘cooler, faster, wider’ has lost none of its fascination.” None?

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24 Comments on “Ask the Best and Brightest: Were Tuner Cars Better Back in the Day?...”

  • avatar

    Tuning’s for knobs whatever age the car but Golf GTis are certainly less interesting now than when they first appeared.

  • avatar

    In terms of style? Reference the Batwing 635i… the incredible bodykits of various muscle cars in the 70’s… the incredibly huge wings of some of the 80’s cars… I’d say taste was just about as bad back then as it is now.

    Tuning itself… well, that’s something else. I’ll admit that older cars were easier to get power out of… fiddle-dee this, fiddle-dee that… anyone with a hacksaw (for the exhaust) and some spare change for new carb jets could make a heck of a lot of power quite easily… but modern-day computer tuning makes a mockery of the old-school carb-rejetting and timing-advance-by-hand you could do with old cars…

    The entry-level for tuning, sadly, is now out-of-reach for most, but the tuning itself is getting better… at least until the manufacturers shove all those direct-injection emissions-friendly new models that need a NSA-level cryptographic cypher to unlock down our throats…

  • avatar

    Depends on the day. Long ago there was better gas and less regulations in most places, today we have computers and knowledge but ethanol, emissions tests almost everywhere, and it’s now a multi billion dollar industry where tuning costs too much.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    VW’s best advertisements in modern times were the Un-pimp Your Car series. I’ll take a nicely done, factory job any day over any tuner crap.

  • avatar

    Tuning is much expensive, but the bolt ons you can get these days are amazing and the guesswork can be basically eliminated.

    I’m thinking back to when you’d do heads/cam/intake/exhaust work to a car to improve it. Now you replace a turbo, or even better just injectors and a ECU tune. Simple. On my car I can spend about 7 grand on a supercharger setup and go from 315 to over 500 hp, and the car will actually run properly! At least until the pistons and rods get tired of their job and retire to the pavement.

    It’s more costly, but it’s worth the money. Many of the cars look really good.

    ABT’s Audi victim:

    Hennessey is still in business (:|), brutal car:*

    Why did John Lingenfelter have to go?

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Some of my E 28 buddies have some nifty Hartges, Schnitzers and Alpina versions. Their low production numbers makes them very desirable. The M30 I6’s stoutness lends itself quite well to forced induction. I know a guy who has developed the plumbing needed to get 400 HP at the wheels with bolt on stuff. Stage 1 stuff is abouit 4K$.

  • avatar

    Relative to cost of cars back in 70’s & 80’s, probably about the same ratio of $ to get lots more power.
    Note: A Ford Fusion 4 cylinder engine has more hp (175) than a 1982 Camaro V8 (140).
    A 1968 Camaro 350 V8 4bbl was rated at 290HP & the 2002 Camaro was rated at 320HP. I’ve driven both & the 2002 is definitely faster and handles better overall.
    60’s or 70’s car with 2bbl – replace with intake & 4bbl made noticable power increase but not a lot. To get lotsa power, an engine rebuild with new pistons, cam, head work etc. was needed. Was always a few grand even then.
    80’s car with fuel injection – you could get a replacement chip for a few hundred, it was noticeable but again, it was a few grand to get lots of power increase. Until OBDII here in Illinois, as long as it passed tail pipe emissions test, anything goes/went.
    1996 + = OBDII & it may seem expensive but I think relative to price of the car, it may actually be cheaper. 2008 = $400 get me 3 tuner settings for a $20K+ car vs 1978 = $200 for an intake & carb to replace 2bbl on a $7K car.

    I can always tell a 60’s or 70’s car is around by the smell of unburned & partially burned gas.
    Something to be said for cleaner air.

    I very much agree with you about the supercharger almost being bolt on and working and getting emissions.

  • avatar

    My nostalgia is kicking in because I think tuner cars were much better in the past. The big reason is that you could get away with more and get a bigger bang for your buck. Nowadays you have enough of a problem fighting the obd2 computers and even then, the gains are less when you compare the (inflation adjusted) dollar for dollar modifications that were done.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    For engine mods, today’s engines are far better in terms of performance, reliability and durability. Check out your power outputs per CC or cu/in on today’s engines, compared to “back in the day” engines, and there’s just no comparison. Even “tuned” engines back then could only deliver today’s numbers for a while, and then grenade themselves.

    On the other hand, today’s cars weigh a helluva lot more than “back in the day.” F’rinstance, today’s Golf weighs at least 800 pounds more than Golf 1. Granted, Golf 1 has higher NVH levels, but so what, we’re talking about an economy car.

    So I guess that’s the issue, really. One one hand, the some of the “tuner” cars of “back in the day” were economy cars, while the “sports sedans” were not battling for “luxury oriented, fashion conscious customers” like today. Back then, a 5-series shopper wasn’t cross-shopping at the Cadillac store.

    And that had an affect on the cars that got “tuned.”

    So it’s apples to oranges, if you ask me.

  • avatar

    The retro rear vision mirror may have a rosy tint but even that can’t obscure the fact that we now live in the golden age of tuner modifications with a greater choice of parts available and more cheaper power than ever before. The back in the day mods may have had more DIY charm (you had to work harder) but today’s one click shopping has brought the pleasures of modding to more people than ever before.

  • avatar

    Tuning’s for knobs whatever age…

    Non-tuning’s for people who drive appliances…

  • avatar

    Anyone who thinks that all there is to tuning is slapping a wing on the back, adding some rims, and a loud, fart-can exhaust knows nothing about vehicles (much less proper tuning). Tuning enhances the performance of a vehicle, not turn it into some freak show (and I’ve seen many examples on the road).

    I prefer sleepers myself (cars that are un-assuming or close to factory as possible on the outside – until you hit the accelerator)…

  • avatar

    The great Clarksonio joked on an early episode of Top Gear that kids would soon be tuning cars with their laptops and trading their parameter files with each other. I laughed — that day passed a long time ago, particularly with Hondata for Hondas: there’s a USB port on the ECU itself.

  • avatar

    Pass the spanner!!! QUICK!

  • avatar

    I have a hard time believing folks had the same kind of access to tuning we do now even 20 years ago, especially considering the internet. I’m not sure tuning has really gotten much more expensive all things considered. I think cars have gotten too comfy and inert though, even though a lot of kids go for hard springs and such.

    The biggest difference though is that manufactures have given people so much power and handling to make tuning almost not needed. Again though counterpoint, tuning, even light tuning can turn a car into a completely different animal. I like tuning’s state right now, but I want more rawness, without much less comfort, think E46 M3, Integra Type R, 911 GT3 and 370Z Nismo. That is what its all about.

  • avatar

    The first thing you do is upgrade or replace the suspension, then tires and then rims. Brakes also, if they are upgradeable.

    Then you get to work on the engine. Supercharge? Turbos? Dual exhaust pipes are a must.

    Once you’ve got the handling and power, then you change the gearing in the rear end. There’ll be plenty of time to rebuild a stouter transmission once you destroy the stock model, but if you have the means, find an awesome Transmission Shop, and give them a list of what it needs to stand up to.

    Lastly, it’s time for those personal touches, custom paint, tasteful body kit?, cowl induction hood (but only if your engine was swapped and the new one needs the clearance, or if your engine is boosted so much it needs that much air). Add a hopped up stereo if you must, but I prefer the sound of the car to the tunes most times.

  • avatar

    Can’t really say if old school tuning was better than today’s tuning, but I can say that I believe the tuning business is going to explode after CAFE gets done with us.

  • avatar

    Is that “tuned cars” or “tuner cars?” It seems like those are different things. As far as tuner cars it used to seem like the market wasn’t so flooded, so the cars were more exciting. I can’t tell if it is just me getting older, but reading about an AMG Hammer in 1986 was really something. A sedan as fast as a Ferrari Testarossa! Or a Callaway turbo corvette. Even HKS Supras with gloveboxes full of guages.

    As for tuned cars, there will always be tuners tuning. Mostly young people because it is pretty much a waste of money. I do count myself among those who can’t just leave something “stock” I have to make it a little bit better in some way.

    In terms of style? Reference the Batwing 635i… the incredible bodykits of various muscle cars in the 70’s… the incredibly huge wings of some of the 80’s cars…

    Did you mean 3.0CSL “Batmobile”? That was a factory effort so not necessarily tuner. I think every generation has it’s giant wing, mostly racing specials.

    Tuning itself… well, that’s something else. I’ll admit that older cars were easier to get power out of…

    I don’t agree. Maybe cheaper and a little easier to fiddle with due to emissions laws etc. But old cars needed at least headers/cam/intake to make some decent amount of power over stock. And most of the time you gave up some low end power, winter driveability etc. Now a days intakes and cat back exhausts make good gains.

    Go ahead and try to tell me that it was easier to make more power out of a low tech carb’d 87 Monte Carlo SS than it was a fuel-injected disty-less 87 Buick Grand National…

  • avatar

    Also remember, one horsepower 30 years ago is less than one horsepower today because of the ways SAE changed the way it’s measured over time.

  • avatar

    The ECU flash tuner upgrade is pretty amazing. My MKV GTI is an entirely different beast with it. Cost me a mere $600 bucks to have more power output than the MKV R32. And it looks no different than any other stock GTI on the road (which I like).

  • avatar

    There are a lot people suffering from the delusion that they are tuners because they tack items onto their cars purely for perceived effect. You’ll find plenty of garbage sold to this type of individual anywhere and everywhere the word racing is used on an item not found on any sort of competitive race car.

    If anything has changed it is that technology is so accessible today. The level of technology implemented is ever increasing, and frankly you need to be a geek to really tune an engine safely. Without spreadsheets I would never have gotten as far as I have with my toy car. The aids available to the person doing ECM tuning is ever expanding.

    I run a full stand alone engine management system, my ECM has a Motorola RISC CPU operating at about 180Mhz. I’ve owned personal computers with less clock speed and less processing power. While this is one of the more powerful processors used it isn’t necessary, some of the basic stand alone systems you can build yourself use much less powerful processors. Building your own ECM was not a part of tuning a car until recently. Nor was building a rather complicated engine wiring harness to integrate said computer.

    I run a wideband oxygen sensor system all the time, it refreshes at about 10hz I think. This is not cutting edge, it is actually just run of the mill for anybody that knows what they are doing.

    From time to time I do some of my own tuning with a laptop which is a must these days. Some tuning can only be done on a dyno. Getting the engine load just right at a particular RPM is just not possible without an eddy current dyno or some custom made topography.

    I take data logs which provide me with feedback on what is actually going on, not what I *think* is going on.

    I do data analysis of the logs and then make changes to the engine management system. Again, this is not cutting edge, but it is how things are done now.

    I’m now at the point where I can expand my focus to other areas besides engine performance. For the last 8 months I’ve spent countless hours researching and working on braking systems. In my spare time I do braking torque and bias calculations, deceleration rate calculations, distance calculations and other such fun things.

    I’d be offended if you referred to me or my car as “tuner” anything. The term has too may negative connotations. I reserve the word “tuner” for the person that does my ECM tuning on a dyno.

    I much prefer to call what I do tinkering or dabbling. I am engaged in the study of automotive performance, my objective is to understand the systems which I’m working with and improve them where possible based on observation and analysis of operation. I am not part of a Hollywood fueled fad or a pathetic lifestyle which celebrates street racing.

    I think of my toy as a modern day rat rod. I’ve focused primarily on function and on track that is all that matters. The car isn’t pretty and I know it. For the time being my car is simply a tool which I use to elevate my understanding of automotive systems and how to alter their performance to my liking. Outside of working towards understanding how things work I use my toy as as a vehicle to practice and elevate my skill set for lapping road courses, on road courses.

    It was written above that tuning a car is a waste of money. Not so, if you have a place to enjoy such a car (road course, drag strip etc) and if you enjoy technical challenges then it can be great fun. I happen to derive much satisfaction from my work with engines and brakes. I haven’t even started to study suspension and aerodynamics both of which are black arts to me at the moment.

    My toy last month on track:

  • avatar

    Better looking? Usually not the case. Tuners these days seem to get a lot more horsepower out of cars, but it seems to come at great cost and wizardry. Often you’ll see guys in the import scene that specialize in tuning one engine from a certain range of years it was manufactured.

  • avatar

    Rat-rod? Sounds like my car… Unichip Q piggyback, lopey cams, a port and polish, full breathing mods, a Propane kit (with its own separate ECM, which references the stock ECU and the Dastek piggyback…) not a stock suspension component in sight… Dirty paint, scratches, a banged up bumper from being rear-ended… dodgy upholstery… but I love her to death… I’m simply waiting for my own wideband O2 to give myself on-the-fly tuning via the built-in compensation maps in the piggyback (built-in, but I have to program them myself)… the stoichiometry is so far from stock that the car won’t run properly on the stock ECU anymore… Hahaha…

    Too bad the actual “Rat Rod” culture has been taken over by a whole bunch of poseurs who think that true Rat Rodness comes of encouraging rust formation on otherwise pristine body panels… which is just as bad as trailer-queening…

    vento97 :
    June 8th, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Tuning’s for knobs whatever age…

    Non-tuning’s for people who drive appliances…

    There, there, let’s be polite… those people have a name. It’s called sheep.

    What I meant when I said “easier”, I meant that anyone with a basic knowledge of simple tools could add distributor advance, re-jet their carb, cut open their exhaust…remove their air filter… adding up to a few dozen ponies…

    Nowadays, ECUs and their assorted sensor arrays are so complex that changing an air filter or slapping on a new muffler without doing the complex calculations required to ensure that you won’t mess up the O2-sensor / MAP sensor / MAF sensor / etcetera readings will often result in a loss of power. I almost laughed my ass off when the first tests of Nissan 350Z exhausts and intakes came in, and they made no power at all over the “stock” items.

    BUT: if you’re one of those enterprising souls who’s not afraid of a circuit board, programmable ECUs are damn amazing… I’ve driven diesels which, when stock, were merely 16-second cars… but after a simple chip-job, would spin the tires ceaselessly in the first three gears.

  • avatar


    My Dad has a GMC 2500HD, and I can confirm that reprogramming the CPU has made it downright ridiculous as far as extra power and torque. It was a pussycat before we “chipped” it.

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