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Car Guy Diary – 3/28/2014 – I Tuned

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A lot, in fact. Back in the old days when I had no money for parts, I tried to make the most of what I had under the hood of my car with a lot of tuning. I read a lot of books on the subject and applied what I read to my car. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but it was an education either way.

With just enough money to put gas in the tank, but still wanting to improve my ’73 Pontiac Ventura’s performance, I found that by making small adjustments to the ignition timing, carburetor and emissions system, I could get noticeable improvements in power and economy. With borrowed tools, I set to work, but not before reading what some of the great engine tuners from the Pontiac world were doing to their cars. But because my engine was a rather pedestrian 350-cubic incher with a 2-barrel carburetor, and the engines these legends were turning the screws on were larger and with more carburetion, so not everything they did would work for me, but some did.

I got to the point where there was nothing else I could do to my engine to eke any additional performance out of that original engine without spending money on parts. By that point, I was able to put a few dollars together and bought some performance parts for the car and started my tuning exercises all over again. Before long, the original engine had just had enough of all the teenage boy abuse and unceremoniously retired itself with heavy internal damage, and no amount of tuning was going to fix that.

One junkyard engine later, the car was back on the road with more cubic inches, 400 of them all together, and I was back at square one with my tuning. Soon, I was getting the most out of the “new” engine when the opportunity two switch from one four-barrel carburetor to three two-barrel carburetors (called Tri-Power in Pontiac parlance) and I jumped at it. The car and I went wild. Some of my friends, though I am sure some of them considered themselves my victims, got to feel what I had wrought under that gray hood. The car was an animal, quick, fast, but unreliable. Though I had a few years of tuning experience under my belt, making the Tri-Power system work right was proving difficult. I would later learn why, but it was too late to do me much good with that car. It was back to the four-barrel and down the road we went.

After the first car, I kept climbing the learning curve. Working in my driveway, and later in a professional shop, I kept learning. I read more books and met more people who forgot more about engine tuning that I will ever know kept the knowledge train running.

I would never compare myself to the real experts who do this kind of thing for a living, but I am not lost under the hood either, so when the supreme compliment of being invited to help tune my best friend’s car came along, I accepted the honor. His Ford uses a lot of parts that I my Pontiacs and AMCs don’t, so before the day I was due to apply my “expertise” I went back to school searching the internet, reading a lot and watching videos so that I could at least not make the car run any worse than it did. After my second crack at the car, it was running sufficiently well to inspire confidence in its owner to drive it to where greater expertise than mine could be applied. Their ministrations got the car pulling like a freight train and now a Holley carburetor expert will apply what he knows to get the car running at its best.

Now it is my turn to get back to the start. My Marlin is waiting out in the garage for me to start the tuning process all over from the beginning. And after a while, I hope to be getting everything I can out of its engine. While I can, from time to time, afford some new parts for it, there is more than just a little satisfaction in turning a few screws and making it run just a little stronger without them.

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