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How to Build a Killer Street Machine

Book Review

by Ryan King

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Car projects fail for numerous reasons: finances, time, and skill are just a few.

The place where they fail the most, however, is knowledge. Just like little kids eyeing that piece of chocolate cake so big it's twice the size of their head, people dive into car projects thinking it's just like that time they did the oil change and tune-up on their 1979 Honda Civic when they were teenagers.

The fact of the matter is, building the high performance street machine you wanted when you bought that Civic — the one that can hit cruise night, go out on a road trip, and punish the track on the weekends — isn't anywhere near as simple as a tune-up and an oil change. Without some idea of what goes into building a street machine or what kinds of challenges you'll see along the way, buying a car to rip into is a recipe for disaster.

What the neophyte car builder needs — and more often than we'd like to accept, even those of us who are experienced with projects — is a guide. Something that lays out the process involved with building a car — something that can provide an idea of what to look for in the details before they become overwhelming — like this book.

How to Build a Killer Street Machine provides a great introduction to, and overview of, the process of building a street machine — from selecting a car, to planning the work, to putting it all together.

Below is an overview of what you'll find in each chapter.

The Book

Chapter 1: The Car

Chapter 1 is a quick look at the popular types of car projects such as "pro street" and "street rod." While I don’t necessarily agree with the definitions for types of vehicles such as "Muscle Car," as I happen to be well versed in it's original meaning, as well as many modern interpretations of the term, it does make an important point that clearly defining what it is you want to build is vital to the success of any project. It also briefly looks at ways to find project cars and what to look for in them when purchasing.

Chapter 2: The Plan

The author makes a good point when he says that the place where car projects fail is in the planning stage. It's true, the better the plan, the higher the likelihood of success. This chapter will introduce you to some of the factors involved with planning a performance or custom car build, including the rendering, and the importance of proper insurance, as well as some tips on what to look for when insuring a collector car.

Chapter 3: The Engine

It's really helpful to have access to someone who's got experience, especially when it's about a subject you've never dealt with. This chapter isn't about building engines, it's about installing them. It might sound simple enough, just the reverse of pulling one out. However, when you are building a custom street machine, the engine that came out may not be the one you want to put back in. Case in point, many people are interested in late model engine swaps, as well as upgrades to different engines of the time period like small block to big block or six cylinder to V8. This chapter draws from the author's experience doing swaps from mild to wild, to give you an idea of the factors that need to be considered when doing a swap of your own.

Chapter 4: The Transmission

While Chapter 4 doesn't go into great detail about how to rebuild or even install transmissions in a project car, it does give some good guidelines about how to pick the transmission for your ride. It also covers just about every significant automatic and manual transmission from the big three. That is, unless you are a Mopar guy, the A-833 four-speed is curiously missing from the list of transmissions, as is the 904 Torqueflite automatic, although it is mentioned briefly as the predecessor to the A500 overdrive transmission. Other than that, it has some valuable information for the neophyte car builder in a fairly complete overview.

Chapter 5: The Drivetrain

This is the shortest chapter in the book, but uses most of the chapter to give some very esoteric and important information about driveshafts. Most people consider the driveshaft to be a lump of metal you stick between the transmission and differential, but that just isn't the case. Like a bolt, which appears to be a very simple device, both in form and function, it is really an extremely highly engineered component intended for very precise use and without the knowledge to use them correctly, all manner of problems can be caused that seem to defy explanation. This book is geared to be a guide to help people through the build process, not as a how-to or technical manual, however, in explaining how-to choose a driveshaft, the author has provided some excellent technical information that also doubles as a highly convincing argument for getting a custom driveshaft for a performance build. Although the book has a lot of valuable information, if for no other reason, I would recommend How to Build a Killer Street Machine for this chapter alone. Chapter 5 also gives a brief overview of the most significant rear ends available from each of the big three, however like the transmission section, it was missing at least one significant rear end from the list, this time the Ford eight-inch.

Chapter 6: The Chassis

Chapter 6 condenses vehicle structural and suspension design, giving a brief but valuable overview of both. If you are just starting out in the automotive world, or have little understanding of vehicular construction and suspension design, this chapter will open your eyes up to the possibilities and limitations of the many different designs used on cars throughout time — as well as some suggestions about how to modify those designs to improve performance for the street and high performance track use.

Chapter 7: The Brakes

This chapter is very helpful for the novice. It takes you through the basic components of a brake system, gives an overview of how to upgrade or adapt different brake technologies, and explains why brakes are important on a performance car. Although that last part may sound rudimentary, the fact is, I have personally seen more people put off brake upgrades because they "don't matter" or are "too expensive" than I ever want to contemplate. The truth is brake upgrades are MORE IMPORTANT than engine upgrades and should either occur before or simultaneously with any other performance upgrades.

Chapter 8: The Body

Bodywork is a very complex subject. In fact, it's so complex that just an overview of the steps involved is worth an entire book of its own. That said, the author does a good job of crunching the process down to a chapter, and gives some hints and tricks for producing good results in the midst of it. However, I will say that before you get down to doing bodywork, consult a professional manual, factory repair manuals, and get hands-on instruction from a technical school — especially when it comes to structural repairs, as specific procedures vary from car to car and depending on the vehicle, there are some big no-nos that could make the car unsafe in an accident.

Chapter 9: The Interior

Chapter 9 covers a lot of ground in its overview of the interior: everything from tools and equipment, to tips and techniques, upholstery, electrical, modifying gauge clusters, and finally roll cages. While it by no means exhausts the subject, it does give the reader a good idea of what to expect going into interior work on their own street machine project.

Chapter 10: Wheels and Tires

This, right here, is the most useful chapter in the book. Like I said about Chapter 5, it alone would make me recommend How to Build a Killer Street Machine. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen poor wheel/tire combos on rides. When I say "poor wheel/tire combos" I'm not talking about choices for personal taste, I'm talking about choosing the right offset, width or tire height. This chapter has good information and advice about how to go about picking a wheel/tire combo for your ride, including wheel/tire fitment combos for certain popular makes and models of cars. With the popularity and "simplicity" of swapping wheels and tires, no one should do so without the information in this book. That isn't to say there isn't more information on the subject, but the real basics you need to know before making a choice you may later regret, are spelled out in Chapter 10.

Chapter 11: Power-Adders

This chapter will take you through some of the factors involved in deciding whether or not to add a supercharger, turbocharger, or nitrous, as well as give you some examples of how it's done. Like the rest of the book, it isn't a complete guide to engineering or even installing power-adders, but it is a great overview of how to choose a power adder and can help you make the decision of how you want to improve the performance of your ride.


I highly recommend this book as an excellent introduction to building a project car. In fact, I'd go so far as to say if you are new to car projects, this book is a must read. While you won't learn a great deal about the specifics of planning and executing a car project, you will get a great overview of how the process works — which is invaluable to both the neophyte and experienced car builder who hasn't mastered the process of planning and executing the performance/custom car build. It will also provide you with some important details that you might not find in other places, such as tire and wheel fitment, and choosing a driveshaft.

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For more information contact Motorbooks on the web at www.motorbooks.com, by phone 1.800.826.6600, or by email at customerservice@motorbooks.com.

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