5 Easy Performance Upgrades Anyone Can Install For $1,000 Or Less

When it comes to restoring or building a classic car, the sky really is the limit in regards to how you accomplish that task. If you are not convinced, just check out the many articles about performance upgrades and restorations on this website. There is an untold amount of editorial guidance showing what can be done and how to do it.

If you take a walk out to the driveway and look at your car, all you need to do is pick any aspect you want to change or upgrade, and the parts are probably available from various companies. While having options is great, sometimes the selection can be so overwhelming that new enthusiasts can get confused about where to begin. Because of that, I thought I should put together a list of some of the more performance-oriented products one might need to consider.

When compiling an article like this, performance upgrades are the first thing that comes to mind. However, performance is not all that should be considered.

To find the parts you need for your car, I decided to check with a couple of companies that have been around for a long time, Performance Online and Speedway Motors. Both companies are a great resource as one-stop shops for all things related to performance upgrades. Whether you’re working on a classic muscle car, truck, or street rod, you can surely find what you need.

I need to let you know upfront, this list will not be all-inclusive. There is a reason for that. If you’re like me, you don’t have a lot of money to spend on your project, so you need to save every penny to get the stuff you want. Big dreams abound, but since money is hard to come by, I thought this list should have a cap of $1,000. Okay, I know some of you are going to yell about that being too high, but it’s the cap I have chosen.

For this compilation of parts, I wanted to showcase what could be considered easy upgrades almost any enthusiast can apply to their car. This list also applies to just about any car — regardless of make, model, or style. These suggested performance upgrades will revolve around drivetrain and suspension parts.

I didn’t want to focus solely on horsepower and torque — although those aspects of automotive bragging rites are great when wielded properly. But you also need to have a sound foundation to put them to any practical use beyond bragging. So, check out the following easy-to-install mods that every classic car needs. Unless you’ve done these performance upgrades, you have no idea how much more enjoyable your car can be to drive, and honestly, you’re probably not getting the most out of what you already have.

Binding Performance Upgrades

Have you ever heard the phrase; you can only go as fast as your brakes will let you? It sounds strange, but it is sound advice. All the horsepower in the world will do you no good if you can’t bring your car to a halt when you need to. Sure, you might feel those drum brakes are sufficient for casual drives to the cruise in, but what happens if you have to stop suddenly while on your way? Those drum brakes might not get the job done.


With drum brakes, a “panic” stop can do more than just cause panic. A set of disc brakes on the front of the car is a great way to ensure your classic can stop with the best of them.

If you are looking for a great OEM-style front disc brake kit, then the Classic Disc-Brake conversion from Performance Online (POL) might be just what you need. I priced a kit for a ’68 through ’72 Chevelle, and with a price tag of $397.19, there is no reason you can’t have a quality disc brake kit on your ride. This kit delivers 11-inch brake rotors, GM calipers with brake pads, bearings and seals, spindles, and rubber brake hoses.

Even if you want to step up to drilled and slotted rotors, braided brake hoses, and powdercoated calipers, the price is still a reasonable $573.70.

After a quick search at Speedway Motors, I found a complete OE-style front disc-brake kit for $482.99. With this kit, you’ll get new, stock-height spindles, dust shields and caliper brackets, drilled and slotted rotors, calipers, stainless-steel braided hose, and inner and outer bearings and seals. The rotor diameter is 11 inches. Both kits require the use of 15-inch or larger rims. These are definitely OE-appearing performance upgrades.

The performance potential between drum and disc brakes is light-years apart. For starters, drum brakes are much more susceptible to failure because of heat and fading with hard or repeated use. Disc brakes dissipate heat much more quickly and are not as prone to brake fade. In a nutshell, unless you’re doing a Concours restoration, including a disc brake conversion in your hot-rodding budget could save you plenty in the long run.

Fueling The Fire

I can’t think of a single enthusiast that has not installed the quintessential performance upgrade to their ride — an aluminum intake and a four-barrel carburetor. It’s a simple upgrade that not only improves the underhood look of your classic, but will also give you more performance if you choose the right parts.

For the purpose of this article, I will mention a dual-plane intake and not show any single-plane units. The reason is, this is a list for novice hot rodders, not those looking to extract every bit of horsepower they can find from their engine when it’s spinning above 5,000 rpm.

It’s no secret that the intake and camshaft need to be compatible within a given RPM range. Since I am not getting into cam swaps with this article, a dual plane will be right in line with the typical OE-esque cams found in most cruiser hot rods.

While perusing the Speedway Motors website, I found the Edelbrock (PN 2021) Single-Quad Manifold and carb kit for $674.95. This setup is designed to fit 1957-86 small-block Chevy applications. By choosing a manifold and carburetor as a unit, it’s easy to be certain the parts will work well together. The kit includes an Edelbrock manifold, Performer or Thunder Series AVS carb, chrome fuel inlet, intake gasket set, intake bolts, and carburetor stud kit. The manifold and carbs are available with a standard satin finish or with Edelbrock’s bright EnduraShine chrome-like finish.

Exhaustive Performance Upgrades

Having a good, free-flowing exhaust is paramount for two reasons. One, it helps the engine breathe better which helps make power. Two, it sounds better than a 2-inch OE-style single pipe. But when it comes to buying headers, things can get confusing.

performance upgrades

If you’re going to buy a set of headers, getting them with a quality ceramic coating will ensure they look as great as they perform for many years.

For this article, I will focus on the average cruiser or street/strip car. With an operating RPM mostly at or below 5,500 rpm, conventional wisdom recommends the following primary tube usage: With 200 to 325 horsepower, a 1 1/2-inch primary tube is sufficient. If making between 325 and 425 horsepower, you might want to step up to a 1 5/8-inch primary tube. For those spinning the engine above 5,500 rpm, if you’re spewing out 425 to 500 horsepower, 1 3/4- or even 1 7/8-inch primary tubes are highly recommended. If you’re pushing more power than that, a 2-inch tube is your best bet.

I was hoping I could find a set of ceramic-coated headers that fit within the budget, and once again, Speedway Motors came through. By checking for headers to fit a ’70 Chevelle with a small block, I found part number 447H80471. These are from Patriot Exhaust and feature 1-5/8-inch primary tubes and 3-inch collectors. The best part is, for $372.99, you’ll get a quality-made ceramic-coated header that will look great and increase power capabilities.

performance upgrades

A DIY kit is just that, a kit you have to assemble and then clamp or weld together, and install. If you can tackle a kit like this, you can save some money instead of buying a ready-to-install kit.

But what good are headers if the exhaust is not up to flowing sufficient air? When it comes to purchasing an exhaust, you have to decide if you can tackle installing a universal DIY kit and save some money, or if you want to buy a direct-fit kit that will cost a little more. Luckily, Speedway Motors offers both styles. If you can deal with the DIY kit, I found this universal kit with 2 1/2-inch diameter pipe and mufflers for $229.99. It’s a good entry-level kit you will need to either weld or clamp together.

performance upgrades

One of the direct-fit kits I found is from Flowmaster, and came in at $620.95. This is also a 2 1/2-inch pipe and includes mufflers. If you go the DIY route, you’ll be in a new, complete exhaust for around $602.98. If you get the direct-fit parts, you’ll shell out $993.94. That’s cutting it close to the budget cap.

Suspended Upgrades

Although it might not sound like a performance upgrade, having a suspension that is not worn out is something every enthusiast should have. While upgrading to a complete coilover system might be the dream of many, it just doesn’t fit within the constraints of this article’s budget. For that reason, I think simply rebuilding your existing suspension can deliver great benefits.

Performance upgrades

Simply rebuilding your classic’s suspension – even with OE parts – can yield a ride that is not only safer, but more enjoyable.

The nice aspect about doing an OE-style rebuild is you can still have a great suspension with money left over for a few upgrades. For instance, I found this suspension rebuild at POL for $255.65. The kit even comes with Poly bushings, If you do not want to use the Poly bushings, this kit comes in at $188.52 and uses rubber bushings, just like OE.

Let’s say you are thinking about adding a sway bar to your rebuild kit. If you are, I found this one for $212.88. So far, that puts our suspension rebuilt at $468.53 if using the poly-bushing rebuild. That leaves another $531.47. With that, you could buy a set of POL’s tubular upper control arms for $294.65. Adding these will offer increased caster for high-speed stability, give a more positive feel, and help keep your car hooked up and going straight. Keep in mind, adding the upper control arms will mean you have extra control arm bushings and ball joints. However, simply buy only the bushings and tie-rod ends you need individually, and you might even save more dinero. Add a set of rear springs for $110.62 and shocks for $110.00, and you’re all in for $983.80. Nailed it!

performance upgrades

Although it does exceed the budget — slightly, I also found a coilover conversion kit for the frontend From POL that will set you back $1,179.49. There are so many benefits to a coilover upgrade that even the average hot rod could justify utilizing one. Besides, it’s just slightly over the budget, and your girlfriend didn’t really want to go anywhere this weekend anyway, so, why not?


A Really Cool Upgrade

Nobody wants to ride around in a car that loses its cool. That’s why having a quality radiator should not be an afterthought. I found this DeWitts radiator at Speedway Motors that requires the shelling out of $769.99. This is not a universal fits-all radiator, and each core is assembled and brazed in America. DeWitts radiators are assembled with press-formed tanks which eliminate fabrication seams and potential leak points of welded tanks. This also provides an original equipment look for your classic car. I am told that in most cases, DeWitts double row radiators provide a 30-percent increase in heat rejection over OE copper/brass units. HP models are available with 1 1/4-inch tubes, and each DeWitts aluminum radiator is designed to fit the listed application without any modifications to your car.

Now that I’ve compiled this short list of upgrades that any enthusiasts can install in their car, which ones are you planning to get? Look at it this way, even if you feel you need help handling the install of any of these parts, it will give you the perfect reason to call a friend over to help lessen the cold one count in your shop fridge and make your ride even better than it already is.

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About the author

Randy Bolig

Randy Bolig has been working on cars and has been involved in the hobby ever since he bought his first car when he was only 14 years old. His passion for performance got him noticed by many locals, and he began helping them modify their vehicles.
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