Crucial Cars: GMC Sierra

2016 GMC Sierra

GMC Sierra Photo credit:


From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, the Mechanic Next Door does some heavy lifting, delving into the GMC Sierra pickup’s history and looking at the newest model.

Max and Morris Grabowsky may not be household names, but they cemented their place in automotive history nonetheless. In 1901 the Grabowsky duo built a truck prototype in Pontiac, Michigan, and went on to form their company – the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company – a year later. It didn’t take long for the brothers’ truck-building efforts and success to attract competitors’ attention, with General Motors buying them in 1909. Just three years later at the New York Auto Show, the name GMC Trucks would make its debut.

And so begins the story of GMC’s Sierra – a leader in the category of full-size pickups and a nearly identical twin to Chevy’s Silverado truck lineup. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that GMC would debut the name Sierra, using it to designate their trucks’ trim level, until 1987 when Sierra began serving as the permanent name for GMC’s full-size pickups.

GMC’s early, 1960’s-era pickups – before the Sierra name change – were designated as either “wideside” or “fenderside” – the latter corresponding to what many drivers today refer to as “stepside” pickups with fenders that flare out over the rear wheels. GMC also was one of the first to use numbers to indicate its trucks’ hauling capacities using the “1000”, “1500”, and “2000” designations that are common today in one form or another among all the major truck manufacturers. A “K” attached to those numbers indicated a GMC truck with four-wheel drive, and there were just two trim levels available – base or Custom. The standard engine was a 236-cubic-inch inline six delivering 135 horsepower.

Through the mid-1960’s, GMC trucks underwent a suspension change, additional engine options, and cosmetic changes to freshen the truck’s appearance. One of the most notable changes, and perhaps the start of pickups’ migration to becoming more than just work vehicles, was the debut of air conditioning in 1965.

1973 saw GM completely redesign its pickup truck line with longer wheelbases and the debut of a four-door crew cab. Engine choices ranged from a 100-horsepower, 250-cubic-inch inline six on the low end to a 240-horse 454 V8. GM’s next complete overhaul of its Sierra truck line wouldn’t occur until 1988 with trucks sporting a third more glass for improved visibility and a marked focus on more luxury items, such as upholstery and instrumentation.

That 80’s-era “luxury” pales in comparison to today’s model, considering that the 2016 GMC Sierra sports such innovations as advanced safety features and a 4G Wi-Fi Hotspot. The pickup’s evolution from being strictly a work vehicle to becoming a multi-purpose vehicle today is clearly evident on GMC’s site for Sierra, where a review of the vehicle’s interior receives precedence over its capabilities – something that would have been unheard of when trucks were meant solely for hauling and pulling. This old school Sierra’s transition into a show vehicle shows that there’s clearly a lot of life left for these pickups even when their days of doing hard work are over.

That’s not to say that new Sierra’s lack anything in the performance department. Its 6.2L V8 cranks out 420 horsepower, which GMC says is more than any other light-duty pickup. And, according to GM, the available EcoTec3 5.3L V8 engine delivers the best V8 fuel economy available among any full-size pickup. Balancing that power with control is Hill Descent Control, allowing for less nerve-wracking downhill journeys in rough terrain, and the Eaton Locker which automatically locks the rear wheels when slippage is detected.

GMC Sierra

Photo Credit:

Other automatic technology features aimed at assisting drivers include the Lane Keep Assist which helps drivers avoid drifting out of their lane by automatically correcting steering, and IntelliBeam which activates or deactivates Sierra’s high beams based on traffic conditions. Forward Collision Alert provides audible and visual alerts to help prevent collisions while the Safety Alert Seat vibrates as a warning signal to drivers.


GMC Sierra

GMC Sierra Photo Credit:

Technology inside Sierra’s cab that’s aimed at driver convenience rather than strictly safety includes IntellilLink for customizing and organizing a variety of media, Apple CarPlay for syncing phones to the IntelliLink system, the previously mentioned 4G WiFi hotspot, and OnStar’s RemoteLink app to remotely start the vehicle, pinpoint its location on a map, and monitor the vehicle’s mechanical functions.

Available in four trim levels – Sierra Base Trim, SLE, SLT, and Denali, Sierra’s base MSRP is $27,275, and heads higher from there. After decades of popularity among truck buyers and features that give drivers what they want, the Sierra’s popularity doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.


Editor’s note: When you need anything related to your GMC Sierra, turn to Advance Auto Parts first. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Ways to Boost Power without Breaking the Bank

Much like an elite athlete’s ability to rapidly breathe allows them to perform stronger, so it goes with your car’s engine. Whether you drive a ’69 Chevelle or an ’09 Civic, the same principle applies. Get more air in and out and your engine will make more power and run stronger. This is why forced induction (i.e. turbocharging and supercharging) is so popular as a means for, literally, pumping up an engine’s output. That’s great, but unless it came on your car it’s also easily a $5,000 and up modification.

If you want to improve your car’s performance without spending a lot, then you’ll want to focus on cost-effective ways to make that mill breathe like an Olympic decathlete without tearing into it. In other words, consider these following bolt-on mods that will give you the best bang, or should we say breathing, for your buck.

Edelbrock Pro-Flo 1000

Edelbrock Pro-Flo 1000

Golden Oldies Take a Breather
Going with a less-restrictive air filter setup than what the factory has supplied has long been a staple of performance enthusiasts. Those who own an old American car from the ’60s and ’70s typically favor a round, open-element air cleaner that sits over that carburetor. Although some old muscle cars actually came standard with these types of filters, or even trick hood scoops that funneled colder outside air to the intake, more often than not you’d see a closed housing that breathed through a snorkel-like fixture sticking out of its side. Other options for those golden oldies include Edelbrock’s iconic, triangular “Pro-Flo 1000” (formerly known as the “Lynx”) open-element filter.


K&N Cold Air Kit

K&N Cold Air Kit

Something for the Younger Ones
When fuel injection became more widespread in the ’80s, air filter assemblies took on more complex configurations that continue to this day. The latter is due chiefly to being equipped with various sensors that keep tabs on things like intake air temperature and velocity so the computers can adjust fuel metering accordingly. The air filters themselves are typically buried within black plastic boxes. The aftermarket quickly came to the rescue with low-restriction, cold-air kits that typically feature a semi-conical open-element filter. K&N, in particular, makes well-engineered kits that are known for their high quality and wide range of applications.

Ok, Now Exhale
So now that your engine can inhale more deeply; it’s time to turn your attention to the exhaling side of the equation – the exhaust. Before model year 1975, when catalytic converters (“cats”, for short) came on the scene to clean up exhaust emissions, the default performance-enhancing setup was pretty straightforward: exhaust headers running to true dual exhausts with a crossover. Nowadays, the ideal setup is pretty much the same, albeit with high-flow cats plumbed into the system. Of course you’ll want to check with your state’s emissions laws beforehand regarding replacing the cat(s), as some states may only allow factory replacements.

Still, going with a full engine-to-tailpipes system can be rather complicated (ask anybody who’s installed headers) and expensive, plus that labor is probably beyond what most shade-tree wrenches can do. The good news is you don’t have to go that far. Those looking for a cost-effective and minimal hassle upgrade should consider a “cat-back” exhaust system. It is just that, a system that bolts up after your car’s catalytic converter(s). With its freer-flowing pipes and lower-restriction muffler(s), a cat-back exhaust system lets your engine exhale easier and sounds pretty cool in the process.

Cat-back exhaust

Cat-back exhaust

Regardless of what you drive, there are plenty of great choices for a cat-back system. Popular brands include Borla, Dynomax and Magnaflow. Even within each manufacturer’s product line, there’s great variety, sonically speaking. You’ve got systems that are fairly quiet at idle and part throttle that then growl gratifyingly when you step into it. And then you’ve got the more aggressive setups that proudly make their presence known whether you’re burbling at a light on the boulevard or grabbing gears as you rocket up a freeway on-ramp.


For these power-boosting auto parts, along with all the tools you’ll need to complete the job, Advance Auto Parts will get back to the garage fast. 

Crucial Cars: Chevrolet Camaro

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, Gearhead’s Garage puts the spotlight on Chevrolet’s iconic sport coupe, the Camaro.

1969 Camaro SS350 with RS package

1969 Camaro SS350 with RS package

Back when the Chevrolet Camaro debuted, the Beatles were making albums, color TV was a new novelty and the Vietnam war was escalating. Chevy’s sleek new number, an answer to Ford’s super successful Mustang launched a few years prior, came onto the groovy scene to get its slice of the “pony car” pie. In the nearly half century since, the Camaro has stayed true to its roots by providing enthusiasts with an abundance of styling and performance at an affordable price.

Right back at you Ford
Ford’s Mustang, launched in the spring of 1964, was an immediate smash success. It introduced a new automotive segment that became known as the pony car — an affordable, relatively compact sporty coupe with long hood and short rear deck proportions. Loosely based on Chevrolet’s compact Nova, the Camaro was introduced for 1967. And so began a rivalry that continues to this day, one as fierce as the Yankees versus the Red Sox, or Coke versus Pepsi.

Available in both coupe and convertible body styles, the Camaro could be had with a wide array of powertrains. One could have anything from a 230 cubic-inch, 140-horsepower straight six on up to a storming 396 cube V8 cranking out 375 hp. Transmissions consisted of two- and three-speed automatics as well as three- and four-speed manuals.

The trim levels similarly ran the gamut and included the base Camaro, the fancy RS (Rally Sport) with its hidden headlights and added interior/exterior garnishment, the muscular SS that could be had in either SS350 or SS396 guise, and then there was the Z/28. Getting its name from the actual option code, the Z/28 was a street-legal road race machine sporting a firmer suspension and a high-output 302 cube V8 matched exclusively to a four-speed stick. Seriously underrated at 290 hp, the high-revving 302 made more like 350-375 horses. The Z/28 was a rare sight for that first year, as only 602 were built.

The next year saw minimal changes. Visually, the easiest way to tell a ’68 from a ’67 is the lack of the triangular vent windows which gave a slightly sleeker look to the ’68. The 1969 Camaro is for many enthusiasts the one to have. Although essentially the same as its other first-generation brothers under the skin, the ’69’s more aggressive styling boasted flared character lines that came off the front and rear wheel wells, giving an impression of speed and power that the upper versions could easily back up.

Throughout this first generation there were also several rare, ultra high performance versions. Specially ordered through the COPO (Central Office Production Order) program via dealers such as Yenko and Berger, these Camaros had beefy 427 V8s rated at a conservative 425 horsepower. The top dog was the Camaro ZL1, of which just 69 were built for 1969. A ZL1 also featured a 427 V8, but in this case it was of exotic all-aluminum construction, yielding a big block brute that barely weighed any more than a 327 V8.

Following a tough act

The second-generation Camaro debuted as a 1970 ½ model. Taking the long hood/short deck aesthetic to a new level, Chevy definitely had the looks nailed. Initially available in base, RS, SS and Z/28 versions, this Camaro could be packed with power, as the Z/28 came with a high-output 350 rated at 360 hp, while the top SS 396 (actually now displacing 402 cubes) again made 375.

Sadly, as with all other car makers, Chevrolet’s engine output started to slide as the mid-’70s hit due to tightening emissions standards. Indeed, the SS was dropped from the lineup after ’72 while the Z/28 went on hiatus for ’75 and ’76 seemingly out of shame, to return in mid-’77 with just 170 hp from its 350 V8. Still, these cars provided some driving fun by way of their quick, relatively agile handling and rumbling exhausts. Thankfully, engine output started to creep up as the 1980s hit, with the ’80 Z28 making 190 hp. Styling got increasingly flashy, culminating in the ’80 (and ’81) Z28 which seemed inspired by its Pontiac Trans Am cousin, what with bigger graphics, an Air Induction hood scoop, functional fender vents and wheel flares.

Less weight, more power

1981 Camaro Z28

1981 Camaro Z28

The third generation of the Camaro spanned 1982 through 1992. Through these years, one could choose a base Camaro, a luxury-themed Berlinetta (later the LT) or the performance-oriented Z28 and later, IROC-Z. Downsized, this Camaro was also up to 500 pounds lighter than the one before, and also heralded the debut of fuel injection and a four-speed automatic transmission.

Now that technology and engineering savvy allowed engines to efficiently meet emissions standards, output climbed through the decade. The 1982 Camaro’s power lineup started with an anemic, 90-hp four-cylinder engine, moved up through a 2.8-liter, 112-hp V6 and topped out with a 5.0-liter (305 cubic-inch) V8, rated at 145 hp, or with available Cross-fire fuel injection, 165 hp. Midway through 1983, a 190 hp “High Output” 5.0 liter became available, while two years later a 5.0-liter with Tuned Port Injection debuted, making 215 hp. Named for the International Race of Champions (which used identically-prepped Camaros), the Camaro IROC-Z also debuted for 1985 sporting huge for the time 16-inch wheels, a track-tuned suspension and, unlike the Z28, a monotone paint scheme along with tasteful “IROC-Z” bodyside graphics.

1988 Camaro IROC-Z

1988 Camaro IROC-Z

Literally big news came around for 1987, when a 5.7-liter (350 for you old-schoolers) V8 once again became available in a Camaro, now with tuned port injection and 225 horses. Sadly, it could only be hooked up to the automatic gearbox, but by now the 5.0 TPI engine could be had with a five-speed manual, the latter being the enthusiasts’ choice. The next year, the Z28 was dropped, essentially being replaced by the IROC-Z due to the latter’s massive popularity.

Other than the V6 growing from 2.8- to 3.1 liters (now at a respectable 140 hp) and the debut of a driver side airbag, not much changed until 1991, when the IROC-Z was dropped due to Dodge getting the race contract. And so, the Z28 returned once again to the lineup, now with an IROC-Z-like monochrome body treatment, color-keyed alloy wheels and taller rear deck spoiler. The 5.7-liter TPI engine now thumped out a stout 245 horsepower. Although 1992 marked the 25th anniversary of the Camaro, celebration was limited to a badge on the dash and the availability of a commemorative package consisting chiefly of dual hood/deck stripes.

With Part Two of this installment, we’ll cover the fourth-, fifth- and upcoming sixth-generation Camaros.

A number of Camaro enthusiast sites provide advice as well as classifieds for cars and parts for sale. You may want to check out Camaro Forums and Camaro Source. Furthermore, acceleration times can be found on

Whether you want to maintain an original Camaro in factory-spec condition or modify one from the power-starved era into a true muscle machine, Advance Auto Parts is here to help with plenty of high quality parts.

Talkin’ Carbs…As In Carburetors vs. Fuel Injection

1970 Camaro Z28 350

1970 Camaro Z28 350

Back in the day, “the day” being the thousands from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, American performance cars’ fuel delivery system of choice was four-, six- or even eight-barrel carburetion. More often than not you saw a single four-barrel sitting atop the engine’s intake manifold. But a trio of two-barrel carburetors (called “Tri-power” and “Six pack” among other cool sounding names) could be had on some Detroit iron during the ’60s and ’70s, such as the Pontiac GTO, Chevy Corvette, Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Challenger.

For monsters such as the early ’60s Impala SS409 and the ’67 Shelby GT500 Mustang, nothing less than two four barrel carbs (“dual quads”) would do. Carburetors were not without their pitfalls, however, as tasks like changing jets, synching those multi-carb setups and generally getting them perfectly dialed in were usually best left to a shop with all the necessary tools and expertise.

Pontiac 389 V8 Tripower

Pontiac 389 V8 Tripower

Fuel injection in those early years was very rare, but available on a handful of American cars during some of those years. For example, certain 1957 GM products from Chevrolet and Pontiac offered it just that one year.

As fuel injection was relatively new technology, the bugs weren’t fully worked out so it was dropped as an (admittedly expensive and not popular) option for the full size GM cars the very next year. It did, however, continue to be optional on the Corvette, right through 1965.

As performance-themed American cars passed through the 1980s, fuel-injection came online bigtime.

Thanks to their ability to monitor and make millisecond adjustments for various parameters such as intake air temperature and idle quality, these modern-era F.I. systems were instrumental in bringing back performance after the dark days of the mid-’70s to early ’80s. Being able to precisely control the air/fuel mixture, they allowed engineers to fine tune the engine to both meet tough emissions standards and offer increased power output. Other benefits are smoother operation all around, such as when driving in high elevations and in very cold or hot weather.

fast efiWhich all brings us to the question of: should you have an older performance car, should you keep the old carbs or make the switch to fuel injection? Unless you want to keep your ride 100 percent factory correct for seriously judged shows and such, we’d suggest jumping aboard the injection express.

These “self-tuning” systems offered by Edelbrock, FAST, Holley and MSD will have your ride always operating at peak efficiency without you needing to scrape knuckles and waste precious weekend time. And no worries about having that classic engine compartment ruined with something that looks like a Flux Capacitor, as these systems mimic the iconic look of a big four-barrel carb. So go ahead, put on that original chrome-lidded air cleaner with the engine call-out sticker on it, we won’t tell if you don’t.

Best of all, these state of the art systems make for a fairly simple, bolt-on proposition, essentially the same effort as swapping out carburetors minus the subsequent tuning. After you’ve bolted the system in place, you then enter basic information such as engine size and camshaft specs into a hand-held controller, which gives the system its base-line operating parameters. One twist of the key usually fires up your engine and then you’re smoothly off and running.

As you drive your car, the system’s ECU (Electronic Control Unit) continuously fine tunes itself according to information it picks up from the oxygen sensor. No more rough idling, no more cold-weather stumble. Indeed, according to this article in Hot Rod magazine it couldn’t be easier “No jets, no adjustments, no laptops—just bolt it on and turn the key.”

Editor’s note: You can get your carbs in order and save big at Advance Auto Parts. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.
Jim Kazliner, Editor-In-Chief

Speed Perks: No cards, No points, No Nonsense.

Hey DIY Garage Readers—

I wanted to take a minute in between our regular blog schedule to tell you about a new program Advance offers that actually rewards you for working on your car.

Speed Perks is not your run-of-the-mill rewards program. First, there are no confusing rules, qualifications, or unworkable expiration dates to contend with. Better yet, you don’t have to deal with any complicated passwords, membership cards, or lengthy phone calls to have your password reset when you forget it (how many times has that happened?).

Instead, all you need to become a Speed Perks member is a phone number and an email address. That’s it. Done.

And getting rewarded is even easier. Here’s how it works:

  • For every $30 purchase, you’ll get $5 to spend on a future purchase of $10 or more
  • For every $100 purchase, you’ll get $20 to spend on a future purchase of $40 or more
  • You’ll get your rewards within a week by email or text
  • Speed Perks members will also receive exclusive deals and special offers

We all know how gratifying it is to work on our own vehicles and take on new car projects. So why not get rewarded for doing just that? Speed Perks makes purchasing the parts and tools you use most even more worthwhile.

Enroll in Speed Perks today and get rewarded — online and in-store.

Jim Kazliner


Speed Perks ad

Cars of the world: Italy


Lamborghini_Countach photo

Lamborghini Countach

Savory lasagna, creamy gelato, great artists and Sophia Loren are some of Italy’s greatest contributions to the world. But many would argue, especially we car buffs, that the best gift this boot-shaped country has kicked forth is a buffet of delicious automotive treats. Although great style has much to do with their appeal, Italy’s cars bring joy to the ear with their fantastic mechanical music along with joy to the enthusiast’s heart with their involving driving dynamics.

New or old, Italian cars are lusted after and enjoyed by enthusiasts everywhere. Whether one is cutting through traffic in a diminutive, old Fiat Cinquecento with sunroof open and opera blaring, or slicing through a mountain pass in a newer Ferrari 458 Spider with its top off and its V8 providing the soundtrack, grins are virtually assured for anyone within either.

To celebrate the irresistible cars of Italy, we’ve picked our favorites both old and new from the major manufacturers. Our choices come via a rather unscientific approach, yet one fully befitting Italy — they are based on pure emotion.

Alfa Romeo

1992 Alfa Romeo Spider car

1992 Alfa Romeo Spider

For a classic Alfa, it’s hard to beat the simply named Spider (which is essentially Italian for roadster). Available in the states from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s, this affordable, Pininfarina styled roadster defined the Italian sports car experience. That is to say it looked sexy, sounded great and had its steering wheel laid down to almost a bus-like degree. It also meant it could be finicky and wasn’t the most reliable car on the road.

Alfa Romeo just came back to the states after leaving in the mid-’90s and offers but one model thus far. But what a firecracker the 4C is. With its snarly, popping, 237-horsepower turbocharged four, light (around 2,500 pound) curb weight and track-focused handling dynamics, this sports car is a blast to drive. It may be a bit harsh for daily driver duty, but the 4C, available in both coupe and Spider (removable targa top) body styles, makes no apologies for its “fun first” personality.


Ferrari 458 Spider photo

Ferrari 458 Spider

Choosing a favorite classic Ferrari is like trying to pick a favorite Beatles song. Nonetheless, we welcome the challenge and will go with an early ’60s 250 GT SWB (short wheelbase). Even those without 93 octane flowing through their veins would find it impossible to ignore this Ferrari’s handsome Pininfarina styling and incredibly melodic V12. Although these are priced in the millions (keep playing that Powerball), they are somewhat versatile, being able to serve as both a fairly comfortable grand touring car and a vintage racing track toy.

For a newer Ferrari, the 458 Spider pushes our buttons with its free-revving V8 engine cranking out nearly 600 hp while making all the right noises, open roof capability and of course the head-turning styling expected of the marque.


Fiat 124 Spider photo

Fiat 124 Spider

As with the Alfa, we’re with a classic roadster here, in this case the similarly-named Fiat Spider. Earlier versions (’67 to ’78) were actually called the 124 Sport Spider while the ’79 to ’82 versions were called the 2000 Spider. A Pininfarina design, the Fiat was powered by a double-overhead-cam, eight-valve inline four that grew in size from its initial 1.5 liters to 2.0 liters (hence the later “2000” designation.). A turbocharged version was also produced for ’81 and ’82. From ’83 through ’85, the car was marketed by Pininfarina as the Spider Azzura. Regardless of the year, the styling and driving experience are going to be similar, meaning those classic lines and the classic, arms-out Italian driving position.

Nowadays, not only has Fiat come back to the states, but they’ve brought the latest incarnation of the little 500 (“Cinquecento”) with them. Our choice is, no surprise, the feisty 500 Abarth, whose snappy turbocharged four makes us grin every time it crackles and pops when we downshift. Although it boasts a sport-tuned suspension that makes it a hoot on a curvy road, just don’t try to catch Miatas as its somewhat top-heavy feel and body sway when pushed harder show its athletic limits.


Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder photo

Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder

Miura or Countach…Countach or Miura? We’ll probably change our minds tomorrow, but for now it’s the Countach. The official poster car of 10- to 20-year old American males during the mid-’80s, the outlandishly styled (by Gandini) Countach looked like a land-locked spaceship. Adding to the effect were the so-called scissor doors that swung upwards and made for a grand entrance or exit. A mid-mounted V12 with output ranging from about 375 to 455 hp provided the appropriate gusto.

For a newer Lambo, we’ll go with a Gallardo. Yes, it’s not as powerful as a Murcielago or Aventador, but we prefer its smaller, more easily managed dimensions and lighter weight. Besides, we could get by with just a V10 and its 500 or so horses. Now the question is just coupe or Spyder…coupe or Spyder?


Maserati Quattroporte_1979  photo

Maserati Quattroporte

Although Maserati made some great sports cars – Ghibli (the original sleek sports car, not the current sedan with the same name) and Bora to name just two – the company was also known for its grand touring coupes and sedans. Although the Quattroporte (“four-door” in Italian) has been produced off-and-on since 1963, we’re going to go with the third-generation version. Why? Because we’re Rocky fans and it’s what the Italian Stallion drove in 1982’s Rocky III. Fitted with a 4.9-liter V8, the Giugiaro-designed sedan put about 276 hp (respectable output back then) at the driver’s disposal. Fitted with plush, overstuffed seats and trimmed with gathered leather and real wood, the cabin of the Quattroporte was more business jet than road car.

Our modern Maser choice would be the GranTurismo convertible. Sporting Ferrari-sourced V8 power and a superbly detailed interior fit for four (provided the rear passengers are on the smaller side) the GranTurismo exudes class and power that are fully befitting a Maserati.

Editor’s note: For more insights into the vehicles of the world, check out our recent feature on the Cars of Ireland.

Wired Up: The Fundamentals of Spark Plug Wiring

Accel plug wires pictureNot all spark plug wires are created equal. And because moving electricity to the plug to produce a spark is so critically important, using the wrong wires for your vehicle, damaged wires, or poor-quality wires will undoubtedly lead to problems down the road.

As electricity travels along the plug wires toward the plug so it can generate a spark, it’s also looking to do something else – escape. The electricity is looking for any opportunity to jump from the wire and instead head down the path of least resistance. When it finds the escape route it’s been searching for – usually in the form of missing or damaged wire insulation – the results can include engine misfire, poor fuel mileage, hard starts, rough idles and lack of power. Electricity also generates radios waves and if it escapes from the plug wires can interfere with a vehicle’s radio and other electronics.

The plug wires’ insulation is what keeps the electricity from escaping, and high-quality wires will have more insulation that’s made from durable components that are better able to resist wear from vibration and heat. Over time, the engine’s heat cycling takes its toll on even the best spark plug wires, which is why replacement is recommended by many manufacturers at 100,000 miles.

There are primarily three types of spark plug wires:

1. Distributed resistance wires are constructed of fiberglass-impregnated carbon. Also known as carbon core wires, they were the standard on about 95 percent of vehicles before 1980.

2. A shift to inductance or mag (magnetic resistance) wires accompanied the rising popularity of Asian vehicles. Featuring a spiral wound core of a copper nickel alloy, the material presents less resistance to the electricity flow, meaning less current is needed to generate the spark, and at the same time the winding pattern and materials help prevent any Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from escaping.

3. Lastly, there are fixed resistor wires. These are often found on European vehicles and feature steel or copper wire and a resistor inside the plug boot to control interference.

If you think your vehicle might be having some issues caused by faulty plug wires, begin the diagnosis with a close inspection of the wires’ condition. Examine them for heat-induced cracks or abrasions caused by rubbing against other parts. Look for areas where they’ve been burned through because of contact with an exhaust manifold. Also try examining the engine in the dark, looking for visible sparks where the electricity is escaping along the wires, and also listen for an electrical ticking sound, similar to what you hear when you receive a big static electricity shock. Also measure the wire’s resistance with an ohmmeter. One plug wire with a resistance that’s significantly different than the other wires could indicate that’s the problem wire.spark plug wire set photo

When installing new wires, make sure you’re using wires specified for your vehicle. Characteristics such as the wire length or a boot that attaches using clips as compared to a thread-on boot matter when it comes to performance. Also avoid problems by routing new wires in the same manner that the previous wires were, and removing and replacing the wires one at a time.

Using the best spark plug in the world won’t make any difference to your engine if that plug can’t get the electricity it needs, so choose and install plug wires wisely.

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has your car wiring needs covered. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.

Audio Upgrades: Speaker Basics

over the top audio system in mazda rx-8Whether your ride is trying to rock a fatigued factory or ancient aftermarket audio system, one of the best ways to bring back its sonic boom is by changing out and/or adding speakers. And if you’re not an expert on all things audio, fear not. We’ll walk you through the basics and provide you with, literally, sound advice for tuning up your car’s tunes.

Hearing the highs and feeling the lows
There are basically four types of speakers: tweeter, midrange, woofer and subwoofer. Each is responsible for respectively reproducing the high, middle, low and super low frequency notes of the music. Let’s say you’re listening to “Stairway to Heaven” and you’ve got a system sporting all four types of speakers. The flutes would come through the tweeters, guitars would come through mostly the midrange while the bass and drums would speak to you via the woofers and subwoofers (or “subs,” if you want to sound hip).

Old paper cone speaker

Old paper cone speaker.

Although some speaker systems will incorporate say a tweeter and a midrange in a single unit, high-end audio systems typically have dedicated (stand-alone) tweeters, midrange, woofers and subwoofers. This is why you see 9- to 14-speaker systems (and even higher) in more modern, premium-brand vehicles. These speakers are placed strategically for the best sound, typically with the tweeters up high, closer to the listeners’ ears, and with a subwoofer (or two) under the seat or behind the rear seats. Back in the “good old days” having four full-range speakers, two in the front and two in the back, was living large.

Spending for sound
Of course, your budget will dictate how far you can go with your speaker upgrades. If you’re tired of your car’s buzzy speakers, simply replacing them with higher quality units is the easiest and most cost effective way to restore your listening enjoyment. For example, your car may have had a simple four-speaker setup with a pair on either end of the dash and a pair in the back seat area. Those old factory speakers may be a basic, single-cone full-range design, with those cones made of now cracked and/or ripped paper. Swapping them out for a set of higher quality speakers with composite cones and a separate, built-in tweeter will make a world of difference.

Beats subwoofer.

Beats subwoofer.

This handy audio guide from Crutchfield electronics provides even more detail as far as what to look for when upgrading your car’s speakers. Indeed, this gentleman from Crutchfield shares his story of how his car’s paper-cone-equipped system sounded so bad that he stopped playing music on it and resigned himself to talk radio. Once he upgraded his speakers to more modern units with composite cones and coaxial tweeters, he rediscovered the joy of full-bodied music in his car. This “plug-and-play” install that uses the existing speaker holes is the easiest way to improve the quality of your sound system.

Composite cone speaker.

Composite cone speaker.

If you want to go bigger, then you may want to consider adding a subwoofer or two for tight, thumping bass that’ll have you thinking Larry Mullin Jr. is in the back seat with his Yamaha kit. To go with the demands of more speakers, and to pump up the sound, you should also consider installing an amplifier. Advance Auto Parts offers a large variety of speakers (including subwoofers), amplifiers and accessories to help you get that big sound for little expenditure.

Bang and Olufsen tweeter

Bang and Olufsen tweeter.

More serious self-installations
Up until now, we’ve been talking about upgrades that should be fairly easy for any competent DIY-er. Those who are more advanced can look into installations that typically involve fabricating custom kick panel, door panel, rear quarter trim panel and cargo area speaker enclosures. As such, one should make sure they know what they’re doing before, say, cutting holes into the door panels only to discover the power window or door lock mechanism is in the way. As with anything, some folks go way over the top and use nearly every square inch of the car’s interior to create the ultimate mobile sound system.

All that said, there are plenty of car audio forums and enthusiast clubs that can offer tips and maybe even examples of custom setups for your specific make and model. A few we’ve seen online include, and Car Audio Help.

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts is here to support the cause with a vast selection of parts, tools and accessories to keep your ride on track. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Chevrolet El Camino

1970 el camino ss

1970 El Camino SS

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, Gearhead’s Garage puts the spotlight on that car/pickup truck cross breed known as the Chevrolet El Camino

“Is that thing a car or a pickup truck?” That question has been asked of owners of Chevrolet’s El Camino for decades. Certainly for most, if not all of its 26-year (total) production run many have pondered this vehicle’s genetics. Although officially classified as a truck, it is clearly a two-door car whose rear seats and trunk have been supplanted with a pickup-style open cargo bed. Whether it’s a 1965 or a 1985, from the front bumper to the end of the doors, an El Camino is virtually indistinguishable from the Chevrolet passenger car upon which it is based. And being a Chevy, one could have it as a plain Jane, six-cylinder-powered shop workhorse or a full-on muscle car ready to rumble down the boulevard with a “Turbo Jet” big-block V8.

1959 el camino truck

1959 El Camino

The fleeting full-sizer
Debuting for 1959, the first-generation Chevrolet El Camino was based on Chevy’s full-size car platform. As such, the front clip and doors were the same as those seen on the Brookwood, a two-door station wagon, while an open pickup bed dominated the rear half of the vehicle. The cool “cat’s eyes” taillights with their big chrome “eyebrow”, seen on the other big Chevrolet’s, was also incorporated into the El Camino’s tailgate design.

Under the beefy hood one could choose anything from the base, lackluster straight six through a family of V8s ranging from 283 cubic inches to 348 cubes. Depending on the engine choice, changing gears could be done via a column-mounted three-speed manual (aka “three on the tree”), a floor-shifted four-speed manual or a two-speed automatic. The hot set-up was the 348 with triple two-barrel carburetion, solid lifters and a four-speed. Fitted with the latter powertrain, an El Camino tested by Hot Rod magazine sprinted to 60 mph in just 7 seconds, a very quick time for the day, let alone one for a two-ton bruiser.

But these early, full-size El Caminos were short lived due to plummeting second year sales. They were produced only for 1959 and 1960. But after a three year hiatus, the El Camino would come back strong, this time based on a smaller, more practical midsize car platform.

1967 El Camino Truck

1967 El Camino

Ladies and gentlemen, the El Camino
Debuting for 1964, the same year as the Beatles in America as well as Chevrolet’s new, mid-size Chevelle, the reincarnated El Camino was more practical than its massive predecessor. Based on that Chevelle, this El Camino was easier to park and similarly offered a measure of open-bed hauling ability along with car-like comfort and handling qualities. And now, one could also opt for a Super Sport (SS) version. The ’64 and ’65 El Caminos are very similar with variations in front end styling and top engine choices being the chief differences. For both years, a four-barrel fed 327 V8 was the top power choice, with ’64s rated at 300 hp and ’65s making an impressive 350 horses.

In expected lock-step with the Chevelle, the El Camino was redesigned for 1966 and like the Chevelle SS coupe, could now be had with big-block 396 V8 power. With up to 375 hp on tap, it was ready to lay waste to rear tires and most stop light challengers alike. Indeed, with a quarter mile potential in the low/mid 14-second range, an El Camino SS 396 wasn’t to be taken lightly in the performance game. And you still had that big open bed in the back to carry spare tires. The 1967 edition was similar to the ’66 apart from the expected front end styling and interior updates.

This successful formula of offering everything from a six-cylinder, bench seat stripper to a big-block-powered, 4-speed with buckets-and-console street machine continued for the redesigned ’68 and similar ’69 El Caminos. The styling was bulkier than in past years, with thicker rear roof pillars and angled downward bed sides.

The 1970 through 1972 examples were arguably the most attractive, with the SS versions boasting the dual wide hood stripes and power-domed hood as their coupe brethren. You could even top off that hood with optional “Cowl Induction” that, upon laying into the gas pedal, opened up a small rear-facing flap to admit cooler air into the carburetor. The 1970 model year was the El Camino’s most potent, as the SS version could be optioned out with the legendary LS6 454 V8. Cranking out 450 horses, this brute could propel an El Camino down a quarter mile in the low/mid-13 second range. Power began to drop off after that point.

1975 el camino photo

1975 El Camino

Performance becomes passé
The redesigned 1973 through 1977 model years would be the last of the bigger El Caminos and also were examples of the “Malaise” era. During that time, performance grew increasingly lackluster due to the increasingly stringent emissions standards and the need to run on lower octane gasoline with lower compression ratios.

By 1975, catalytic converters were fitted cope with emissions regulations and engine outputs hit new lows. The engines ran cleaner but performance suffered. Heck, if you checked off the 454 V8 option for your 1975 El Camino, you were rewarded with just 215 hp, and it was only available with an automatic by then. The adoption of a Mercedes-like grille for 1975 and then stacked, square headlights the following year were the major styling changes for this generation.

Lighten up, will ya?

1978 El Camino Black Night photo

1978 El Camino Black Night

Downsizing was the order of the day for GM’s 1978 midsize cars, including Chevy’s own Monte Carlo and Malibu, so by default the El Camino similarly slimmed down. About 12 inches shorter in length and 600 pounds lighter, the ’78 El Camino provided about the same passenger and cargo space as before and was more fuel efficient. Engines ranged from a 3.3-liter V6 on up to a 5.7-liter (350 cubic inch) V8 with 170 hp. In addition to an automatic, there were 3- and 4-speed manual transmissions, both floor-shifted.

The SS was gradually phased out, essentially replaced by the seemingly Pontiac Trans Am-inspired, black and gold trimmed “Black Knight” (later replaced by “Royal Knight”) edition. For ’79, a new 4.4-liter V8 debuted with a weak sauce 120 estimated horsepower. The following year the 5.7-liter V8 was gone, leaving a 5.0-liter (305 cube) V8 with 150 horses as the top power choice.

For 1982, this longest-lived generation of the El Camino received a facelift in the form of a new grille and quad headlights. This year also marked the availability of the ill-fated 5.7-liter diesel V8, a mill known for returning good fuel efficiency but bad reliability.

The biggest news for this generation came late in 1983, when the SS returned in flamboyant fashion. Actually the result of a joint venture with a company called Choo Choo Customs, the resurrected SS sported the aerodynamic nose of the Monte Carlo SS along with the requisite “SS” decals. Options for this SS included a raised power dome hood that recalled that of the ’70-’72 SS, simulated side pipe exhausts and a roof-mounted air spoiler. Sadly, no special engine was offered, as the 305 V8 was as good as it got.

Apart from minor engine shuffling that included the introduction of a 140-horse, 4.3-liter V6 for 1985, not much changed from that point on through 1987, the El Camino’s last year.

1984 El Camino SS photo

1984 El Camino SS

Entertaining the purchase or restoration of an El Camino?
Although most El Camino enthusiasts will likely lust after a ’66 through ’72 SS big block (396, 402, 454 V8s), one can still get plenty of pin-you-to-the-seat thrills with a small block version thanks to a huge variety of aftermarket hop-up parts including high-performance heads, camshafts, carburetors, intake manifolds and exhaust headers.

Whether you want to maintain an original El Camino in factory-spec condition or you’re looking to modify one from the Malaise era into a true muscle machine, Advance Auto Parts is ready to help with plenty of high quality parts.

Editor’s note: It doesn’t matter if you’re a collector or a commuter, Advance Auto Parts has the parts, tools and accessories to keep you running right and looking good. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

The future is now: helpful car diagnostic apps and more

Mechanic using laptop photoEver since 1996, On-Board Diagnostics generation two (OBD-II) has required all new vehicles manufactured in the United States to have self-diagnostic and reporting capabilities. This gives you access to the status of your vehicles’ systems in real time using a standardized series of diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs).

This is accomplished through a 16-pin connector mounted near the instrument panel that provides four-digit codes for four main areas: P for powertrain; U for computer; C for chassis; and B for body.

Car apps 1Diagnostic scanning tools make DIYing it so much easier – and here are apps that you can access from your smart phone to help you do diagnostics right. Use the app on the road, order the appropriate car parts and you’re off and running on your latest car repair.

Actron U-Scan and more

With U-Scan from Actron, you can discover the cause of the check engine light by plugging a device in your vehicle’s adapter and reading the relevant code definitions. With the QuickCheck™ feature, you can use your Android or Apple device to read the codes appearing on your vehicle, and then, when appropriate, erase them to turn off the check engine light. You can also monitor your emissions status, and maintain a log of vehicle tests and procedures and more.

Advanced features include:

  • Powertrain enhanced data ($7.99 per vehicle or $15.99 for all these manufacturers for most vehicles that are 1996 or newer: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota): Get access to Powertrain codes and definitions. U-Scan’s freeze frame data describes the vehicle’s conditions at the time when the trouble code first appeared. More than 300 sensor/data items are available.
  • ABS codes and definitions ($5.99 per vehicle or $29.99 for all listed manufacturers): Discover the likely causes of ABS warning lights.
  • CodeConnect® ($12.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for all vehicles): More than 4.3 million fixes are available in this database, verified by ASE-certified technicians. Note: You must first purchase the powertrain enhanced data and/or ABS codes and definitions before buying and using CodeConnect.
  • Airbag codes and definitions ($7.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for list manufacturers): Access the most likely causes of airbag warning lights.

It never hurts to compare. In The 6 Best On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) Apps for your Car, you can get more information on other similar apps.

What’s next: car key apps?

In June 2015, the New York Times published an article titled The Future of Car Keys? Smartphone Apps, Maybe, predicting how the car key and fob might evolve. Right now, if you own a Tesla, BMW, General Motors or Volvo, you might already own a key fob that allows you to start the engine, unlock doors, turn on heat and monitor the battery remotely. With the PEPS keys (passive entry, passive start), you don’t even need to remove the fob from your pocket. Its very nearness to the car allows you to unlock doors with a touch, and to start the car with a button push.Car apps diagram

What’s next?

Experts don’t believe that a smartphone app will replace a key, not when a slow data network or dead phone battery would keep you out of your car. Plus, who wants to pay a monthly data subscription plan, which would likely be part of the deal, if you only got what a car fob previously provided? Especially with the complications provided by slow data networks and dead phone batteries? What would be the point?

Hakan Kostepen, the executive director for product planning strategy for Panasonic Automotive Systems, says that keys will eventually carry driver preferences, such as seating positions and favorite audio choices, even when you’re in a rental car. A smartphone app could work with the key data to recommend places to visit, eat and so forth, based on your known preferences.

Finally, Audi and Volvo are experimenting with groceries and packages being delivered to car trunks and the owner being notified. Car key usage would be authorized for a one-time use.

Editor’s note: What apps do you like? Which ones do you plan to try next? Leave us a comment below.