The pandemic of 2020 and the subsequent economic shutdowns caused chaos throughout all industries, and the automotive manufacturing segment was not exempt, however some of the aftereffects were a little slow to manifest. Now, the shutdowns are coming to an end and the nation is getting back to work, and many Americans have an itch to spend some money. Whether it’s a way to celebrate the pandemic coming to an end or simply out of necessity, demand for new trucks is at an all-time high, but if you’ve driven by a car lot lately, you might have noticed selection is looking a little sparse. Empty dealer lots are just as common as consumer electronics being sold out, and its all due to constraints of one resource: semiconductors.
Just about every product with any sort of electronic function uses semiconductors on some level, whether it’s a kitchen appliance, hair dryer, cell phone, or a vehicle. There are just a handful of semiconductor fabrication facilities on the planet, and semiconductors are the raw ingredients used to make processors, graphics cards, control modules, and many other types of electronic logic boards. Automakers alone make up 10% of all global semiconductor demand, and due to their just-in-time manufacturing processes, they don’t have a bunch of extra control modules just lying around in a warehouse waiting to be used. As soon as the parts arrive, they get installed into a vehicle on the assembly line, so if the supply chain is disrupted even just a little, the assembly line is stopped. Even before the pandemic, demand for semiconductors and the microchips they create was almost equal to maximum production capacity. When vehicle sales picked up in the fall of 2020, auto manufacturers increased production trying to make up for lost time, but orders increased sharply over their forecasted levels, which meant the semiconductor fabrication plants could not keep up and automakers couldn’t get the electronics they needed. If you’ve been watching the news lately, you might’ve seen the story about Ford stockpiling thousands of almost complete trucks at Kentucky Speedway, but they’re unable to be sold since they’re missing vital electronic parts. For the consumer, high demand and low inventory means one thing: prices for new trucks are going through the roof, and the ripple effect causes the used market to follow closely as buyers seek an alternative to a brand-new truck.
So, here’s a radical idea: since it’s so hard to buy a new or used truck right now, why not just save a few bucks and build the truck of your dreams from the one you already have? Sure, the new truck might have a little more horsepower, a nicer interior, or a smoother ride, but what if I told you for a fraction of the cost you could make your existing truck outperform a brand-new one?
The current 2021 offerings from Ram, Ford, and GM have power numbers between 420 and 475hp and they make between 910 and 1,075 lb.ft. of torque. By comparison, trucks from 10-15 years ago make in the mid 300hp range and 6-800 lb.ft. of torque. While that may seem like a wide gap between the two, you can easily make up that difference in performance for less than the cost of sales tax on a $75k brand-new truck.
If your truck is bone stock, your first modifications should include a free-flowing cat back or DPF back exhaust, a cold air intake, and a quality ECU tune. This lets more air into and out of the engine with less restriction, and to keep things in balance the new performance tune will add more fuel to go along with the extra air for more power and fuel efficiency. That first batch of upgrades is usually good for another 150hp and 300 lb.ft. which should get your older rig a lot closer to 2021 power levels. When you increase horsepower of an engine you also increase its heat output, so the next few upgrades will focus on some weaknesses in the cooling system. A Banks Technicooler will install in place of your stock intercooler, but it has bigger charge air tubes for less restriction, and a larger surface area which means cooler and denser air enters the engine, and as a result you get more power and lower EGT’s, and that means your engine can safely operate at an increased power level with a sustained load.
With the engine happily making more horsepower and running cooler, the next area to consider is the transmission. An automatic transmission generates a lot of heat during normal operation, and even more so when it’s pulling a trailer, and heat is one of the biggest killers of any transmission. If it’s been a while since its last service, any older truck can benefit from some new transmission fluid and a fresh filter, and this is also a perfect opportunity to upgrade the transmission. A quality fluid like Schaeffer’s ATF will keep everything properly lubricated and operating at a lower temperature, but if you also install a deeper PPE transmission fluid pan, the system capacity is increased, and the cast aluminum fins act as a heat sink and help remove excess heat. Combine that with one of their larger transmission coolers, you can expect to see a 40 degree drop in transmission fluid temperatures which is a huge step toward a longer lasting transmission.
Better Ride Quality
Probably one area where an older truck suffers most when compared to a new one is the ride quality and driving experience. A brand-new truck will drive straight and true down the road with very little input required on the steering wheel, and when you do hit a bump, the new truck will soak it up with ease. But if you are cruising the very same stretch of asphalt in a 10-year-old diesel with 100,000 miles on it, chances are you will have a totally different experience. Often you will have to turn the steering wheel back and forth to drive in a straight line, and every little bump and crack in the road will shake the truck and rattle your teeth, which makes a very unpleasant drive. Whether you own an old Ford, GM, or Ram, they all can benefit from similar upgrades which will improve the ride quality to a level that beats a brand-new truck.
There are many moving parts that connect the steering wheel to the tires, and many of those can wear out with regular use. It goes without saying that you should replace the tie rods and steering linkage if the joints are shot, but there are some other components you might not think of that can tighten up the front end of just about any older pickup. First is the steering shaft that connects the column to the steering box. Some older trucks use a rubber “rag joint” to make a flexible connection at the steering gear, but this rubber will wear out over the years and cause sloppy steering, and even if your truck was not equipped with a rag joint, the original steering shaft can just plain wear out due to lack of lubrication and regular use. Borgeson is a go-to name when it comes to curing steering wander, and they have upgraded shafts available for just about every diesel pickup out there, and they all are made with precision needle bearing universal joints and a vibration reducer. When the shaft is installed, you will immediately notice a drastic improvement in the steering feel of the truck, but there are still areas to address. Stock steering boxes tend to last a fair amount of time, but even when new they can exhibit some play and contribute to sloppy steering. A worthwhile upgrade that will stand the test of time and make your old truck handle better than new is a RedHead Steering Gear Box. Rather than using mass produced parts with sometimes less than ideal tolerances, Redhead Steering Gear Boxes feature customized and precision machined components that create a steering feel that’s tighter than any OEM steering gear box, which will make your older truck drive straight down the road just like a brand new one.
Because there is so much feedback transferred from the road into your steering system, manufacturers often equip heavy duty pickups with a shock absorber mounted between the frame or axle housing and the steering center link. Its purpose is to absorb any harsh bumps and correct some steering wander, but if you are running larger than stock tires on a lifted truck, chances are your stock steering stabilizer isn’t up to the challenge of dampening that much mass. To help tame the big tires you should upgrade to a BDS Dual Steering Stabilizer kit. This uses a pair of Fox 2.0 steering dampers to keep the wheels under control and it includes the brackets for the front of your solid axle equipped diesel truck. That covers both Ram and Ford, but what about GM?
You may not know this, but in 2015 GM stopped installing steering stabilizers on their IFS equipped heavy duty trucks. Luckily BDS comes to the rescue once again with their Bracket and Stabilizer kit. Thankfully, GM already put the tapered hole in the center link, so BDS includes a tapered stud to mount one end of the stabilizer to the center link, but the chassis end is the tricky part. BDS designed a bracket that attaches the other end of the steering stabilizer to the frame, and it uses the lower control arm mounting bolt and an existing hole in the front crossmember so there’s no cutting or welding required. For a small investment in time and parts, your 2015 and newer Duramax will have improved handling and road feel.
With the steering taken care of, your old truck can once again drive in a straight line, but its ride quality still hasn’t been addressed. Many owners install a leveling kit to give the truck a more aggressive look and to fit larger tires, but that won’t improve the ride quality because you are moving the location of your stock parts rather than addressing the underlying issues that cause a harsh ride. If you have a Ram or Ford and you want it to ride much better than new, Carli is who you want to check out. They offer suspension leveling systems that raise the front of the truck to fit larger tires, but more importantly their kits increase suspension travel and drastically improve the ride quality. Carli leveling systems come with updated coil springs and extended travel shocks to substantially increase ride comfort, and depending on how aggressive you drive off road, they have other options to build your suspension from mild to full on pre-runner. To see the full benefit of a Carli system on the street, its best to pair their leveling kit with a torsion style front sway bar, as it is considered the best bang for the buck upgrade to the front suspension since it allows the front axle to move around a little easier without giving up any sway control.
The Looks Department
Let’s be honest: probably the nicest part about driving a brand-new truck is how it looks. It’s got bright and shiny paint, no dents, up to date styling, and it just looks, well, new. While this can last for a couple months, after a while it’ll start to look like all the other new trucks on the road, and suddenly it’s not so special anymore. While nothing beats new truck smell, there are some who would rather have their truck stand out from the crowd, and a few key exterior upgrades can make your truck unmistakable. Probably the first and biggest change you should make are the rims. A fresh set of wheels and tires can transform the looks of any truck, and largely the decision is based on style. BMF Wheels are a staple in the diesel community, and they have some amazing designs that look stylish enough to make your truck truly one of a kind, but more importantly, all their wheels use a hub centric design which makes for a very strong and perfectly centered attachment to the truck’s hub. Also, the wheels come with a weight rating of 3,700 lbs. per corner, so you know they’re tough enough for towing and hauling chores.
Is It All Worth It?
There is no question that a brand-new truck is nice, but with the current state of affairs, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to get your hands on one. From where I’m sitting, it’s a smarter move to invest a few dollars each month into your old reliable pickup, and in a little while you’ll have a great looking diesel truck that will outperform a new one in just about every area. Once you get it looking better on the outside and performing better under the hood, all that’s really left is the interior. While brand new trucks do have a major advantage in this department with their heated and cooled seats and massive touch screen displays, hope is not lost. Spend a couple bucks on a new Carplay/Android Auto compatible touch-screen head unit so you can interface your phone, add some new speakers for better sound, maybe install some new seat foam and upholstery to make it comfortable to sit in, and give the carpet a thorough shampoo and your old truck will be looking and smelling like new again. Finally, think of how much money you can save by not having a monthly truck payment and the higher insurance premiums that go along with it, and you’ll have a custom truck that stands out from the crowd and is more capable than anything you can buy from the showroom floor. Sounds like a win-win to me.