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Author Topic:   Improving your tow vehicle
alkar posted 11-09-2003 01:33 AM ET (US)   Profile for alkar   Send Email to alkar  
We have been taking quite a bit about tow vehicles lately. Related threads are often initiated by folks who want to tow a larger boat with a vehicle that is slightly undersized for the job. Although I always advocate for starting with the proper vehicle for the job, I realize that not everybody is in a position to do that. The good news is that if the gap between the vehicle owned and the proper vehicle is small, a few easy modifications might make it possible to safely and comfortably tow a larger boat.

I do most of my towing with a Ford F-350 (one ton), crew cab, 4X4 Powerstroke diesel pick-up truck. (What a mouthful!) I bought the truck with heavy hauling and towing in mind, so I ordered every heavy-duty option I could get. The truck is equipped with four wheel disk brakes, ABS, limited slip, heavy duty alternator and cooling, etc, etc. However, as well equipped as it was when it arrived from the factory, we still had plenty of work that was at the limit of the truck's ability, so we decided to make a number of improvements.

I am always most concerned with systems which bear on safety and reliability (as opposed to hot-rod-ability), so that's where our truck refit started.

I installed airbags in back to improve the truck's handling when it was hauling a heavy load (camper plus 400 pounds of boat tongue weight, for example). Now, no matter how heavy the load is, it is shared more evenly across all four tires. As a result, the truck rides completely level, so my front tires have a firm purchase on the road, and the steering is even and responsive.

In addition to the four wheel disks on the truck, my trailer has disk brakes. The truck is also equipped to run electric brakes - so the brake sensitivity on a heavy trailer can be increased. In fact, many of the electric brake systems allow the driver to brake the trailer manually. You wouldn't want to do it, but you could actually use the trailer brakes to slow the truck down on long grades. For those who wish to go one step farther, it is also possible to add an exhaust brake. (Like the "Jake-Brakes" on the big rigs.)

The next area of concern is the transmission: The biggest risk to the transmission is the heat that comes from slippage under load, so I replaced the flimsy stock transmission pan with a MUCH larger, heavy duty, aluminum pan that increases the fluid capacity by about two gallons. The extra fluid volume and the finned pan help dissipate heat quickly. An additional transmission cooler and a gauge set completes the package. (Even the best system will overheat under the worst loads, on the worst grades, on the hottest days. I like being able to monitor the temp. The new powerstrokes are equipped with a tranny temp gauge.)

Finally, I added an ATS power chip with three settings so I can run stock, 70 horse boost, or 100 horse boost - all at the flip of a switch. I also installed a new turbo down pipe, a K & N filter system, and a new 4" exhaust so the engine can breathe more easily.

The jobs that used to be a strain are now easy - and I almost never run the engine hard. In fact, I can count the number of times I've used the 100 horse boost. The truck just lopes along nice and cool and easy. It also gets good fuel economy. ( I did most of this work about 30,000 miles ago on this truck. My brother runs a Dodge/Cummins truck. He made similar modifications, through Doctor Performance, about 80,000 miles ago).

There are similar packages for smaller Chevys, Fords and Dodges. If you've got an anemic Expedition or Silverado, this might be the ticket - especially if your rig meets your other needs.

I still think there's no substitute for starting with the right rig, and the above modifications will not turn a 2700 pound Subaru into a semi-truck, but they might help a tired older explorer tow with more enthusiasm, or steer more predictably with a load on the back.

JayR posted 11-09-2003 05:18 AM ET (US)     Profile for JayR  Send Email to JayR     
I too own a Power Stroke Diesel. Love it!

When you decide to sell, I'll buy!!! :-)

jimh posted 11-09-2003 09:10 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
The 5.7L V-8 Engine used in many General Motors trucks and larger passenger cars (like a SUBURBAN or CADILLAC) is also a candidate for some horsepower improvement. It was recently explained to me that the engine can produce 40 more horsepower if the ignition timing is modified. This change requires use of premium fuel (for higher octane). Apparently chip sets are available which can shift the engine timing on demand into the premium-gas-only mode. This would be a reasonable modification. Using Premium grade gasoline while towing would not be too much of a hardship.

I have not tried this myself, yet. Unfortunately, my resident expert, my neighbor LEADFOOT, has moved to California.

kglinz posted 11-09-2003 12:23 PM ET (US)     Profile for kglinz  Send Email to kglinz     
The 5.7 Liter Chevy engine was based on the 265 cubic inch engine first used in 1955. The new 4.6,5.3 and 6 Liter GM engines are also "push rod engines" based on the 1955 engine. They are a great improvement over the older engines. I, many years ago, spent a lot money money trying to gain a few more HP out of a 350. If you want to increase the power of your vehicle order a "crate engine" from GM.
jimp posted 11-09-2003 12:31 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimp  Send Email to jimp     
alkar -

I'm running the same truck you are - 1995. How much did all that after market stuff cost?


alkar posted 11-09-2003 01:43 PM ET (US)     Profile for alkar  Send Email to alkar     
There are "power chips" for most of our tow vehicles.

The ATS system I installed changes the power curve and the transmission shift points (because there's more power). The smooth factory transition between gears is replaced by a firmer, more abrupt, shift - to reduce heat build up and increase the life of the transmission.

Jimp, your truck is a great candidate for the changes I made. As I recall, that particular model year was used as an example in the Banks performance tests.

You can spend as little or as much as you wish. Just replacing the factory air filter with a K & N will make a difference. If your truck breathes easier it will run better. K & N makes a cartridge that installs in your factory air box for about $50 - and the cartridge has a 10 year, 1,000,000 mile guarantee. If you want to go a step farther, the K & N cool air kit replaces the entire factory box for about $275. I don't know why Ford didn't just start our with a high-flow air filter. (It's hard to understand why all the manufacturers build in so many performance retarding system components. My powerstroke, for example, came with a large diameter exhaust that was severely crimped and narrowed near the block - thereby eliminating the advantages of the large exhaust. The crimp reduced the diameter about 50%, which limited the air flow. The diameter after that crimp was irrelevant. All the aftermarket exhaust systems get rid of the crimp and the engine performs measurably better. It's not like the engineers at Ford and GM don't understand this dynamic - they just build in a limiting defect. Why? It's the same thing with air filters, suspension - you name it.)

Chips start as low as about $400. If you want to go "whole hog" and replace your turbo, turbo downpipe, intercooler, and the exhaust (with stainless 4" pipe) you're looking at about $2400-$2800. That would turn your truck into an animal and, once you got over the joy of stuffing your foot into the peddle, improve your fuel economy.

The Banks website has data on the performance curves. They show how each incremental improvement boosts performance, so you can decide how far you want to go. I went with ATS and stopped at about $3500, and that included a color matched gauge cluster installed in the driver's side door pillar. (That also included the heavy duty transmission pan and other components to cool and protect. I spent less than $2,000 on power.)

The Firestone air bags were about $350 installed. Add another $450 if you want a compressor with gauges so you can inflate or deflate the air bags from the cab. I've had the air bags since the truck was new. (I just inflated them at a gas station when we were going to take on a heavy load.) A new compressor with a five gallon tank is being installed on Thursday. The additional capacity will allow us to inflate tires and run air tools too. The compressor, tank, and lines are all hidden inside and under the truck. (The air tank mounts up along side a frame rail.)

My brother's Dodge became more of a hobby for him. His buddy also owns the Doctor Performance franchise in Kentucky, so he didn't stop quite as soon. I think he's got closer to $9500 in after-market goodies in his engine and transmission. I wouldn't want to spend the money for that much power, and I didn't want to stress my motor and transmission that much, but his truck is truly amazing. He runs 33" BF Goodrich tires and carries a heavy contractor's box in the back. It will still "burn off" the tires if he romps on the peddle at the stop sign! That truck will flat eat most stock sports cars in the quarter mile. If you want to spend the money, the sky is the limit.

One note of caution: It is very easy to build horsepower in the new diesel trucks. It is MUCH more difficult to build an automatic transmission that can handle the power. The transmission HAS to be a priority. My bother shipped his transmission down to a company in Florida that builds racing transmissions. Even with the relatively small boost I have, I know I can't just leave my truck in overdrive at the bottom of a steep grade and stuff my foot into it. I'm gentle with my transmission when she's under a lot of stress. I'm hoping that will help me through many more happy miles - because a new transmission for my truck is about $3,500...

alkar posted 11-09-2003 02:08 PM ET (US)     Profile for alkar  Send Email to alkar     
It was supposed to read, "...why Ford just start ouT.."

p.s. The air bag compressor systems start at about $185 for the light duty, low volume pump. I quoted a heavy duty system with storage and air lines.

alkar posted 11-09-2003 02:11 PM ET (US)     Profile for alkar  Send Email to alkar     
"..why Ford didn't just start out..." Geeez, I should have just stayed in bed today...
OutrageMan posted 11-09-2003 02:19 PM ET (US)     Profile for OutrageMan  Send Email to OutrageMan     
I have an '03 Ram 2500 Hemi. I have been trying to find performance mods for it, but so far I have come up empty. Any suggestions? Maybe it is too new?


jimp posted 11-09-2003 02:41 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimp  Send Email to jimp     
alkar -

Thanks. Looks like some mods worth looking into.

My transmission died 14 months ago with only 42,000 miles on it. Some friends borrowed it (with my wife) for a road race from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (109 miles). After running at slow speed for 5-6 hours - it blew. Ford said that was "common", happens a lot with PowerStrokes used for snow plowing (back & ram). Kind of ticked me off - rebuild was $2,300.

Over all, the F-350 crewcab with PowerStroke is an awesome tow vehicle. Doesn't come close to sweating with a Revene 22 WT behind it. Not towing the Revenge, my oldest daughter and I drove from Haines, Alaska to Fairbanks, 660 miles, in 12 hours even and over 20 mpg thru the mountains and passes. Filled up with fuel in Juneau, and refilled in Fairbanks (Need a 5 our ferry ride to get to Haines from Juneau). Great trip.


alkar posted 11-09-2003 04:31 PM ET (US)     Profile for alkar  Send Email to alkar     
OutrageMan, I'm not aware of any performance enhancing systems for your truck, but I'm sure they'll be available soon.

Perhaps it's good that they're not already available, as you probably would not want to do anything that might void your factory warranty.

I'm sure we'll see a complete performance system for your truck before next summer.

Here's a good site to keep you up to date:

OutrageMan posted 11-09-2003 09:52 PM ET (US)     Profile for OutrageMan  Send Email to OutrageMan     
Thanks for the link. It looks like there are already a few options.


ryanwhaler posted 11-09-2003 10:22 PM ET (US)     Profile for ryanwhaler  Send Email to ryanwhaler     
I bet you guys would enjoy a TV show that is on every saterday afternoon. Its called Trucks They talk often about chips you can use to improve the output of your truck. I don't really go out of my way to watch it because the host drives me crazy, but its a cool show. This thread made me think of it.
alkar posted 11-10-2003 09:56 PM ET (US)     Profile for alkar  Send Email to alkar     
Here's the latest on performance improvement for you diesel guys.

Today I bumped into the mechanic who has been helping me with my trucks for some time. He was excited about his recent installation of a propane system that substantially boosted horsepower, increased fuel economy, and lowered engine temps. The system burns 1.5 gallons of propane per 10 gallons of diesel, and it "helps" the engine burn the diesel more completely.

And what's the best news? The government considers propane an "alternate fuel source", so there's a HUGE tax incentive for installing the propane system. The other good news is this: The same system can be moved from your Ford to your brother's Dodge to your uncle's Kenworth, so you can keep it for years.

I'd be seriously considering the propane system if my boat had not already drained all of my discretionary money for a while...

If I could just fine that money tree :-)

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