Fact: most enthusiast drivers have about a much interest in a big American luxury car as they do in sky driving without a parachute on their back. Even though they usually have a lot of power, people who have more interest in driving than floating avoid the Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs of the world for good reason. Sloppy, floaty handling and lots of squat and dive sort of negate the fun of having a huge engine in front of you. A slushy automatic transmission with a loose torque converter and not enough gears further dulls the experience. You end up feeling like you’re piloting a boat on the road -- which is why a lot of people from my generation call cars like these “Land Yachts.”

It doesn’t have to be this way! An Impala SS doesn’t have to be less fun that herpes! There are good reasons to buy a Crown Victoria! You know, an Oldsmobile Aurora can be pretty cool! And all this can be done with minimal financial outlay, if you’re smart about it. It all comes down to focusing on what’s wrong with the car, fixing that, and allowing yourself what’s right with the car. Which is easier to find if you’re not getting sea sick from the terrible suspension, a crap transmission, etc.

For the purpose of this excercise, we’ll be talking about Ford Crown Victorias. Why? Well, they’re tough, they’re cheaper than dirt, they’re quite easy to modify, they’re rear wheel drive, and they have Ford V8 power. Stock, they’re not much fun. With the right parts, they’re a hoot. Here’s how you do it.

Step One: Fix The Suspension.

Most people my age have a fascination with small European cars not because they’re small and European, but because they actually handle well. This isn’t rocket surgery to imitate. Sure, a big car with upgraded suspension will never handle as well as a small one, but if you can fix the biggest issue with relatively little money, why not enjoy space and handling too?

First off, go forth and order some aftermarket anti-roll bars. For those not well-versed in suspension terminology, an anti-roll bar (also called a sway bar, ARB, FSB or RSB) connects the two sides of the car together to limit the amount of difference in ride height between the two. With no sway bar, if you pitch a heavy car into a left-hand turn, it relies entirely on the force of the spring on the right side and the damper on the left side to keep the right side from bottoming out, and the left side from extending fully. An anti-roll bar takes a certain amount of this stress off of the shocks and springs, allowing them to do their job of locating the wheel better. Big, heavy cars actually benefit more from better sway bars than small light ones, as their suspensions have more of a load to compensate for. The strength of a sway bar goes up exponentially with it’s diameter, so a few mm bigger yields large gains.

Be careful about over-doing it. Too thick of a sway bar on the front and it’ll understeer like a Kia. Too thick of a sway bar on the back and it’ll oversteer like a 911 on trailing throttle. Keep them well matched, and pick sway bar sizes according to how you want the car to handle. Typically on a front-wheel drive car, you’ll just upgrade the rear, or if upgrading both the rear will see a bigger jump than the front so the handling is more neutral. On a rear-drive car, both will usually be upgraded an equal amount.

Thankfully, all you need for a swaybar is a long chunk of metal plus some rubber bushings that’ll fit. They’re usually relatively cheap. A big brand in aftermarket swaybars for big domestic cars is Addco. For our theoretical P71 Crown Victoria, Addco has a set of swaybars front and rear that are 1.25″ (37.5mm) diameter front and 1.00″ (25.4mm) diameter rear, both solid. The rear bar retails for about $150 and the front for about $200. Both mount to the existing anti-sway bar hardware on the chassis, so all you need is the bar. The stock (civilian) Crown Vic has a puny 26.5mm front bar, although police cars get larger 28-29mm front bars. The stock rear sway on CV’s is a remarkably tiny 15mm (the stock RSB on my Honda Accord is 13mm!). So for a low cash outlay, the Addco bars look like a big upgrade.

If you’re a HUGE cheapskate, also remember that different OEM models of the same car sometimes have different sway bars. In the case of our Crown Victoria, there were lots of different ones over the years. Regular Crown Vics had the 26.5mm Front/15mm rear. Fleet/Taxi/Police use Crown Vics (“Interceptors”) had 28 or 29mm Fronts and a 17mm rear. Finally, “handling package” Crown Vics as well as the badass Mercury Marauder (a personal favorite of mine) had the 28mm front bar but a much bigger 21mm rear bar. If you just want less body roll for cheap, go to your local Ford dealer and ask for a Marauder sway bar -- it’s $56. How’s that for a cheap, effective modification? For more information on P71 suspension, check out the absolutely detailed website at www.p71interceptor.com.

Sway bars not enough? If you have a “civilian” Crown Victoria or Grand Marquis, your next step are the springs from an Interceptor package P71. These springs have a considerably stiffer rate and in a normal CV will give you better wheel control and resistance to bottoming out. This is a relatively mild upgrade that keeps the car at about stock ride height. If you want it lower and meaner, check out Eaton Springs -- they have stock height, 1″ drop, and 1.5″ drop for the CV with higher springs rates.

Kill Those Airplane Gears!

Two things that go hand in hand: Big American cars with Big American V8′s, and Big American Final Drive Ratios. The final drive ratio is the final gear in the transmission, so changing it for a different gear will shift all of your ratios up or down. A lot of big American cars will have very tall (numerically low) final drive ratios to keep their RPM’s down on the highway -- you know, loafing along at 2,000rpm at 80 mph. This is great for grandma, but if you like accelerating, it’s not for you. Swapping those 2.73 gears out for some 3.55′s, 3.73′s, or if you’re crazy and hate gasoline some 4.11′s is perhaps the most effective way to wake up your slumbering land yacht. Sure, you’ll turn higher engine speeds on the highway -- but if you cared about gas mileage, you’d have bought a Prius.

One thing to look out for -- a shorter final drive ratio will spin your drive shaft faster. On some cars (like the Crown Vic) this could lead to an imbalance at higher shaft speeds, causing an obnoxious and potentially destructive vibration. You can get a shaft precision balanced, or get a pre-made performance shaft. If you have an ex-police use Crown Victoria, you’re in luck -- the Interceptors had a precision-balanced aluminum shaft in them from the factory.

Another tip: if you’re getting a rear gear installed, you might as well go ahead and have a limited-slip differential installed at the same time, as most shops won’t charge extra labor since they’re already in there. The LSD from a Mustang GT fits in a Crown Vic differential, since they’re the same, and should run you less than $100.

Exhaust Work. A V8 should sound like a V8.

You might not gain a million wheel horsepower from a good exhaust system, but you’ll gain a lot of smiles. Regular CV’s had a single exhaust setup; LX and Interceptors had true duals. If yours already has dual exhaust, consider just having Flowmasters welded in for some extra rumble. A few extra ponies (10-15) can be picked up by adapting a cross-over pipe with high flow catalytic converters, as well.

Take Advantage of OEM upgrades!

The Crown Victoria uses the same 4.6L SOHC V8 as the Mustang GT did up until 2004. If you want more power, pick up a set of heads from a Mustang GT and bolt them on. The same goes with the 90′s Impala SS/Caprice -- the LT1 5.7L V8 was similar to that used in the Corvette and Z/28 Camaro, but those motors had high-flow aluminum heads. Bolting those on in conjunction with a computer retune will give you some more power.

Enjoy you car for what it is, don’t complain about what it isn’t.

This applies to anything, obviously. But once you do a few tweaks and you’ve got your big V8 American barge performing like a real car, you should enjoy the barcolounger space, growling V8, interstate-munching ride, and the fact that people will get out of the left lane when a Crown Vic comes barging up behind them. For even more fun, consider a push-bar for the front end and a CB whip antenna for the trunk -- and some mirrored sunglasses. What I’m saying is, don’t write the classic American land yacht off because your grandpa drives one. He used to like burnouts too, kid, and there’s a reason he drives one.