From the factory, some vehicles come with a naturally aspirated engine, and others come with forced air induction. A select few have superchargers, but turbochargers are becoming almost second nature on the production line. It’s popular for two reasons on new models: to get more power from a smaller-displacement engine and to improve fuel efficiency.
But for classic cars and high-performance vehicles that aren’t equipped with a turbocharger, adding one afterward can be a project you’d like to tackle. Seldom is it intended to be for anything but more power. Is it possible to add a turbo on a vehicle that didn’t come with one originally? Anything is possible, and this project is no exception.
Here’s what you need to know about adding a turbo on a non-turbo car.
What Does Adding Turbo Do?
As previously mentioned, turbochargers are a forced air induction system. In the most basic explanation possible, exhaust gasses push through a turbine that is attached to a shaft that incorporates a compressor on the other end. This in turn compresses fresh air that’s pushed into the engine’s intake. The result is more oxygen to burn in the engine without requiring more displacement. A turbocharged V6 can produce similar power to a naturally aspirated V8, for example.
There are a few key benefits to installing a turbo on your car.
- First, it can significantly increase your car's power and performance without needing extra engine drive to do it. It’s often referred to as “free horsepower” because it’s driven by the exhaust – a byproduct you’ll have anyway.
- Second, it has the potential to improve your car's fuel efficiency, but only if you’re installing a smaller motor with a turbo to get the same power levels. It’s a moot point if you’re using the same engine but adding a turbo and, if anything, you’ll be burning more fuel.
- Third, it can give your car a more unique look and sound that will turn heads when you're driving down the street. Who doesn’t love the “PPPSSSSSSHHHHH!!!” of a blowoff valve dumping excess pressure?
- Finally, it can be a great way to add value to your car if you ever decide to sell it, and only if you’ve done the job well.
Can You Install Turbo on a Non-Turbo Car?
Yes, a turbo can be installed on a car that doesn’t have one from the factory. However, there’s much, much more to it than simply buying a turbo and bolting it into the exhaust. The air it’s forcing into the engine should be cooled so it’s as energy-dense as possible, and the turbo needs its own form of cooling and lubrication, which is typically engine oil. So, it needs an intercooler and oil lines plumbed in.
Plus, in many cases, the fuel system isn’t built to handle the performance your car will be able to achieve with a turbo. A higher volume fuel pump and injectors could be necessary, and often, an aftermarket programmable ECU is needed to control it all.
Some models have turbo installation kits available, and others need to be pieced together, especially if you’re working on a car that seldom gets this type of modification. It’s geared more toward newer models, but it’s certainly not exclusive to classics or vintage resto-mods.
Choose The Right Turbo
Bolting on just any old turbo is a great way to blow your engine internals right out the block. It’s a delicate balance between a turbo large enough to achieve your power goals and one that won’t lag too much as the RPMs climb. If you choose a turbo that’s too small, it can over-spin, leading to possible turbo failure in a short time that can grenade the engine too.
The first step to choosing the right turbo is determining your target horsepower range. Most turbochargers are rated this way. Then, choose the best turbo possible for the budget you have. Inexpensive turbochargers have a habit of seizing up due to cheap bearings, and that can spell an early end to your track day. Also, determine how much room you have under the hood.
For some vehicles, the allotted space limits options you can install. Your best course of action is to pair a turbo using a calculator from one of the highly regarded brands on the market, like Precision Turbo or Turbonetics.
Can you put a turbo on any car? No. For some, space and configuration will inhibit your ability to fit one under the hood or plumb it in.
How To Install
There are very specific steps for how to install a turbo, depending on the model you’re working on. However, there are two major areas that need to be dealt with. Let’s assume that you’ve already figured out the fuel supply and delivery as well as the electronics, and that the mechanical installation is what you’re dealing with.
Bolt in the turbo
The turbocharger needs to be mounted where the exhaust gas will pass through it on its way to the tailpipe. Typically, that means installing an aftermarket exhaust manifold that the turbo will be mounted on. Then, the exhaust gas needs to exit the turbo, so an appropriate flange needs to be installed on the exhaust pipe or the downpipe replaced with an aftermarket one.
Then, the turbo needs to be cooled and lubricated with engine oil (from a pressure source and a drain to the oil pan), although some options are also cooled with engine antifreeze. You’ll need to plumb these lines from the engine to the turbocharger and prime them.
Install the ducting
The reason for a turbo is to compress air that’s force-fed into the intake. Thus, ducts need to be installed for air to enter the turbo from the air cleaner, and from the turbo to the air intake. Normally, this duct will route through an intercooler that keeps the air cool so there’s more oxygen density to increase power, and an intercooler kit is best to get pre-bent ducts and mounts that will save hours of agony for fitment.
Installing a turbocharger on a car originally built without one is going to test your patience and resolve. It’s a more complicated process than it initially sounds. But, the benefits are well worth it if you’re inclined to increase horsepower without slapping in a higher-displacement engine.
If you’re shopping for the parts to install a turbo, JEGS has what you’re looking for. From complete turbo kits and intercoolers to tuners and the expertise on how to install them, it’s all right here.