Dynamometers are devices used to measure an engine’s horsepower and torque. They’re an excellent resource during tuning to determine if a vehicle’s modifications are, in fact, creating more power. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to one. Which got us thinking… what did they do before dynos? This tech corner is basically a Dyno 101, which is why we’ve labeled it beginner.
A Little Older Than You’d Think…
Although hot rodding is a product of the 20th century, the first dynamometers were actually introduced as early as the late 1700’s. For the time, these early dynos were used to measure force and were intended largely for industrial and agricultural equipment. Current dynamometers work by placing a load on a floored engine and then measuring the amount of power that the engine can produce against said load at different speeds. But the type of dynamometers that we are most familiar with today didn’t really appear until the 1930s–and they were definitely not in popular use.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
It’s pretty common knowledge that NASCAR was born from bootleggers speeding over challenging roadways to deliver illicit goods. With Prohibition in effect, the law on their tail, and big money on the line, these moonshine runners developed impressive driving skills as well as a thirst for auto tuning. And while bootleggers were hardly the only drivers modifying cars for greater speed, they were in some ways the earliest performance testers. If they could outrun Johnny Law, their mods were effective. If not? Well, back to the drawing board. (After 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine, that is.)
So, considering NASCAR was finding its roots around the same time George Remus and Al Capone were making millions on bootlegged moonshine, it feels as if dynamometers have been around this whole time. While the Prohibition Era arguably falls in the early years of the automobile, just because dynamometers existed doesn’t mean everyone had access to one. (It’s not like every flapper and her jalopy could head down to the local auto shop for a dyno run.)
Learning From the Past
Today, we have a seemingly infinite amount of automotive content at our fingertips. From magazines, to television shows, online tutorials to enthusiast forums, every outlet offers some form of advice to make more power. These builds and tips are great for desktop tuning, but real world results can vary. And yes, this is where dynamometers shine. Nearly every media source in the industry shells out as many dyno results as they do footage of cars. And while it’s certainly the best way to get accurate real-world power results, not having access to a dyno doesn’t mean you can’t tune.
People have been making cars produce higher horsepower well before modern dynamometers were guiding the way. The forefathers of drag racing tuned performance through trial and error, touch and feel. The only way to see how fast their cars could go was by timing themselves and challenging the other guy. Technically speaking, there wasn’t so much a time before dynos, as there was a time before dynamometers were popular. Making mods one weekend and heading to the track the next, is something enthusiasts have been doing since the very beginning.
Even today, check out what the guys at the track are doing between runs. They tune the engine much the same as a technician would between dyno pulls. The truth is that track times speak louder than dynamometer results. Because knowing the power output is one thing, but knowing what to do with it is something else entirely.