The poor man's 454ss
All right, we all know the 454ss is not a cheap vehicle to buy or maintain. And with the price of fuel these days, it is certainly not cheap to drive. But gaining some performance from your SS can be cheap. I won't guarantee a 3 second drop on your quarter mile times. But you can definitely add a few more ponies by using some simple tricks to get more power, and transfer more power to the ground.
First get yourself a fuel pressure regulator and gauge, and install them per the instructions in the Fuel Mods article that I wrote. This is critical as we are going to be dealing with a host of intake modifications and along with more air, you are going to need more fuel. This is a cheap $60-80 modification (for gauge and regulator alone) that will serve you well when it comes time to forget about the wife's car payment for the month and spend the $400 on a set of headers instead.
Lets start with the intake. There is quite a bit of room for improvement here, as GM obviously adhered to the theory of "more crap is better" upon designing the intake tract. Remove the Heimholtz resonator (the large oval shaped canister to the passenger side of the motor) and look inside it. Now you have 1 of 2 options: you may discard the insert and replace the resonator, or you may get crafty with a piece of 4" PVC plastic drain pipe and a few rubber grottings sold at Home Depot and make your own $10 version of the $99 "torque tube" sold through the magazines. I recommend you don't take the easy way out and simply discard the entire intake or slap on an open-element air cleaner without making some other provision for cool-air induction. This is foolish, as the engine will now suck hot engine compartment air, which is less dense in oxygen than cooler outside air.
Then move to the passenger fenderwell. In the fender, you will find a very constrictive dual chamber air tube that the intake tract connects to. This does to your intake what a hungry boa constrictor does to a rat. Remove it by unscrewing the screw located near the battery (the one that looks like it is not retaining anything). Using a good deal of elbow grease, yank it out and promptly discard it, so as to prevent you from re-installing it, should you lose your senses after your wife pops you upside the head for making that header purchase.
Now comes time to install a thermostat. A t-stat that opens at a lower temp will help your truck run a little cooler, which will enable you to advance the timing a few more degrees. You have a choice between 160*, 175*, 180* and 195*. The stocker is 195 degrees, and the lower you go, the more advance you can run without pinging. Typically if you swap to a 160*, you can get another 2*-4* advance, sometimes more, with the same fuel without a problem. But beware if you live in snow country and actually drive on cold days…your truck will take longer to warm up, and in some cases might not warm up to operating temperature, which is about 160*. T-stats are relatively cheap at around $25.
Another cheap intake modification is a throttle body spacer. Most can be had for $50 to $60 and users of these products claim a noticeable torque increase. One must modify the routing of the fuel lines, but instructions are usually provided with the kit. Get one made of phenolic material as it will not soak up heat like metal ones, and will not rot out like wood spacers. The ˝" version is a good recommendation according to one of our members.
Last thing to do is drop in a 13"x3" K&N filter in the stock air cleaner assembly for $40. This filter not only flows better than paper elements but is reusable as well. While you are in there, shrink wrap the electric wires to the injectors to enhance flow.
If you want a cowl induction hood but don't have the $450 for the hood and another $200 to paint it, you can remove the weatherstrip around the back edge of the hood, and flip the air cleaner lid upside down (or get an open element filter). One of our most knowledgeable members notes that this mod will dramatically boost cool air availability to the engine. However one may want to avoid this if the truck is driven in snow or rain.
As for exhaust modifications, there are none that are cheap except for removing the manifolds and grinding down the AIR tubes and grottings as short as possible to promote better airflow. The best thing that can be done for 90 SS's for the most bang with the least buck is to upgrade to a 91-93 SS system with headers, and for 91-93 owners, a set of headers and dual cat-back exhaust. 90 owners might want to get the stock 91-93 cat-forward pipes and an aftermarket cat-back exhaust designed for 91-93 SS's but that will usually work out to be more expensive than bumming an exhaust off of a 91-93 owner who has upgraded, or at the very least, replace the stock pellet style cat with a later model straight-through style. 91-93 SS systems will swap into 90's with very little trouble.
Next focus some attention on the distributor. The stock cap and rotor should be replaced with something quality, like Hypertech's or MSD's cap and rotor combo. This should not cost more than $40 or $50, but it is worth it to maintain performance. The entire distributor should be replaced if you have the money, since the stockers have been known to be of poor quality. Get a GMPP distributor. Ask MikeN from discussion about the stock distributors.
Moving to the transmission, more tricks can be employed. In the low/rev. servo in the tranny, replace the stock spring with that from a late model Corvette. This will firm up the 1-2 shift slightly. Or, for about $125, you can buy a Trans-Go shift kit and install it yourself, which is difficult and time consuming but well worth the effort, as it firms up all shifts to your liking, as well as makes it able to handle more power.
Something that can be done to improve traction a little is to shim the overload spring with a suspension bumper between the overload and main spring leaf. Remove the plastic factory silencer and install the suspension bumper in the 3/8" hole. It is imperative that you install it on the front of the overload spring only. This is like making a cheap set of traction bars using the spring and bumper.
Owning an SS gets costly but doing a few mods to it that GM should have done is not.