The world of car tuning and modifications has come a long way since the Max Power days of massive spoilers and flame stickers, and is now a fully-fledged industry catering to four-wheeled fanatics all over the world.
To be honest, it’s something I know very little about, so when we went down to a specialist tuning garage by the name of Awesome GTI for a recent photoshoot, I thought it was a good opportunity to find out a bit more about this sometimes misunderstood obsession.
Here’s an interview with a helpful chap named John Glover about tuning cars, how things have changed and why it’s still so popular…
First things first – what is this place?
We’re a Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda specialist. It all started off 30 years ago as a hobby for the old managing director. He was originally tuning VWs in his garage. And it’s all grown since then, thanks to how tuning cars has become more popular.
How has this sort of thing changed in the 30 years you lot have been around?
Back then, a lot of it was custom fabrication. If you wanted to tune a car, it was all about taking your engine out and putting another in, or doing major engine work — boring out the cylinder heads and things like that.
But now there are some really good companies who offer performance solutions for this stuff. We’ve got an Audi TT RS outside. It’s running a standard engine which out of the factory would be 400 horsepower, but thanks to the different bolt-on solutions you can get, we’ve got 740 horsepower out of it. That’s how the industry has moved on.
“From the first day they made a motor car, there’s always been a desire to make it faster.”
30 years ago it was a much smaller scene, but from the first day they made a motor car there’s always been a desire to make it faster. And once the popularity grew, it just exploded.
Even people who don’t turn in the same circles as I do still want to make their car look different – even if it’s something as basic as a steering wheel cover or a different set of wheel trims.
How did you get into all this?
My dad was a mechanic, and all the time I was at school I was never going to work anywhere else but the automotive industry. I always wanted to be a mechanic, but that was never going to happen because I’ve got no finesse whatsoever. Everything I used to touch would break, and I still don’t get hands-on with cars now.
The company I did my work experience for said, “Look John, you need to get out of the workshop.” So they put me in the parts department. And that basically gave me the knowledge to understand the workings of a car and how they went together.
What were you driving at the time?
The first car I had was a B Reg Volkswagen Jetta. I can still remember the registration number. After that I got a C Reg MK2 Golf GTI that was lowered and painted purple.
I’ve had over 40 different Volkswagens, Audis, Seats or Skodas, and probably 38 of them have been tuned and modified. I think I’ve had at least 12 MK2 Golfs.
That allegiance to Volkswagen seems like a common thing. Why do people love VWs so much?
Volkswagen has always been a really cool car brand. Right back all the way to the old buses and Beetles. They were affordable vehicles that people could customise themselves. Even before the tuning industry that we know today took a hold, there were still large Volkswagen specific meets.
I suppose looking around at the stuff that’s here, these cars are pretty subtle. These cars can go quick – but they still look like everyday cars. They’re not insane supercars.
Yeah, and that’s something that’s happened with the evolution of these cars. If you wanted to go that extreme with a car in the 90s, you’d have to alter so many things that it would end up looking like a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Now, you can do it very subtly and go completely under the radar – there’d be nothing on a car to say what it was.
And as highly strung as that car will be, you’ll still be able to sit in it and tootle down to the shops at 30mph without breaking your ears and scaring young children or old grannies.
When we’re modifying these cars now, you can get the best of both worlds – something that’s fine to go shopping in, and then something you can take to the racetrack and scare yourself silly.
As a wider question, but why are people so obsessed with cars?
It’s everything a car represents isn’t it? It’s style, it’s freedom, you can express yourself with it, it’s an extension of your style or your personality. That’s how it is for me anyway — I can only imagine it’s the same for other people who like cars.
Is the obsession hard to shut off?
Yeah, if you’re in it, you’re in it. I’ll clock cars on a daily basis. My daughter’s two and a half and she’s shouting out cars as we’re driving around.
I know they’re German, but in my head tuned-up VWs are a pretty British obsession. Does it stretch around the world?
Yeah whether it’s Australia, China, Turkey or Spain… these cars have a strong following in every country.
What about the boy racer element that was big back in the 90s around here? Was that happening everywhere?
I dare say the meets might not have looked the same – you might not have been in a Tesco car park, but it all went on. With social media now we know there are people as far as Australia who are into this stuff. Before that, you’d never know what was going on.
Has the internet changed stuff? It seems like it’s had a big effect on every niche interest.
Before the internet, if you wanted some bits that you wanted to get hold of, you’d find ten different scrap yards in the Yellow Pages and you’d get out there trying to find them, whereas now you’d just get onto a group on Facebook.
It’s made life a hell of a lot easier, but it has taken away the treasure hunt that it used to be. I can remember you’d go to get some bits off a MKII GTI and the golf-ball gear-knob would still be on it. You’d get one of them; give the guy three quid for it and you’d feel like you’d had a big win.
“It’s human nature – nobody wants to accept what they’ve just been given – they want to make it better.”
Everybody has still got the same goals now with the cars as we had all those years ago – that hasn’t changed – but I do think the internet has taken a lot of that hands-on, down and dirty fun out of it, and a lot of people are missing out on that. We had some fantastic days doing that sort of stuff.
We’d hear of a scrap yard two hours away, so we’d drive over there and get nothing we’d planned on getting – but we’d end up coming away with something better that we didn’t expect. It’s all a bit too easy now, but maybe that’s what they were looking to do with the internet.
What do the car companies themselves think of it? Are they into it or not?
They’d prefer that we weren’t here. As far as they’re concerned they do a very good job of building very good cars and there’s no need for anyone to mess around with them afterwards. They hate it. That’s why you get things like Audi’s RS flagship range – to them, they’re the tuned cars that people should have and you shouldn’t mess with them.
There’s always going to be people wanting to get inside things and make them better though.
Yeah, that’s human nature – nobody wants to accept what they’ve just been given – they want to make it better.
What are your thoughts on how cars are going? Self-drive cars and all that?
It’s fine, things have to progress, but there’s still going to be a massive amount of desire for older vehicles to work and be used in the way that they were intended.
I suppose the value of these old cars will go up too.
If you look at the 80s hot-hatches, over the last four or five years the value of them has gone through the roof. I’ll sometimes have a look on Auto Trader or eBay at cars I’ve scrapped years ago – and just as a breaker, they’re over £10,000. It’s heart-breaking.
It’s hard to see the value in stuff at the time. It takes a good while to appreciate something.
When I was at a company called Dubsport in the mid-90s we had a big clear-out. We got an industrial skip about the size of this room, and everything that had been there for a while went into this skip. We’re talking MK2 Golf doors, MK1 bumpers, dashboards, steering wheels, cylinder heads... We got about £1,500 in scrap for it, but I bet you there’d be £150,000 in it now. And it was all crushed and melted down.
At that time there was no value in it, but you try and find those bits now. We must have binned 50 MKII Golf parcel shelves – but now you’re not getting any change out of £150. And it’s just a piece of pressed cardboard.
You’re not to know though are you?
No. It’s crystal ball stuff. I’m thinking, should I be doing this now? Should I just get a container and fill it with bits that I can get on 99p auctions on eBay? Am I going to get a new house out of it in 20 years?
Sounds like a plan.