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Modified doors added a lot of weight, slowing the car considerably. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Modified doors added a lot of weight, slowing the car considerably. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

An idiot's guide to automotive un-improvement Add to ...

Hundreds of years from now, archeologists will dig up our civilization to ruminate on who we were, and what we were thinking. Here’s hoping that their first discoveries don’t include a Toyota Corolla with a giant spoiler bolted on the back, an oil sheik’s solid-gold Bentley or a set of 32-inch wheels with chrome spinners.

Unfortunately, there’s every chance that this is what the excavators will find, since there is no shortage of bad car alterations. Human beings like to create monuments to their personal style, and the automobile provides a blank canvas that can become the Mona Lisa – or (in most cases) a black-velvet oil painting.

Car alterations rarely go well. Just this week, I saw a Rolls-Royce with pimp-style chrome rims (a modification that conjured up a sudden and unwanted mental image of Queen Elizabeth in sequined hot pants).

Ah, the perils of customization. Not long ago, I encountered a guy who had turned a brand-new Camaro into a replica of Burt Reynolds’s Firebird from Smokey and the Bandit (a movie that was released in 1977 and still stands as a monument to automotive cheesiness). In his quest to relive Burt’s grandeur, the Camaro’s owner had grafted on a new, Smokey-style front end, painted a firebird mural on the hood and installed black louvers over the back windows.

The most challenging part of the modification package was the Camaro’s doors, which now opened vertically, like the ones on a Lamborghini. (This was a departure from the original Bandit car, of course, but when it comes to building a dream, each man’s vision is his own.)

After spending a small fortune, the owner had ended up with a car that was slower around the racetrack than it was when it rolled out of the factory (the Bandit-replica wheels weren’t the optimum size, and those Lamborghini-style scissor doors added a lot of weight.) But actual performance can’t stand in the way of a vision.

Car modifications always begin with a dream – we want a car that looks better, goes faster, and impresses all who gaze upon it. Car manufacturers may have NASA-style research labs and armies of engineers, yet gear heads always believe they can do better out in their carport, armed with nothing more than a toolbox, a welding torch and a half-baked vision.

I speak from experience.

As a young man, I looked at my lowly VW Beetle and envisioned a poor man’s Porsche, with a streamlined body, racing suspension and a motor with three times its original power. Several months and thousands of dollars later, I had a car far worse than the one I’d started with. The racing shock absorbers I put in were way too stiff, so the Beetle crashed over bumps. The modified engine refused to idle below 2,000 rpm. The custom exhaust system was so loud that I had to wear earplugs. On the upside, the motor did produce more power – but only until it blew up.

For me, the 1970s were a period of unbridled inventiveness and remarkable stupidity. I helped a friend bolt a race-style front spoiler on his BMW, confident that it would make his car look cooler, handle better and improve fuel economy by reducing airflow under the car (the spoiler came down almost to the ground). Unfortunately, the performance benefits were never given a true test, since the spoiler was destroyed by a curb just hours after we finished bolting it on.

Soon after that, I decided to take a break from university to apprentice as a mechanic in a shop where the pros looked at my car modifications with skeptical, all-knowing eyes. “You’ll learn,” said the owner. And I did. By the time I left the shop to finish my studies and become a writer, I understood how hard it was to actually improve a car – and how easy it was to make it worse.

Some mistakes are merely aesthetic – you may think that metal flake paint, stag horns bolted to the hood or an interior lined with lime-green fur looks good, but others will probably disagree. But if you’re going to mess up your car, why not go all the way, and make some mistakes that will damage not only its looks, but its performance, handling, and resale value?

As a former expert in the field, I have assembled an Idiot’s Guide to Automotive Un-improvement:

1.Install racing springs and shock absorbers: You think your car leans too much through corners, and you dream of making it into a Le Mans racer that will slice through bends like a shark. No problem. Order a set of race-specification shocks and springs. Get the stiffest ones available (and book off work for about a month, because that’s how long it will take you to install them). The old parts will be rusted in place, so bring a cutting torch and a case of penetrating oil. When you’re done, your car will ride like a Conestoga wagon. But you will have race cred, thanks to those cool Ohlins or Koni stickers on your car.

2.Put on a drag-race style supercharger: Nothing says power like a giant blower. It sticks up through the hood like a chromed cathedral, announcing your dominance. Yes, the blower will block your view of the road ahead, and yes, it’s true that your motor will probably last only a few weeks thanks to that 20-1 compression ratio, but none of that will matter when you roll down the boulevard like an all-conquering stud. Just make sure a fuel station is within range, because your mileage will be reduced (but only by 90 per cent or so).

3.Giant wheels: “Donking” a car with oversize rims is one of the newest trends, and you don’t want to be left behind. If your car came with 16-inch wheels, you can put on a set of chromed 22s. They should be fine, but why not go all the way by slapping on some 28s? They will weigh several times more than the wheels you’re replacing, which will kill your acceleration, deceleration and handling. But you’ll be rolling on bling 28s! In 10 years, you’ll wonder what you were thinking. Never mind.

4.Shaved doors: Nothing looks cooler than a car with no door or hood handles. You can eliminate yours by replacing your door and trunk latches with remote-controlled solenoids. Sure, you’ll have to spend a few weeks filling and painting the holes where your handles once stood, but it will all be worth it when your doors spring open at the touch of a remote button. If your battery dies, your car will become as impregnable as an Egyptian king’s burial chamber, but don’t worry – you can break a window and re-energize your electrical system through the cigarette lighter. If this doesn’t work, you may can always rip off the hood with the Jaws of Life and use some jumper cables.

There are plenty more un-improvement options. But this should get you started.

Good luck.

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Twitter:Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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