A recent visit to Abu Dhabi brought about an opportunity to see a custom car show at close quarters.
Admittedly, the show in the region hasn’t quite got the scale or the ambience of the big tuning shows from the United States or Japan. But there was certainly no lack of spirit – with the flip side showing the ability of lots of money to deliver cars that were really pushing the limits of taste.
But why do we even opt to modify our cars? Admittedly, it isn’t something that is attempted by the weak-hearted, especially in a market where labour costs are almost as astronomical as the fines that could hit you if your car is caught on the road with the modifications visible. There is a rationale that Oman’s authorities follow when disallowing any modifications on cars – the manufacturer has spent millions in researching the right technologies, shapes, sizes and so of the car, makes these and then homologates these cars for the market. If individuals are allowed to then change parts as they choose, then it could have safety implications. And there is no third-party verification agency available to actually tell you whether what you have done is safe and street legal. Should the police then step in to do that?
But coming back to customisation, there are many of us who just aren’t interested in the stock car as it is presented to us. The creative mien in such of us as subscribe to that belief can always see a new car ahead of us, one that will look better if it just had that extra large alloy wheels, low profile tyres or indeed a ‘custom’ paint job. But that is barely considered tinkering in the cult of the customiser, especially when no real customisation can be done without touching the core structure of the car. Want a longer wheelbase anyone? A hot-rod profile maybe? Perhaps even a change of shape – with an open-top version of a sedan only profile? If you really want to do something serious, you have to own the capacity to do either structural, engine, transmission or suspension elements, including the ability to modify and fine-tune the car’s electronics backbone.
What you can see at an event like the Custom Car show is the number of people who either own this ability in the form of specialised garages or have access to the upsized and unique parts and technology to modify their cars. Make no mistake – this is a completely different business to the regular new car aftermarket as much as it differs from that of the classic and vintage car market. Many of the skills overlap, for after all if you are an expert at engine maintenance, in panel beating or in the latest painting techniques, you are in demand across the spectrum.
Economies of Scale
However, the Custom car market will always be seen as the maverick of the lot. Who else but a maverick would build a monster truck out of a Silverado? And then want to drive it around wherever possible? Some gleaming examples we saw at the moderately sized show included a Toyota FT86 with a V12 engine with quad turbos, two hot-rod ’66 Cadillac DeVilles, cars with dancing suspensions and monster Hummers. There is a certain type of car that calls to the modifier – the Silvias, GT-Rs, Corvettes, Mustangs are joined by Wranglers, FJ Cruisers, F-150s and the like. But we also saw some unique efforts – like the older MINI cars and even a stall selling the joys of a modified Camry.
And all of this is without taking into account the sheer number of workshops that were peddling custom motorcycles and three-wheelers.
All this passion and uniqueness carries with it a price tag that often challenges the comprehension of a normal car buyer. For instance you can buy a top of the line Harley-Davidson motorcycle for around US$25,000. The median of the customised cruiser motorcycle on offer at the show was around US$ 150,000. So it’s not just a little bit more, but often a few factors higher! This automatically means that the bulk of the custom car market is limited to very affluent buyers or those that are willing to sacrifice necessities in order to fuel their passion. But then, that’s the only real way to chase a passion – not to wait for a manufacturer to produce a limited run edition of a model.