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Start your build

You want to modify your car but aren’t sure where to start. Modifying a car is a personal expression of your taste. Altering it to how you want it to look or perform turns a normal car anyone can buy into something more special. Tuning is as much about the experience as it is about the car.

You’re thinking about buying a car to tinker with, take to the track or park up at 7Eleven on a Saturday night. It’s easy to get carried away with modifying your car, but you need a vision, a plan. What’s the best way to get the finished result you want? How should you start your project?

You might be looking to figure out which car to buy or unlock more potential from a car you already own. I’m here to guide you and help you get your project started. The right way.

car project shell retro vintage
© Egor Vikhrev

The foundation

You can modify any car, but if you have a specific goal and want the car to deliver what you’re looking for, choosing the right base will ensure you have the right tool for the job. Consider your driving needs, is it just for spirited street driving or giving it a thrashing on the track?

It’s common for people to tune the car they have. I sometimes wonder if it’s because they love it or maybe they’re just too lazy to sell it to buy the right car they’ll truly get the most enjoyment out of. Modifying is fun, but I would take a good base over a sub-optimal car that’s had a few bolt-ons. Don’t compromise too much. If you really like the car, I’m all for it. But if you’re number one goal is to get results, figure out what you want from the car and buy the right car to suit.

Defining your goals

To get the most out of your project, clarify your vision from the get-go to avoid heading down the wrong path with your modifications. Don’t be setting up your quarter-mile monster for drifting. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration on my part to prove the point. Do you see what I’m getting at?

You’ll need to find the sweet spot between your goals and what it can handle.

I would suggest speaking to a professional, someone with experience or a trusted source on the internet if you need any guidance. I’m sure we’ll have more specific guides for different areas of modifications posted here in the future, so keep an eye out for those.

If your main goal is to have fun, I believe that is possible in any car. You might just have to be willing to take things a step further with your modifications to get the intended result. If you have a thick wallet or spanner skills, have at it. Sometimes crazy is good.

bmw e30 rally car sand
© Leif Bergerson

Know your vehicle type

Each vehicle type has its own unique characteristics. Visual and physical. These characteristics will define the capabilities of the car. Understanding the strengths of different vehicles will set the foundations for your project to get the final result you’re looking for. Your goal might clash with the limitations of your dream car, and that’s ok as long as you’re honest with yourself about what you can get out of it, which brings me to my next point.

Set realistic expectations

For many people, this will be an overly complicated part of the article. You might already own a car or have one in mind that you want to play with. Many of you dream of transforming your cars into supercars, but let’s keep it real. Set realistic expectations, don’t put the horse behind the carriage. What I’m trying to get at is that; I wouldn’t suggest buying an E92 M3 and expect to set blistering quarter-mile times or think you need 1000bhp to win on a circuit. By keeping your expectations realistic, you’re more likely to have fun with your car. And that’s my main goal in helping you get there.

drag racing car v8 engine radial tires tyres
© Luis Negron

Car modifications list

This starts as your wish list. Write out the ideas you’ve got floating around your head, dream big but remember the fundamentals.

Once you’ve got your ideas squeezed out, let’s prioritise them. Consider factors like budget, time, and practicality. Sure, you might want lots of carbon, a big turbo or a fresh paint job, but start with what your car needs to facilitate any future plans, as well as what your wallet can handle. Be honest with yourself and start with what the car needs, maybe begin with improving upon its weaknesses or common failures. Depending on the car you choose, your priority might be upgrading common points of failure to keep your car reliable and capable of potential future abuse.

I’d suggest putting your plans in some kind of order or categorise them. You don’t have to stick to it strictly, just give yourself some kind of roadmap to complete your build in phases based on your priorities, starting with the essentials. Remove anything that doesn’t align with your vision or budget.

The list isn’t set in stone and it’s likely it will change over time as you adjust your plans or learn more about cars and modifications. It’s a tool to give you an idea of your priorities and keep you on track.

Budgeting for your build

The likelihood is, you can’t have it all at once, but you can have it all eventually. (Apart from the 99% of builds that are never finished because they are forever evolving.) Prioritise modifications based on budget constraints and vehicle downtime. If you want to drive the car between upgrades, you need to budget to get every part of the modification you are carrying out completed. That way you can get the wheels back on the ground as soon as possible.

Create a comprehensive budget that covers not only the parts but also the unexpected hiccups along the way.

© Simon Cousins

DIY or the professionals?

For some car enthusiasts, getting your hands dirty seems appealing, but understand the commitment. DIY modifications will give your project a personal touch and will give it more sentimental value, but be ready for a learning curve that might make your first attempt more challenging than you first thought. Watching cars being put together on YouTube might give you the perception that cars are like Lego. Sure, you can buy off-the-shelf parts reducing the need for fabricating custom parts, but don’t be fooled into thinking they will always fit as they should. Sometimes aftermarket components aren’t designed as well as you’d hope or you might encounter issues with your car. Things like rust and other components conflicting with each other will have you hitting bumps in the road. Working on cars can be a real headache at times, regardless of your skills.

With that said, I believe that jumping in at the deep end can sometimes speed up the learning curve. That’s how I started. Don’t expect things to be perfect the first time around, but prioritise safety and get stuck in. Standing back and looking at what you achieved is an incredible feeling.

Not everyone is born with the gift of handling spanners, and that’s perfectly fine. Know your limitations and consider professional help when expertise is needed. Find a reputable workshop and keep them informed of your plans. They might spot potential hurdles along the way and guide you in the right direction. You want everything to function correctly and be safe, right? It might mean your goals can become a reality without the headache. Believe me, regardless of how the work is done, headaches are mandatory with project cars.

DIY vs. Professionals: Budgeting

Like in most industries, money talks, and the automotive world is no different. It doesn’t matter if you’re tackling the project yourself or handing it over to the professionals, you should budget wisely. Of course, the DIY route will be the cheaper option in most cases. That’s if everything goes to plan. But sometimes mistakes happen and you don’t quite know how to rectify an issue yourself so you need help from an expert to get you out of a spot of bother. This is why it’s good to remember what you’re paying for when you go to a workshop. It’s not just about parts; it’s about the experience.

Lamborghini Aventador SVJ centre lock gold wheel
© Reiss Kelly-Alder

Safety precautions

Don’t compromise on safety. It’s the backbone of every project. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to have someone inspect your work if you’re not entirely sure. Better to be safe than sorry.

Buy all of the necessary equipment to ensure you can perform quality work and be safe while doing it. Torque wrench, axle stands and PPE (personal protective equipment), such as gloves and safety glasses are great places to start.

If you have a performance-based project and you aren’t sure what upgrades to do first, I would recommend starting with brakes, tyres, and suspension. Don’t neglect them; they’re the primary components between the car and the road. The components that keep you in control when you give it the beans. Arriving in style is only satisfying if you arrive in one piece.

Ask the car community

Back when I started modifying my first car, we had Haynes Manuals and the internet forums. Online forums were the centre of all information for modifications. Especially when parts weren’t manufactured for purpose like they more commonly are today. It was more common to mix and match parts from different cars to get the result you wanted. This is still the case today, but there is significantly more aftermarket support than there was 15 years ago.
Now you can hop on to a Facebook group, find a video on YouTube or call up your tuning garage for product or service recommendations.

Thank you to all the veterans on the forums. If you find someone like this, befriend them, absorb their knowledge, and avoid the potholes they’ve already paved over. If you’re really lucky, you’ll make great connections along the way and build a network of people who can help you out. Just remember to return the favour.

Closing advice

If you consider the fundamentals of modifying a car, the primary objective is to improve the characteristics of a vehicle to enhance its performance, aesthetics, or both. But I believe the process of modifying our cars is as important as the enjoyment that follows. At the very least, it builds anticipation, leading to heightened enjoyment. Modifying a car is a passion experiment.

When it comes to tuning your car, preparation is the key that opens the doors to a more stress-free experience. To save yourself a headache, I’d recommend buying quality parts, using the right tools and doing your research before spending lots of time and money. Plan as much of your build as possible, keep your goal in sight and budget wisely. Be inquisitive, use it as an opportunity to learn but seek help from a professional when necessary.

Embrace the learning curve, no matter your expertise. We will all encounter setbacks but don’t think of them as roadblocks. I won’t be the last person to tell you that it’s just part of the process. Look at it this way, it makes the journey more interesting and believe it or not, helps you form a bond with your car. You might hate it at times and want to scrap it, but push through and be consistent. Think of setbacks as valuable lessons, turning them into opportunities for your growth. Every tightened bolt, every successfully installed part – celebrate the victories, no matter how small.

Good luck with your build and be safe. Remember to document your work so the car community can see it. You might give someone else the inspiration they need.

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