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Your new and expensive hobby: Tuning

When I think of the term “tuning”, my brain thinks of engine tuning or suspension tuning. The reality is that any modification to your car that changes the performance characteristics that differ from how it rolled off the production line is considered tuning. Us car lovers are drawn to modifying cars, even the smallest of details so that ours is different from the vehicle anyone could buy who doesn’t care about cars so much. We buy a car which is the canvas and we adapt it to how we want it. You might just change the wheels, or you might be a bit more ballsy and fabricate bespoke components to your liking. It’s your masterpiece.
If you’re new to the automotive world, or even tuning, let me introduce you to your latest addiction and cover the fundamentals—what, why and how we tune.

porsche 911 aircooled workshop
© Bruno Van Der Kraan

What is the purpose of tuning a car?

The aim of the game is to enhance the characteristics of a car to improve performance, appearance or both. This is usually done by adapting or fitting new components to help you achieve a certain goal.

Some refer to tuning as any modification to a car, but for me personally, when I think of tuning, geometry alterations, engine and transmission tuning come to mind. It’s all about setting the car up for a specific purpose, and unfortunately, a lot of people who aren’t experienced only care about adding power without touching anything else. These yobos usually have budget tyres fitted, a loud exhaust and brakes that are as reliable as a politician’s promise.

I believe that even if it’s just a car for the street, there is more to consider than adding power. Remember, even drag racers change the suspension.

I’d suggest making alterations that complement each other or characteristics that exist already. I’m not saying change everything for the sake of it, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just consider how one alteration might impact another.

To keep this explanation of the fundamentals of tuning simple, tuning a car could be described as the same way you can opt for a performance pack on your new car. It’s improvements in multiple areas that changes how the car performs. Lowering of the suspension, better brakes, increased power and a limited-slip differential. This way you can have more grip around the corners, improved braking, more speed on the straights and increased traction. Well-balanced improvements that complement each other for a better driving experience.

The Art of Tuning

There is a skill to building a car to perform better than was initially intended by the manufacturer. This isn’t just about remapping your car; it’s about making numerous changes and finely tuning the performance characteristics to make the car behave how you want it to. That’s if you have a particular goal in mind. A different set of tyres might be enough for you, which is always a great place to start.

Tuning your car to perform well isn’t as straightforward as most people think. It’s easy to make your car worse if it isn’t done properly and with half-decent components. Cheap aftermarket suspension might allow you to go lower and generic cone filters might sound cool, but both often make your car perform worse than before you started. Doing your research is part of the fun of modifying your car, and learning how certain alterations affect the performance will help you to understand what you do or don’t want to change to suit your needs.

Choosing your canvas

Tuning a vehicle will vary from one manufacturer or model to another. Theoretically, you can “tune” any car. But pre-manufactured components designed for a specific purpose or fitment will make your life easier and prevent your project from sitting on your driveway for five years before being drivable again. Aftermarket manufacturers that produce “bolt-on” upgrades are a godsend to us motorheads who can’t help but buy more car parts than there are stars in the sky.

The primary factor that differentiates aftermarket support for a vehicle platform is popularity. There is a lot of aftermarket support for cars such as the Toyota GT86, Honda Civic or the Volkswagen Golf because they are popular cars and are loved by enthusiasts, primarily those who like to modify their cars. There will be a part for every owner’s goal with these examples.
Of course, you don’t have to buy a vehicle that has a lot of aftermarket support. Having something special and making it more unique by making your own modifications is much cooler. The reality is, any car is a canvas. But before you go and start carving up something rare and expensive, consider the costs and whether the modifications you want to make are feasible. Unless you are skilled yourself, bespoke modifications will cost more than many off-the-shelf products.

The recipe for automotive tuning

There is no perfect recipe, but I believe that creating something special will sometimes mean mapping out in your head how you would want the final car to look. (Which will happen automatically for an excitable car enthusiast). It’s all about the overall package and the smaller details that come together to create something unique. Give it a purpose, achieving what you built it for. Unless it’s a car built to be competitive, I believe a tuned car’s main purpose should be to have fun driving, looking at, and generally enjoying it. A competitive car would be fun nonetheless but for different reasons.
Aside from having fun, it should be built with reliability in mind. The majority of automotive enthusiasts will tell you how frustrating cars can be, usually because of something breaking on their car or a modification not going as planned. It can be very disheartening when you are regularly frustrated with your pride and joy. Just take your time and don’t cut any corners.

toyota supra mk4 nissan gtr r35
© Willian Cittadin

Finding your tuner

You need someone trustworthy and talented, do not cheap out here. It’s not only your pride and joy at stake, but your life (and bank account when you inevitably need to replace broken parts).

But how do you find a tuner that you can rely on to be transparent and deliver on what they said they would do?

Start by doing your research online or speak to others who have the same car. Get in contact with said tuner.

A good tuner should ask you questions not only about what you want from the car but the history of it. If the car has been abused or isn’t in good shape, this is likely to affect the outcome of the work they carry out.

Anyone who knows what they’re doing and does a thorough job will perform a health check and inspection. When I worked at JBM Performance, we would always be looking out for potential failures and weaknesses in the car before starting a job, which allowed us to safely perform the changes without being at risk of anything causing damage or putting any existing components at risk of failure.
Many tuners will specialise in a particular area of the automotive industry, and I don’t just mean engine tuning vs suspension tuning, but by manufacturer too. Going to someone who specialises in certain manufacturers or models should know them inside and out. This is where your money is best spent. If you go to someone who isn’t as familiar with a particular vehicle, not only will it take them longer to complete the work (potentially costing you more, even with cheaper labour rates), but the final result won’t be comparable to someone who knows how to healthily squeeze the most out of your car, whilst keeping it reliable.

Maintaining reliability

As I previously mentioned when finding a tuner, you need someone who can carry out the work whilst maintaining a reliable vehicle. One of the best things to keep your car reliable is regular servicing and inspections. Keep in mind, that once you’ve modified your car, the original manufacturer’s components may be strained beyond the load and forces that they were designed to withstand. This is also a reason why you need to use quality components throughout your build. Expensive parts aren’t always superior, but they often are the best option available due to the research and development to produce a quality and effective product, which as you would expect, comes at a cost. My advice is to speak to a professional if you haven’t used a product before and find out if they have any experience with it.

Keeping it street-legal

As we near the end of the article, let me get your attention before you go on a shopping spree. In some parts of the world, modifying your car is illegal. Period. In many countries and states, it is legal to modify your car, but you have to keep it within certain guidelines. This is where you need to do some research on the laws where you drive. You’re not just at risk of getting a ticket. Let me give you an example of the severity here. In Canada, you can face jail time for having a nitrous oxide kit fitted. Such killjoys, ey.

Many known modifications are regulated such as exhausts for emissions and noise limits, tyres, window tint and lights, but I suggest you do more extensive research so your car doesn’t end up on the back of a truck.

Some laws are to ensure the safety of the driver and others on the roads. If you decide to chop your springs to lower your car and your wheels are hanging out your wheel arches, no legitimate inspector is going to pass a vehicle inspection, and rightly so. Securely install all modifications and keep your car well-maintained and you should be just fine.

Germany has a system in place to certify non-standard vehicle parts. The certification is completed by TÜV Rheinland and is put in place to ensure quality and safe parts are fitted to cars throughout Germany. Although this may limit the parts that you can legally fit to your car, the benefit of this system is that if the parts are TÜV approved, you can be sure that they are legal to fit to your car. It seems like a pretty simple system from where I’m sitting.

Oh, and I had better not forget to mention that your car has to be inspected after they have been fitted. I’ll pass for now thanks.

porsche engine tuning modification modifying
© Oli Woodman

Crossing the finish line

If you’re new to cars (or even modifying them) and you’ve read this far, I hope I can inspire you to get involved. Even if you start with something basic like changing your wheels or upgrading your sound system, you’ll soon understand the addiction. You might simply need to figure out how to modify your car.
Whether you are getting your hands dirty or leaving it to the professionals, you’ll still enjoy the journey and outcome.

One of the best parts of modifying your car is enjoying it with your friends; other car nuts. If you don’t yet have friends in the automotive community, it won’t be long until you do. Of course, your car can be significantly more fun after tuning it regardless, but messing around with cars and driving them with friends is a whole lot of fun. It may seem mundane to those outside of the automotive sphere and others might not like your taste in modifications, but who gives a shit. It’s your car, get creative. You might not think of modifying cars as being creative, but modifying and personalising your car is an expression of your creativity, a reflection of your personality and style. So have fun and make something.

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