A Toe in the Water
For many enthusiasts, an automotive purchase isn't complete until an aftermarket shop — known by the catchall term tuner — has installed a set of custom wheels, added a body kit, or upgraded the engine. But do you really need to customize your car? Consider these cars you can purchase right off the showroom floor:
- The Audi S6 with a slightly detuned variant of the Lamborghini Gallardo's V-10
- The Mercedes-Benz SL65, packing 604 hp and 734 ft lbs of torque
- The 5,700-pound Bentley Arnage T, which gets to 60 mph in only 5.2 seconds
When cars like these are coming straight from luxury automakers, it becomes obvious that outrageous performance envelopes are no longer the exclusive domain of tuners. These factory cars — often built by in-house tuners and designated with special nomenclature such as M (BMW) and V (Cadillac) — offer a number of advantages: The immediate gratification of getting the car you want today, the convenience of servicing it at any authorized dealer, and performance on a par with the best the tuners have to offer.
Manufacturers also challenge the tuners when it comes to personalized aesthetics. Porsche is famous for its exhaustive option list, and Rolls-Royce customers can customize their cars with paint jobs in one of 44,000 possible hues. Bentley's bespoke Mulliner division will even go so far as to modify sheet metal, as long as the changes don't interfere with safety requirements.
But there is a downside to "stock" cars, however personalized they might be: Many people have them, and few have the inclination or the patience to order significant bespoke touches. (Special orders can add months to delivery time.) It's not unusual to see upscale neighborhoods littered with AMG and M badges or awash in Bentley Continentals and Aston Martin DB9s. This might not bother you — but maybe it does.
Taking the Plunge
You've decided you want something different. Here's how to get it.
The first step is finding the right tuner. Maybe you're familiar with major players like Brabus and Lorinser (Mercedes-Benz), Hamann and Dinan (BMW), or RUF (Porsche) from the ample media coverage they've received over the years. But if you don't have a specific company in mind, you'll need to do a little legwork. Start with recommendations from friends, and flip through magazines that feature custom projects. Visit tuners' web sites and browse their galleries. Don't worry if you don't see exactly what you want. The point is to find a tuner that appeals to your general sensibilities.
Once you've zeroed in on a company that looks like a good fit, it's time for your due diligence:
- Visit the shop. Look at the projects currently under way, and examine the craftsmanship.
- Meet with the owner or project manager. As well as going over what you'd like done, ask about time frames, pricing, and warranties. Finally, determine if this is someone you can work with — especially on larger projects, it's important to be simpatico.
- Talk to past clients. Feel free to request referrals. Ask if delivery and pricing estimates were met and if they're happy with the final product.
Though their products will vary — sometimes dramatically — tuners almost always operate in these general categories:
- Engine. It's possible to boost horsepower and torque, typically by increasing displacement and adding turbochargers or superchargers. Sport exhausts can add some power and also make glorious sounds in the process.
- Wheels and suspension. Large-diameter wheels have become de rigueur in any custom project. Sport suspensions also sharpen a car's handling prowess, with tuning levels that vary from mild enhancement to track-ready makeover.
- Brakes. As good as factory brakes might be, it's almost always a good idea to improve a car's gripping capabilities.
- Appearance. Body kits began as aerodynamic aids, and though they still serve a practical purpose, more people want them for their aesthetic value. Likewise, interior features blend fashion and functionality: Currently popular are lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum components, grippy Alcantara upholstery, and well-bolstered sport seats. More intensive projects might include cabin-mounted roll bars and four-point seat belts.
When presented with all the possibilities, you might feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store — everything looks good. But here are a few caveats:
- As factory engines become increasingly powerful, fewer people feel the need for additional output. But if you want more, keep in mind that engine modifications will probably void a car's warranty unless the tuner has an agreement with the manufacturer.
- Dropped suspensions and 20-inch wheels have their advantages, but the more extreme you get with these specifications the less compliant, smooth, and luxurious the ride quality becomes. Not everyone considers the trade-off acceptable — so try out a car with a similar setup before ordering the race-bred suspension and the outsize wheels.
- Unless you make regular visits to the track, you don't need ground-hugging front spoilers. They add no value to the driving experience on American roads and force you to approach any driveway, slowly, at a 45-degree angle. Simply entering the parking lot at your office or favorite restaurant becomes an unnecessary matter of strategy and timing.
Typical projects often cost between $30,000 and $50,000 and depend entirely on the components you choose.
Maybe you've looked everything over and realize you would prefer a completely customized car — a one-off creation. In this case it's even more important to find a tuner or coach builder who understands — and can execute — what you want.
It shouldn't be too hard to find an amenable company, and, again, recommendations and magazine features are your best bet for narrowing the field. But it's imperative to meet with the people managing the project and examine their work. Specialties vary significantly. West Coast Customs, for instance, has undertaken projects as diverse as re-creating Land Rover's Range Stormer show car and mounting the body of a vintage Chevrolet Chevelle to the chassis of a C6 Corvette. Chip Foose, meanwhile, builds stunning one-off hot rods, often using the quintessential 1932 Ford as a platform. The bottom line: Someone can build almost anything you can imagine.
When commissioning a completely bespoke car, remember these important pointers:
- Give thoughtful consideration to sketches and spec sheets before signing off. Making changes once the project gets underway can cost you time and money.
- Be patient. Even under ideal circumstances, a quality build will take a few months to complete. Think like a European and consider the wait part of the fun.
- Enjoy yourself. If you've done all your homework, there's no reason the process shouldn't be a great experience.
Prices can be significant for projects like these and might reach several hundred thousand dollars. Investment potential varies significantly, and might only be realized in the long term, so get exactly what you want and plan to keep it forever.