Personal Preferences

  • Shaun Tolson

Ian Thomson was at a crossroads. He was six years into his ownership of a 2004 Mercedes-Benz SL500 and beginning to grow tired of the car. He needed something fresh, but the thought of dropping $100,000 on a new car and kicking the SL500 to the curb, especially considering it had only 40,000 miles on it, did not appeal to him. After doing some research into aftermarket options and learning about RTW Motoring (www.rtwmotoring.com) in North Hollywood, Calif., Thomson concluded that was the road for him. “Bearing in mind that this is Hollywood and lots of ladies have face-lifts, I decided that it would be a good idea to give my lady a face-lift,” he says.

After meeting with the RTW team and discussing his options, Thomson selected the GS03 wide-body kit by Lorinser (RTW is the exclusive Lorinser distributor throughout California and Nevada). Only 50 examples of that particular body kit exist worldwide, and Thomson’s car is one of only three in the United States to have it. “The SL500, SL550, SL55 AMG … they’re all similar and they’re all cookie-cutter cars,” Thomson says. “Even though they’re all Mercedes and $100,000 or $150,000 off the showroom floor, they’re all cookie cutters. I have one that was a cookie cutter, but now it’s a unique car. I know that there’s only one red one in America, and I have it.”

Along with the body kit, Thomson also altered the car’s exhaust, which he admits improved the car’s performance only from a psychological standpoint, but he declares that it transformed his car into one with “a sound that’s the sweetest you’ve ever heard.” But other slight modifications were made to the car that did enhance its performance. A rear spoiler added some downward thrust, and widening the wheelbase by approximately 3 inches has improved the car’s handling. “I know I can throw this car into any corner and come out the other end with no problems whatsoever,” he says.

Ultimately, all of the aftermarket work as a whole provided Thomson with the feeling of a new car, but it preserved his familiarity with it at the same time, and that’s exactly what he was after. “When you’ve had a car for six years, you know its little intricacies, but when you get another car, you have to go through that learning experience,” he explains. “I knew my car totally like the back of my hand, so all I had to do was sit back and relax and enjoy the new body shape.”

Having one of only three cars in the country that share a similar appearance doesn’t hurt either. “Maybe it’s my ego,” he says, “but it’s nice when people look at it and say, “Wow, what’s this?’

“I think cars should be appreciated,” he continues, “but they should be appreciated on the road. And I’m delighted to take my Mercedes on the road. I’m putting more miles on it now than prior to the modification.”

Much like Thomson, Tony Rubin assessed the appearance of his car and the number of identical cars on the roads all around him in Southern California and couldn’t help but feel like a number. But unlike Thomson’s, Rubin’s car—a 2011 Porsche Turbo S—was brand-new. Still, he knew something had to be done. Having prior experience as an aftermarket customer, Rubin knew who to trust and made an appointment to visit Claus Ettensberger and his team at CEC (www.cecwheels.com) in West Los Angeles. One new carbon fiber body later, and Rubin’s Porsche wasn’t just unique to the roads of Southern California, it was the only one like it in the country. “It’s an entirely different-looking car,” he says. “It’s aggressive but not over the top; it has some style but it isn’t crazy.”

CEC’s team worked with Rubin to personalize his car even more, starting with the front end. “The problem with all Porsches,” Rubin explains, “as soon as you drive them out of the dealership, you scrape the front nose.” To remedy the problem, CEC installed a system that, with a push of a button, allows the driver to raise the nose a few inches to avoid scraping over gullies or steep embankments. The other modification involved the carbon fiber body. Once the car was painted, it was impossible to know that the body was made of carbon fiber. But by leaving the carbon exposed a quarter of an inch around the front scoops, the spoiler, and the intakes on the sides—a process that Rubin says was very time-intensive—it revealed just enough of the carbon fiber pattern to give the car extra curbside appeal. “Every time I get in the car, it’s just pure fun and pure joy,” he says.

For Rubin, being involved in the process and visiting the showroom and work spaces added to the experience, and he urges any prospective customers to make a trip to meet with CEC’s team first, since he says, “what I had done on my car, and what I went in thinking I’d have done, was exponentially different.”

In the end, what it really comes down to is injecting added enjoyment into your car. “It’s one of those things … you can’t justify it on paper because as soon as you leave the showroom, you’ll never get out of it what you put into it [financially],” he says. “But it’s the personal satisfaction, knowing that you have something that’s unique and different.

“It’s kind of like going to the market and getting chocolate and vanilla or going to 31 Flavors,” he continues. “It doesn’t mean that pistachio is better than strawberry. I like strawberry and you like pistachio. That’s what an aftermarket tuner can do for you; they can give you something that distinguishes your tastes and needs.”

Rachel Nichols knew her Range Rover needed something and she knew that there were specialists out there that could provide it. The trouble was, she didn’t know how to articulate what she wanted, and aside from having a vague knowledge that a prevalent aftermarket industry existed, she didn’t know where to go. “It was one of those things where I could always see it on other cars, especially in Los Angeles,” she says. “I would see it, and I would want it, but I wouldn’t know quite what it was. But it’s something that I always wanted to do.”

After four hours touring the CEC facilities and watching as her car was transformed through the company’s computer-aided simulation programs, Nichols found herself at the opposite end of the spectrum. “I immediately wanted everything,” she says with a chuckle.

That’s when the CEC team stepped in. Understanding the desired look that Nichols wanted, they made a checklist of the things that they would do to make her Range Rover sleeker, cleaner, and more aerodynamic. It started with the removal of the running boards and mud flaps; then they added five-star HRE wheels and three-piece Brembo brakes. They added low-profile tires, smoked the taillights, and installed a dual exhaust system. “The car growls at this point,” she says, “which I find pretty sexy.”

In an ironic twist, Nichols now knows that when people who are uninformed about cars look at her Range Rover, they’re going to be in the exact same shoes that she was in prior to her experience working with CEC. “They’re not going to have any idea of what I’ve done to it,” she says. “It’s not overly shiny or overly flashy; it’s just adding a little personality to a car that’s on every street corner in L.A.”

Not only does Nichols now have a better understanding of the aftermarket community and can recognize the small alterations that have made a big difference to her car (and others), she’s learned that the experience personalizing an automobile is dangerously addictive. “I knew that I would like it,” she says, “but I didn’t know that I would become obsessed with it and want to buy many other cars, just so I can aftermarket them.”

When and in what form that next aftermarket job will take remains a mystery for now, but when Nichols decides on it, she’ll be back at CEC. “They did everything from big details to the little, tiny things that I wouldn’t have thought of. There’s not one part of my car that I don’t love,” she says. “It was the best money that I’ve ever spent.”

Unlike Nichols, Michael Schwab is an aftermarket veteran. As a 16-year-old, he customized a pickup truck and used computer chips to enhance his Ford Mustang’s performance. “I have always been interested in cars,” he says, “And I always like to make mine a little different.”

Now, as a 35-year-old, Schwab is personalizing exotic European sports cars and luxury sedans. However, as evidenced by a new Porsche Panamera that he recently brought to Claus Ettensberger, which benefited from a “tech art power package,” Schwab is motivated by the same desires that quickened his pulse as a teenager. “The Panamera looks like an older gentleman’s car out of the factory, so I like to put a younger touch on it,” he says. “The body kit did that and the tech art added power, because you can never have enough power.”

And Schwab means it. Even his 2006 Ferrari F430—a car with almost 200 more horsepower than the Panamera—received a power package, air intake modifications, and a new set of rims. “There are people who buy Ferraris to put them in the garage and look at them and then sell them in a few years. I get them to drive them and to push them,” Schwab says. “I drive my Ferrari hard. I love Ferrari as a company, but I’m not so concerned about the legacy of this one car and where it’s going to go in its life and the resale value and all that stuff. If it were a classic, that would be a different thing. But a 2006 F430 is nothing unique.”

As a regular participant in the Bullrun, an annual cross-country rally with stops at various racetracks along the way, Schwab is fixated on speed and what he can get out of his cars. But these days, he’s more likely to open them up on the track. “I’ve gotten a few tickets in my day and don’t want to get any more,” he says, “so you’ve got to be careful.”

Run-ins with speed traps and exorbitant speeding tickets were two things Wesley Dick was happy to live without, which is why he took his 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS to Ai Design (www.aidesign.com)  in Tuckahoe, N.Y. Once there, the Ai team, led by Matthew Figliola, installed the Escort-designed Passport 9500ci radar and laser defense system, which, Dick says, has become a specialty niche for the aftermarket retailer. “You get some peace of mind with it,” he says, “and if you’re a person like me, who likes gadgets, then that’s another cool factor to it.”

Dick might not bring a racer’s mind-set to his daily driver the way Schwab occasionally does, but in the SLS, a car with more than 500 hp, he quickly discovered that a racer’s mind-set wasn’t required to reach similar rates of speed. “That car … you could be driving 110 mph down the road and it would feel like you’re going 65 or 70. Not that I’m driving 110 mph,” he quickly adds, though in a less-than-convincing tone. “It’s an incredible car. You’ll feel the speed, but at the same time, you don’t.”

Other work included sound-system upgrades, window tinting, blacking out the taillights, and the installation of a Brabus titanium sport exhaust system, which is valve-controlled from the cockpit. It’s a modification that has provided Dick with an added appreciation for the car. “To be honest, I find myself enjoying the exhaust now,” he says. “Just the way it sounds … it’s incredible.”

As a resident of the Washington, D.C., area, Dick proclaims Ai Design to be the preeminent aftermarket retailer on the East Coast. Based on his previous experiences working with the company, Dick says that Ai Design’s workmanship sets it apart. “I don’t sell any of my vehicles,” he explains, “and I’ve noticed that a system that Ai has done still works flawlessly five years later. The car doesn’t get the shakes, rattles, and rolls because it was taken apart and put back together. The materials that they use stand the test of time. That’s where you’ll get the longevity out of their work.”

Longevity isn’t as much of a factor for Chris Rochester, not because he fails to appreciate high-quality work, but because the 32-year-old, Houston-based auto enthusiast never keeps a car more than a couple of years. Sixteen years ago, as a newly licensed driver, Rochester immediately looked for ways to upgrade his first car—a Pontiac Grand Am—and found an answer in a new set of wheels, a reengineered motor, and an enhanced stereo system. “I’m just the type of person that doesn’t leave anything alone, especially a vehicle,” he says. “It’s a hobby that I just love to do.”

These days, Rochester finds that he has the good fortune to own and personalize more exotic automobiles, and, as he describes it, he focuses on “classy aesthetics.” A handful of his latest aftermarket projects have taken him to Houston’s Progressive Autosports (www.progressiveautosports.com), where he’s entrusted Taza Zohar with a ZL6 Corvette, a Mercedes CL55 AMG, a 2008 Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and—most recently—a 2007 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Rochester wanted to turn that German sedan into a car that had no equal on the road, and to do it he looked to Zohar’s own personalized S-Class for inspiration. A body kit accented by aggressive side skirts did the trick, and for good measure, Zohar added a Ferrari-like diffuser, fog lights, and four exhaust tips. He also swapped out the steering wheel for a thicker model, the likes of which would appear in a Ferrari F430. “The wood matches the existing wood in the interior,” says Rochester, “so it was a very subtle improvement to the car, but when you’re driving it, it now has that race feel to it.

“They’re very subtle things that the Mercedes guys are going to notice,” he continues. “They’re going to say, ‘This is different, that is different … what is this car?’”

If there is one constant among all the cars that Rochester has customized over the years, it’s their height. In his opinion, almost every car that he’s encountered has ridden too high, so that’s the first thing that he changes. “They have a better presence when they’re lowered 2 inches,” he says. “It gives it a way better stance; it’s a night-and-day difference. That’s almost mandatory for every vehicle that I have.”

In fact, aftermarket work seems mandatory for any car that Rochester owns. “My next vehicle is a Lamborghini Gallardo and every nut and bolt on it is going to be turned,” he says. “So there’s no vehicle that I won’t modify.”

Earlier this year, Chris Ross was looking to purchase a new car and placed an order for a Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG. Shortly after placing the order, however, he discovered the second-generation model of the Ford SVT Raptor and promptly canceled his order for the Benz. “I immediately thought it was a cool truck and it was pretty easy for me to see the opportunity to build something outstanding,” Ross says. “I wanted to make the Raptor into a truck that was just as comfortable going to the theater as it is going across the Baja; I wanted the feeling of being in a Mercedes, but with the performance of a truck that could hit the desert at 100 mph if I wanted.”

To turn a sport racing–inspired Ford F-150 into a luxurious daily driver, Ross sought out the work of more than 20 aftermarket companies, though the majority of the work and responsibility fell on two companies: Addictive Desert Designs (www.addictivedesertdesigns.com) in Apache Junction, Ariz., and JPM Coachworks (www.jpmcoachworks.com) in Temple, Ga. With a supercharged 630 hp engine, the Raptor is, as Ross describes it, a “badass.” As such, it seemed clear that performance was the truck’s one feature that did not need work. JPM Coachworks handled all interior modifications and refit the cab with Edelman leather and Alcantara, while Addictive Desert Designs oversaw all body modifications and suspension upgrades, the likes of which included a 3-inch coil-over suspension in the front with a 3-inch, triple-bypass, piggyback setup in the rear with 14 inches of stroke.

And then there’s the fun stuff. Ross installed a NAV-TV video system that incorporates live feeds from cameras mounted on the front and rear of the truck. That system is then linked to a Vizualogic entertainment package that can display the feed through the navigation system in the front cab and monitors installed in the headrests for passengers in the rear. “It’s a labor of love when you get into it,” Ross says, “and I fully enjoy doing it.”

The finished project ran about $175,000, and while Ross recognizes that there aren’t many people who would want a Raptor customized to such a degree, he still worked with both Addictive Desert Designs and JPM Coachworks to create a package that could easily reproduce it. “Anyone that creates something of beauty solely for themselves is fairly selfish,” he says. “If I can share the experience that I had putting this together and can allow someone else to enjoy it in a one-phone-call scenario, how nice is that?”

When Nicholas Jimenezbought a Ferrari F430 Scuderia in 2008, he was more excited to take it apart than to drive it. Of course, Jimenez’s mechanic, who had previous experience with the Ferrari challenge, may have had something to do with that. “When I got that Scuderia, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on it and do some unique modifications to it,” Jimenez recalls. “The first one that we did was the wheels.”

When it came to selecting an aftermarket wheel manufacturer, he went with HRE PerformanceWheels (www.hrewheels.com). But first, Jimenez and his mechanic set out to design a wheel that would eliminate the restrictive safety features that Ferrari installed in all of its Scuderia models. “The Scuderia has massive understeer right out of the factory,” Jimenez explains. “That’s just how they’re made. Ferrari wants the car to have understeer. They want to build a street-legal racecar, but safety is a primary concern for them.”

With a little patience, Jimenez and his mechanic arrived at a design that was wider and more offset, which gave the car better traction through the turns and eliminated the excessive understeer that previously existed. He enlisted HRE’s team of engineers to build a wheel that fit those specifications, and according to Jimenez, they delivered. “They really pushed the envelope with the fitment,” he says, but they appeased him in other ways, as well. “I asked them to make that sizing exclusive just to me, and they were totally cool with that,” he says. “They’re loyal to their customers and you have to love that in the auto industry.”

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Photo by Scott Williamson/ www.photodesignstudios.com; Automobile courtesy Boulevard Motorcar Company
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