The front cover of the February issue of car-modifying magazine Max Power features a MkI Audi TT Roadster. At least that’s what it used to be. The canvas roof and folding mechanism are gone, the cabin features 15-inch plasma TV screens in the door trims, there’s a massive audio system at the rear and the whole thing is bright orange.
Despite the fact there’s a girl in a very short skirt with the car, this is an all-new Max Power. Gone are the naked woman, supermarket car park events and juvenile humour.
Replacing them are features on ‘modded’ high-end vehicles, sensible advice on buying second-hand machines and practical guides on how to upgrade them.
In short, according to deputy editor Rich Beach, Max Power has finally grown up. “Our circulation was as high as 250,000 copies a month, but it’s currently at around 60,000. It became very ‘chavvy’, and our readers moved on to other types of car magazine.”
So there are sweeping changes at the magazine that helped found the craze, but what about those who are in it to make money? Are the suppliers and retailers of aftermarket alloys, bespoke engine parts and cabin accessories having as tough a time of things as Max Power?
Of course, the above-mentioned Audi is not your everyday upgrade done by someone on his – or more likely, his parents’ – driveway. It’s the £60,000 baby of specialist company Racetech UK and will be used as a promotional tool.
Most enthusiasts drive something that’s up to five years old, worth £2,000 to £10,000 and are seeking cosmetic changes to make it stand out from the crowd.
Most popular alterations are a lowered ride, replacement exhaust, new air filter or smart alloys. Audio systems are another desirable upgrade because they’re relatively cheap and it’s easy to swap the head unit in the dashboard for something better.
Martin Fuller, product manager at hi-fi firm Pioneer, said: “The thing that’s blooming at the moment is new media. It’s MP3 compatibility that people want, along with audio-visual systems that have integrated sat-nav and play DVDs.”
But Fuller admitted things aren’t easy. “It used to be that we made stuff and people bought it. Now you have to find what they want and offer it at the price they’re looking for,” he said. What’s more, demand for aftermarket speakers is in decline, firstly because the ones that come in cars today are good enough for most drivers, and secondly because the labour intensive nature of fitting them can put people off. Interestingly, demand for sub-woofers, the large bass speaker that’s often hidden in the boot, has never been stronger.
Alloy wheel makers are also finding things hard-going. Matt Neal is best known as the current king of the British Touring Car Championship, winning the title in 2005 and 2006. But his day job is marketing director of Rimstock, a West Midlands-based manufacturer supplying both OE and aftermarket products. “People’s domestic bills are rising and that means they have less to spend on their car,” said Neal. “Modifying is a luxury not a necessity, and at the end of the month those are the first things to go.”
Accountable for quality
That pressure can drive the High Street prices down, which is great for the consumer but not businesses. Neal explained the rising price of aluminium and cheap foreign imports from places such as India and China were also issues for Rimstock. “We offer a product that’s of a certified quality and we’re accountable for it. But any entrepreneur can bring in a 20ft container full of wheels and there are no mandatory safety standards. He can sell them on eBay or open up a shop somewhere, and if there’s any comeback he’s long gone,” said Neal.
But not everyone is so downbeat. Jason Freeman is national account manager for Top Gear, nothing to do with the TV programme but a Dorset-based supplier of everything from alloys to scissor-style door conversions. “For us 2006 was a good year and we had probably our biggest turnover since we started in 1984. There’s been an encouraging start to 2007 as well,” he said.
Things are so good the firm is expanding and looking for new stockists, who get to use the name under licence, buy its products and sell them on. “It’s either start-ups or people already in business who want to do more, and the split between them is pretty even. We have around 50 franchises at the moment and hope to have another 30 by the end of the year,” said Freeman.
Catching the eye of the customer is also a challenge for suppliers in ways it wasn’t before, and the main reason for that is the explosion of the internet. There’s little doubt it’s had a massive impact on the modding scene, and that’s hit traditional retailers hard. The smart ones may still have a shop, but much of their business is online orders. Those who realised too late that customers were coming to their store to browse, chat and get advice – but made the final purchase via the PC at home – have gone out of business.
Max Power’s website has also been revamped to reflect the magazine’s new tone. Rich Beach says reaction has been phenomenal, adding: “We’re getting positive responses from people we used to get criticised by, and the future looks much brighter.”
Max sound for music teacher
If your image of the car modder is a boy-racer with no taste, little common sense and too much time on his hands, think again. John Simms is a secondary school music teacher specialising in piano and trumpet.
But when he gets in his Ford Fiesta after the home-time bell, it’s on with the hip-hop via the Kenwood sound system. It includes a 2,000-watt Legacy amp, a pair of 15-inch sub-woofers in the boot and upgraded door speakers. And if he gets stuck in traffic there’s always the DVD player or games console built into the glove box.
“I would hate it if people thought I was a boy-racer”, said John. “I drive this car so carefully because I don’t want to damage it. I stay well away from the kerbs because I’m paranoid about clipping my alloys on them,” he said.
There’s a host of other engine, suspension, wheel and interior changes, and so far the project has cost John around £10,000. And that’s on top of the £9,000 he spent on the car when he bought it new three years ago.
But when it comes to modifications, he isn’t interested in crass fibreglass add-ons. “I would never go that route. It’s the simple and subtle stuff that I think really works. It’s definitely a case of ‘less is more’,” said the 26-year-old from Bolton, Lancs.
John has done a few bits himself – such as fitting a new air filter and painting the brake calipers – but he’s called in the professionals to do the bulk of it. That includes a full leather retrim, chrome fire extinguisher and ‘angel eye’ halo-ring headlamp conversion.
As for the audio system, that work has been done by John’s brother, an in-car entertainment enthusiast. “The reaction from my kids at the school is really positive, it gets me a bit of respect,” added John. “The only problem is I can’t get my briefcase in the boot anymore because of the sub-woofers!”