Guest Opinion: The Point Of Modification

How do you know when to say when?

I can remember it – the very first modification I did to any car I owned. It was back in 1996, and I had just been given my first semi-modern set of wheels to head off to college in. To most people, a 1989 Geo Spectrum probably does not smack of automotive nirvana, but to me it was a pinnacle of sorts. After a high school career of driving a lovable and decrepit 1982 Mercury Lynx, I had attained something to be admired – a 4-speaker stereo cassette. We’re big time now, baby. I took that likable little black doorstop to 3 years of Iowa State University and subjected it to a 6-hour commute once a month.

After a year, she was still looking as good as ever after a few good buffings. The black paint was starting to become less hazy and more, well, black. And then it happened – I needed a tie rod. Being a car-crazed college student, I did the only thing I could think of: raid the junkyard for dead Isuzu I-Marks (a relative mechanical twin of the Spectrum). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a dead man. They had three I-Mark Sports and I ended up coming away with a tie rod, a clean set of aluminum wheels, a sports gauge cluster, factory fog lamps, and a black Isuzu grille. Oh, and a bill for $150. Like most everyone else, that’s how I started – you know, how I got the addiction to modify, personalize, make it my own, to improve, to tweak… in short, to somehow make that car better for me.

Let’s face it – I can’t afford a Lambo. But why not have a slightly special normal car? As time marches on, so have my tastes and preferences. But one thing that I cannot seem to grow out of is a desire to modify a car. My apartment resembles Hurricane Hugo’s aftermath, my boat remains as stock as they day I brought it home, but the car, that’s special. Always in great shape and clean, and for some crazy reason I am always trying to justify spending large amounts of money that I don’t have in the hopeless pursuit of keeping it nice, or making it nicer.

So where do you draw the line? Sometimes it takes a lesson learned the hard way, as has happened to me. You spend all this money on your shiny new car and go to the shows, hoping someone will notice all your blood sweat and tears, but there will always be someone there who has something better. They spent more money on it, more time, and personalized it more. It brings up a philosophical question for me and it’s one that I am sure many a car enthusiast shares. We all want something we can’t have, so we are forced to settle for what we can, be it an MR2 instead of a Ferrari, or in my case a Jetta instead of an M3. So we bring this car home, and then proceed to spend thousands on it to make it ours. At what point does the money spent on your car stop being simple, harmless modifications and become a foolish waste of money? Do you really need that stainless exhaust, or would you be better served to put that money into savings for the M3 you can get later… if you hold back on the mods? For years my philosophy has been “tasteful modification that could easily have come from the factory.” It is a philosophy that has served me quite well. However, take the extra money I dumped into my Jetta, add it to the original purchase price of the car, and you have a sum that would have put me into a nicely equipped 1-year old BMW M3 – a car that I would have been happier with stock than I would have been with the modified Jetta. So why did I keep modding the Jetta? Because it was there, it was easy, and it was the thing to do. It was a series of moments of weakness coupled with a MasterCard – the deadly combination that I am sure we’ve all experienced at least once or twice.

The last Hot Import Nights event I attended was a particular eye opener for me. I overheard young people freely giving out the numbers it took to put their Civic/Cavalier/Del Sol into the Winner’s Circle. “A hundred grand,” “A quarter of a million,” “The paint job was 10 g’s alone.” And these cars were not the least bit tasteful! Who in their right mind would willingly drive around in an automatic Civic Coupe painted sky blue and hot pink? This is not the 70s anymore people. And the thing is, it probably all started innocently enough. A younger person watches The Fast and the Furious and thinks that’s “the way”. Perhaps we should lead by example? Instead of shunning these people, maybe we should infiltrate and educate? Who is to say really – the cars had some great work put into them, but at what opportunity cost? More importantly, where do these cars go after getting some bumps, bruises, and as a result, lose their show-car status? You can’t sell something like that. It may look good to some people one season, but you need to keep pouring money into it to keep it looking good. And that is the crux of my point. Here is a person who bought a Civic when they wanted an M3, and by the time they are done modifying the car, they could have bought a Ferrari 360 Modena. What’s the point in modifying something to look good for four months when the money could have been put into something else? Can this trend sustain the massive momentum it has gained in becoming a commercial enterprise? And if/when it deflates, will it take the core enthusiast market with it? Where do you draw the line on value and return for your money?

I pose these questions without the notion that I also need to answer them as well – I leave them for you to ponder. And if you will excuse me, the next round of speed parts came in for my Turbo Dodge Caravan.

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