Precious metal

They might look menacing, but when lads with low-paid jobs spend thousands of pounds modifying their cars, the last thing they want is trouble with the law, as Huw J. Williams reports.

Loud, thumping bass notes boom over a screaming riff of red-line-revving engines and the castrato screech of rubber on tarmac: the Saturday-night melody of boy racers doing burn-outs in a supermarket car park. Midweek on a suburban road: a yellow hot hatch weaves arrogantly in and out of traffic, its brake lights flashing wildly under a demonic halo of spoilers that look like they’ve been stolen from the back of an American drag racer.

This is car cruising at its most testosterone-fuelled and tempestuous – two common images that dominate but belie a deep-rooted motoring subculture. Cruising is largely a scene for 17- to 25-year-old males, so it’s not surprising that some are irresponsible speed freaks. Boys will be boys. But not all the boys are bad.

Madeira Drive, a mile-long stretch of promenade east of Brighton’s Palace Pier, at 8pm on a balmy summer evening: cars begin to congregate like a flock of multicoloured birds, preened and ready to pose. When they left the factory they were workaday hatchbacks and saloons; Corsas, Escorts, Supras, Saxos, Golfs and 206s, but they are no longer jelly-mould Mr and Mrs Average motors. Emerging from a cruising-scene chrysalis, these clone cars have been transformed into beefed-up butterflies.

There’s a lemon-yellow Vectra, unrecognisable in its cruising costume, with a huge double spoiler and a roof-mounted air scoop greedy enough to feed a Le Mans racer. The bodywork is “on the deck”, lowered to the point that journeys must be planned carefully to avoid speed humps – there’s no way it will get over them. A Toyota Supra is next in line. It looks like a street-racer from a Japanese Manga comic brought to life.

Next to that – well, what is it? It’s just sitting there, its avocado paint reflecting the glare of the evening sun. From the front, it has a Nascar visage with close-mesh wire grilles and narrow, viperous headlights. The bodywork has been shaped to give it gym-fit haunches and, at the back, there are two exhaust pipes wide enough for a sumo wrestler’s fist.

There’s a Mini with speakers bigger than its wheels, a mobile deafening device, and an Escort in two-tone cream and orange, hilariously camp until its exhausts start spitting flames. And then a Corsa with a grille grinning like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The bonnet is pure carbon-fibre, its sinister sheen fading to a high-gloss black. The windows have been tinted silver at the bottom, black at the top. It sits on wheels of brushed alloy with sweeping, curved spokes and super low-profile tyres. It’s a baddie’s chase car straight out of Hollywood, via Halfords.

Not that many of the car’s parts actually came from Halfords, even though its owner works there. Lawrie Mewse is a good-looking 19-year-old with stylish hair and clear skin. His job doesn’t pay much but virtually all his cash has gone into his car. He has just finished doing it up, and he loves it, loves driving it around. He’s a careful driver.

“My licence is clean and I’ve never been pulled by the police,” he says. He doesn’t drink and drive, in fact, he doesn’t drink at all: “I tried it a few times but could never understand why people spend so much getting drunk on a Friday and Saturday night.”

Lawrie and all the others parked up tonight are members of the Sussex Modified Car Club (SMCC). There are similar clubs all over the country; most have their own websites and they act as advice forums, chat communities and provide information on upcoming meetings. The members are generally in their early 20s and mainly, but not exclusively, male.

They are certainly not rich, generally earning average or low wages, but they will happily splash out £2,000 on a sound system, up to £1,000 on wheels, £400 or so for tinted windows and maybe a few thousand more doing up the bodywork. As Darren Wood, one of the older members of the SMCC, sagely points out, “A car’s finished when you’re bored, or broke.”

Cruising has a rapidly evolving aesthetic; something that is de rigueur one season becomes a faux pas the next. Take flip paint, a special spray job in colours that shimmer and change with the light: green-purple-green or blue-grey-blue. It was in vogue. Now it isn’t – two-tone is the killer look.

This fast-moving fashion sense is fuel for a growing industry. According to Max Power, the leading magazine for the UK cruising scene (and the best-selling motoring title of all), the modified car industry is worth £350 million a year.

Adrian Ripp runs R-Tech, a company that sells after-market modification parts and customises cars at a supermarket-sized specialist garage in St Albans. He’s recently noticed a change in the market, and says 30-40 per cent of his business is “going upmarket”.

“We regularly see high-end Mercs, BMWs and Porsches, particularly Boxsters. We even had a Ferrari 360 Modena in recently. The guy bought a set of wheels for eight and a half grand. There’s more money around and there are a lot of Ferraris and Porsches on the road, so even owners of exotic cars want to make them stand out from the crowd.”

Alloy wheels were once a cruising style signature but are now commonplace on many new cars, as are low-profile tyres, wider arches, bigger exhaust pipes and smoothed body lines. Car manufacturers are waking up to the power of the cruising market, and Citroën is leading the way in cross-fertilising mainstream models with modified features.

Its little Saxo was popular with young drivers, and communications director Marc Raven says the cruising scene has heavily influenced its replacement, the C2: “Our designers are aware of the cruising scene, its trends and imagery. They are in contact with it and appreciate it. Launching a car that has the ‘cruising look’ to start with means it appeals to the young urban male market, which is a key demographic. Our new cars are just waiting to be `Maxed’.”

Honda and Peugeot are also paying close attention, and even manufacturers that have not borrowed the look are borrowing the ideas. Long before family-car makers started installing PlayStations and DVD screens to keep children happy in the back, the modifiers were parking up, reclining their Konig 5000 racing seats and watching a film, probably one with a good car chase.

What’s next? Well, one of the Brighton boys has a screen on his dashboard linked to a series of pinhole cameras dotted around his car. At the touch of a button he can view any angle without craning his neck.

Ironically, the last things to be modified on many cruising cars are the bits that make them go faster. Even a satanic red Saxo with a world rally bodykit and large-bore exhaust is probably still sporting a standard one-litre engine under its re-sculpted bonnet, although it will have received cosmetic attention like everything else.

This is largely an economic decision. A tuned engine is not only expensive, it adds significantly to overall running costs. Take Lawrie, for example. As an under-25-year-old driver in a rather expensive motor, insurance companies don’t see him as low-risk; his annual premium runs to more than £1,000. That’s about the average for a modified car, without any performance enhancements. Consequently, although many of them look capable of holding their own in a touring car championship, they aren’t.

Even cruisers with extra performance rarely try to prove their prowess on the public road. If you spend all your spare cash and free time doing up a car, then stretch your finances still further by insuring it at a princely premium, you will think twice before driving recklessly. These aren’t the trustafarians of the Gumball Rally who can afford to write off a Ferrari after lunch and have a new one delivered by teatime.

Then there’s the legal impediment. Collecting 12 points and losing a driving licence is just too high a price to pay for a quick thrill. And within the last two years the stakes have been raised even higher. The Police Reform Act and the Anti-social Behaviour Act mean that careless, inconsiderate and trespassing drivers face the possibility of unlimited bans and the seizure of their cars.

Many modifiers, probably the majority, are sensible drivers; not surprisingly, they feel they are tarred with the same brush as reckless boy racers. PC Derek Pearce of the Sussex Traffic Division says they are right to feel aggrieved: “We often park up and go over and talk to the cruisers; some of their cars are really well done. You have to admire the effort they put in. They are often unfairly condemned. The major problem is not with the ones who are properly into modifying; it’s the kids who drive standard hot hatches.”

His colleague, PC Dan Pattersden, agrees: “I wouldn’t say they were all angels, but they are much better behaved than the boy racers in rust buckets.”

As if to prove a point, the only car screaming along Brighton prom on the night of the SMCC gathering was a battered old Escort, all mismatched paintwork, saggy suspension and an exhaust with an amplified death rattle. It would be obvious to anyone who spent time with the real cruisers that these boys weren’t with them.

Darren looks on with disdain: “We are car enthusiasts; they drive through Halfords and things falls off the shelf and stick to the car. Those are the ones that do the burnouts and behave like idiots. We’ve got too much to lose.” Jamie Pryer, one of the founders of the SMCC, shakes his head. “Look at them. We’re not into all that. We just don’t want that sort of behaviour. If anyone arses around, they’ll be asked to leave.”

Indeed, the most the parked-up cruisers did was rev their engines. By 10.30pm, they had all gone home. They had to be at work the next morning, earning more money to spend on their cars.

The Telegraph, 17 July 2004 [read it here]

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