Kevin Hackett finds there's a rising thirst for tuning cars in the UAE, sometimes to the extreme.
Modified motoring at Sharjah's Middle East Motor Tuning Show
If your idea of tuning a car is changing the station on its radio, then it's safe to say that last weekend's Middle East Motor Tuning Show at Sharjah's Expo Centre would not have held any interest whatsoever. But tuning cars is big business all over the world and involves taking a standard motor and turning it into anything but - whether that involves simply adding bigger alloy wheels and tyres, giving it a bespoke paint job, filling the boot space with speakers the size of dustbin lids, increasing the power output of its engine or changing it beyond all recognition by throwing untold sums of money (and, to be fair, often imagination) at it.
Every year car manufacturers spend billions developing new models to be the best they can be. Yet that has never stopped enthusiasts altering them, and this has been going on for many decades. When I was a kid I used to read Custom Car magazine, where I'd be fascinated by the modifications made to vintage cars, panel vans and normal saloons. There's something uniquely satisfying about standing out from the crowd and putting some of your personality onto your own vehicle and, while it's slowing down in Europe and the USA because of spiralling costs, in the UAE the tuning scene continues to gather pace.
The assembled cars, trucks and bikes ranged from fairly ordinary-looking Honda saloons that featured scissor doors (à la Lamborghini) to gargantuan trucks that had been converted to look like actual American big rigs, and real Lamborghinis, Porsches and Ferraris that had been given extensive performance upgrades, like they needed them. Airbrush paint jobs adorned a number of cars and this year there was an actual contest for the best example, as well as a competition to see who could build the best audio system. The thumping, ground-shaking bass coming from some of the exhibitors' cars could give the speaker stacks at Sandance a run for their money.
As I wandered around the three exhibition halls admiring the sheer audacity of these modifications and the amazing quality of construction on almost every car there, I couldn't help wondering about the legality of what I was seeing - after all, many of the cars on display had UAE number plates fitted to them, so they're obviously used on the roads we all share, something that flouts our laws.
Retinaldo Fernandez is the sales and marketing manager for Sub-Zero Motorsports in Dubai, which had a stand in one of the halls, and the company supplies a seemingly endless array of tuning components, aimed particularly at Japanese cars such as the Nissan GT-R (1,000hp upgrades are not uncommon), Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol and Mitsubishi Evo. He told me the show had been an enormous success for Sub-Zero.
"Ladies, gents, everyone is after more and more power," he said. "We've been in business for almost eight years now and have seen a steady increase in, not only the volume of customers, but also the amount of power they want their cars to produce. It's getting a bit crazy."
Indeed it is, and when I broached the matter of legality, he was adamant that much of the work his company carries out for customers is destined for only the race track. "We abide by the laws," he said. "When a customer comes to us asking if they can turbocharge this or put Nitrous on that, we tell them whether or not it's legal.
"Sometimes they accept what we're telling them, other times they simply don't care, and we can't control when or where they use their cars once they have left our premises."
In simple terms, it isn't illegal to sell these parts or fit them to any car. It's the owner and driver that is responsible for remaining within the limits of the law, although Fernandez does think there should be official limits on the amount of horsepower available to young drivers, modified or not. "There are too many kids out there with ridiculously powerful cars," he told me. "And many of them have no clue how to keep them under control."
He also claims that many of the more wealthy owners drive around in cars with illegal engine enhancements, exhausts and the like, and simply have these things removed when it comes to the annual RTA inspection. Once they've passed, the cars are then returned to their illegal specifications for another year. It's all rather worrying when there's already enough lunacy on our roads.
Outside the Expo Centre, in two separate areas, the popular drifting contests took place, mainly after dark when the sparks flying from the worn-out rear tyres could be shown off for best effect. I have seen perfectly executed drifts with professional drivers behind the wheel of high powered, rear-wheel drive cars, and it has been nothing short of poetry in motion. The way some drivers are able to break traction, apply some opposite lock and steer on the throttle while the rear tyres smoke like a chimney fills me with bewildered awe - it's possibly the slowest way to get around a track but it does look impressive.
What I was privy to on the night, however, was slightly less impressive. Into one arena came a series of the most unsuitable vehicles imaginable: SUVs. With huge exhausts spitting and shooting flames thanks to their nitrous oxide injection systems, sounding like machine gun chatter as the engines were thrashed, the spectacle was impressive on many levels. Many of the cars had obviously not been tuned quite enough though, resulting in blown engines, wheels falling off or clutches that simply disintegrated. The good thing, however, was that these drivers were having a blast and weren't endangering anyone other than themselves or their cars.
While the tuning scene is one that baffles me, I realise that I'm something of a curmudgeon and that these guys are simply out to have fun with their cars. To that end, the annual Sharjah show is a very positive thing. It fires the imaginations of young car enthusiasts and provides a safe environment to watch, and engage in, some crazy stunts. Perhaps the UAE needs more of this kind of thing - as Fernandez said, drivers of high-powered cars are often very young and if they're going to use them, it would be best for everyone if it's under the watchful eye of organisers and the police - with an ambulance conveniently on standby.
Sales of luxury and performance cars are on the increase here and you can rest assured that plenty of them will come under a modifier's wrench at some point. If you're tempted to dip a toe into the waters of aftermarket tuning, and the attendance last weekend of more than 30,000 paying enthusiasts proves you're not alone, make sure you put next year's show in the diary and take your ear plugs.