The boys (and girls) who just love to pimp their ride...
Money is no object when it comes to the quest for the perfect engine, writes Paul Melia
Va va vroom! They're the modified-car enthusiasts who think nothing about spending €1,000 on a set of wheels. The country's in the grip of the worst recession in living memory. Households are cutting back on spending, holidays are being cancelled and who provides the cheapest gas and electricity is the subject of dinner-party conversations.
But petrol-heads are ignoring the doom and gloom, spending all of their hard-earned cash upgrading their cars and transforming them into lean, mean driving machines.
These men and women only want to improve the looks and performance of their Hondas, Nissans, Mitsubishis and Subarus. They will will do anything that's needed to transform them from pedestrian runarounds to souped-up high-performance roadsters.
Spoilers and body kits give the car a lean, sporty look. Sound systems costing up to €1,000 replace the factory stereo. Engines are rebuilt, suspensions lowered to improve handling and bigger brakes fitted to bring these cars to a sudden halt.
Money is no object. Robbie Barber from specialist garage Icetronix in Rathcoole, Co Dublin, says he has clients who've spent €10,000 over the course of a year pimping their ride.
"It's all about appearances, style, colour and size," he says. "Fashion has a lot to do with it. Chrome wheels are not popular any more, they used to cost €1,700 a set but they're about €1,000 now. It's all black and bronze wheels now, costing about €600.
"Honda badges are a huge seller for us (€15-€25). Seats and mats sell well. Audio is important. We do full-resprays which cost about €1,700. Carbon bonnets (€500) are a massive seller. We shift about 300 a year.
"I started this in 2001 at the back of the Red Cow in a small unit. In 2006 we moved here, and I employ six. Our repeat business is huge and I've clients coming to me for 10 years. One man recently put a body kit, new wheels and a stereo on his wife's Opel Zafira as a 10th wedding anniversary present. I've had guys spend €10,000 in a couple of months."
But this isn't a men-only business. There's lots of women involved too.
"Myself and my boyfriend are both into cars, and we share two -- a 1999 Toyota Altezza which cost €18,000 four years ago, and a 1997 Toyota Mark 2 which cost €7,000," Sinead Shelly (23) from Killinaule in Co Tipperary says.
"The Altezza was a Japanese import. It has a full body kit, new wheels, seats, exhaust and a few different engines parts. I'd say I've spent about another €5,000 on it, but it wouldn't sell for €3,000 now.
"The Mark 2 is a car that everybody loves. It's got a full respray and it's a bright blue. It has big deep dish wheels, a lot of engine parts, new suspension and exhaust and new seats. We've probably spent about €6,000 on it. They're an unusual car, and there's about 10 of them in the country. They have a real VIP style.
"It's a beast. It's so eye-catching. It's got a real wow factor about it. It has the looks and the power. Even if a garda stops us they are impressed. They're so well minded, they know they're not boy racer cars. We've often got old men come up to us and say 'wow, that's some car'.
"This is my main hobby. When I turned 12, I was racing hotrods. When I was 17, I got into the modified cars. There are a lot of women involved in this. I have a load of friends involved in this, in Mayo, Limerick, Limerick, Cork."
But Sinead is a serious player. It's the drivers who buy a clapped-out banger and install a loud exhaust who give enthusiasts a bad name.
Road Safety Authority chief executive Noel Brett says that the best of the cars are as finely tuned as a Swiss watch.
"I dislike the term boy racers because it's derogatory," he says. "Young people have led the charge in terms of changing attitudes and lives. We've had a 34% reduction in terms of deaths among 17-34 year olds in the last decade. It's unfortunate they all are tarnished with the same brush.
"Modified-car users are no threat to your safety or mine. They know their car intimately, but they maintain them like a Swiss watch and they do not feature in deaths or serious collisions, or in prosecutions."
Gary Smith (25) from Ballyfermot in Dublin owns a 1999 Honda Integra. He has rebuilt his car since he bought it four years ago.
"Everything has been upgraded. The engine has been rebuilt. It's got an air-fuel controller which cost €350, the steering wheel cost me €180, the wheel nuts are €200 a set, the wheels €1,000. I've changed the brakes, suspension and made handling modifications. It cost me €11,000 and I'd say I've put €18,000-€20,000 into it. The car is never finished, it's constantly evolving."
Nothing beats the thrill of hearing the purr of a well-tuned engine adds Kieran O'Donoghue (23) from Nenagh in Co Tipperary. He freely admits he would cry if he damaged his pride and joy -- a 1993 Nissan 180 SX, which cost him €8,500, plus another €7,000 in extras.
"I always liked cars and I always wanted a Nissan 180. They're just a completely different car to drive. A VW Golf is plain driving, it's A to B. You get into this, you get a purr and a warm feeling.
"There's something about them. It always attracts attention wherever it goes -- not always the right kind of attention.
"In the last 12 months I've done a bundle of work to it. It's mostly cosmetic. I re-sprayed it from copper bronze to canary yellow. I bought new wheels and rims, a spoiler, new seats, a new interior. In the last 15 months I've put about €7,000 into it. I took the car apart and put it back together and it took me two months solid.
"I had a group of seven friends in school. Out of those, I'm the only one into cars. They will always say to me 'why do you waste your money'. I'd rather put €200 into that and see it, then leave €200 with my local pub. I don't drink that often, I don't see the point. Anybody who's big into cars, their frame of mind is if they go out and spend €150 they could have bought something for the car, a new set of lights or something.
"There's just something about it, it's in your veins. You don't have blood in your veins, it's petrol. If I cracked a bumper, I think I'd cry."