When it comes to modified cars, the stereotypes are as well-worn as a set of tyres in desperate need of replacement.
The perceptions tend to be of barely-roadworthy hatchbacks which have seen better days clad in ill-fitting bodykits and drivers in baseball caps gathering in the car parks of fast food restaurants. Modifiers are seen as a menace, with scant regard for the safety of others. But while these might be common views of the modified car-owning community, they are far from being wholly accurate. There are thousands of proud owners from all walks of life; most of them safe and conscientious.
Take Simon Hill. He’s s the director of a small IT company, a father and also chairman of the award-winning Cambridge Modified Motors Owners Club (CMMOC). “We’re still judged by our cars,” he says. “One of my previous cars has had an exhaust which made a bit of a racket, even at 20mph. I’d drive past with people calling me all sorts of names and telling me to slow down, even though I was going well below the speed limit!” Simon himself runs two cars: an as-yet unmodified Nissan Stagea (“One of only three in the country,” he reveals proudly of the Japanese import) and an old-style Mini. “Every nut and bolt in it has been changed in some way,” he says.
The club’s membership is as diverse as the vehicles. “We’ve got everyone from mechanics to bakers, and families to people who go clubbing on the weekend. The passion for cars is the unifying factor. Most of the time, they’re the most expensive items they own, save for their homes.” Frequent, family-friendly meet-ups at pubs and restaurants mean that it’s a close-knit group. “There’s not much chance we would have known each other without the car club,” says Simon.
Chelle Collen is a member of the club, and one who makes a fallacy of the ‘boy racer’ stereotype. "I really don’t think perceptions of modified drivers have changed much at all. Why would I drive like an idiot? I don’t want to put my car at risk. I’ve spent too much money on it to do that”
Simon claims that the club has a more ‘mature’ attitude than you might expect. “It isn’t really for the drivers sometimes referred to as ‘cruisers’,” he says. “In their case, you’ll find that half the time they’re not running road-legal,” he says. “They’ll have insured their vehicles, but lots of the time they won’t have notified their insurer about the modifications they’ve made. We always encourage people who join the club to be safe and make sure their insurance is sorted, and tend to have a bit of a shout at drivers who don’t…it doesn’t always endear us to them.”
The perception of modified car drivers as reckless is also a misguided one, according to Dan Clarke, insurance scheme technician at insurance firm Adrian Flux, a company which specialises in covering drivers of altered cars and other slightly more left-of-field vehicles. “We’ve actually found that schemes we have for modified cars run have less claims than standard cars, which conflicts with received wisdom,” he says. “Most enthusiasts have spent lots of time, effort and money into their cars. They don’t want to risk their investments. The more money they’ve spent on it, the more likely they are to be careful with it. Show cars – like the £500 Fiestas that have had thousands spent upon them – are looked after well.”
But despite the evidence to the contrary, modified car drivers are still treated with suspicion by mainstream insurers – even if some modifications should, in theory, make the cars safer. “Lowering the suspension can make the car handle and corner better, but it still usually makes for a higher premium,” says CMMOC’s Hill. “I can remember when I fitted a roll-cage to my Mini, which made it stronger and safer. But the insurer came back to me to ask if I was planning on flipping the car over!” “The rationale of insurers is to questions why a driver would need such modifications,” explains Adrian Flux’s Clarke. “With specialist insurers, you can usually expect a rise in keeping with the increase in power. If you’ve had your car chipped and it becomes 15 per cent more powerful, then your premium will be about 15 per cent more expensive.”
With items like spoilers, alloy wheels or exhausts, which don’t make the car any more or less powerful, a modified insurance specialist might be more understanding than a company which deals mainly with standard cars. “With these types of changes, the cost will be loaded on to the excess (the contribution a driver will make to any claim) as the value of the car will increase,” says Clarke.
Despite the heavily-modified nature of Chelle's Nissan 200SX, which features a bodykit, and an earth-shaking sound system, but no performance tweaks, the price she pays for her insurance isn’t too bad. “It could be a lot worse,” she says. “But I think that has more to do with me being female and having no penalty points on my license other than modifications.”
She also disputes whether or not the modifications add value. “When I’ve sold on modified cars in the past, I haven’t got the price I’ve wanted for them. They’re not everybody’s cup of tea.”
Maybe not. But with the money and hours that goes into maintaining a safe modified car, you've got to have some admiration for their owners.
Three top tips for would-be modifiers
Make sure that your insurer is aware of any modifications that you make, however minor they seem. “A lot of the time, people don’t tell insurers, thinking that it’ll cost them a lot more money” says Adrian Flux’s Clarke. “But if you do tell your insurer, you could be offered a better deal than you’d expect.” Moreover, not declaring modifications may make your policy void.
Join a club
Joining a member’s club means that you’ll get the chance to meet loads of like-minded drivers. And it’s not just about camaraderie: you’ll have expert advice and opinion readily available. Being a member of a car club might also make you eligible for a discount on your car insurance.
“Upgraded power means that you need upgraded breaks and suspension for your car to be safe,” says Flux’s Dan Clarke. Likewise, if you’ve fitted out your car with a stack of valuable in-car entertainment, it’s wise to invest in the best security system that you can afford.