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Photo courtesy of NOPI

Bringing the street
to Die-Cast

You could say it all started back in the ‘70s during the fuel crisis. Big Detroit iron, popular with the hot-rod and muscle-car crowds, quickly gave way to smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Although this new breed of autos offered improved efficiency, it did so at the cost of performance (small-displacement 4-cylinder engines) and styling (often boxy and utilitarian). Fortunately for enthusiasts, it didn’t take long for the aftermarket to step in and remedy the situation.

The Honda Civic is a perennial favorite among import tuners. The car is inexpensive and well-built, and the aftermarket offers an amazing array of performance and cosmetic upgrades.

THE BEGINNING

In the early days, cars such as the Datsun (Nissan) 510 quickly became favorites among the first wave of tuners. In an effort to squeeze the most from their small powerplants, innovative enthusiasts fabricated, adapted and modified intakes, headers and exhaust systems and made a plethora of other modifications in an effort to achieve greater performance. Not wanting to stop there, they up- graded and lowered suspensions and added “mag” wheels with sticky rubber to improve handling.

Peter Brock successfully campaigned a number of tuned 510s on Datsun’s behalf in SCCA events against the more expensive and dominant BMW 2002. The 510’s lower cost and factory backing instantly appealed to a new breed of go-fast nuts interested in affordable performance.

Ford joined the tuner segment with its Ford Focus SVT, but slow sales forced cancellation of this hot hatch. It’s still popular among tuners, though—and the graphics on this one were obviously die-cast inspired.

TUNER CARS COME OF AGE

Fast-forward 30 years, and tuners are doing better than ever. What was once a niche market has quickly grown into a phenomenon that has spawned its own subculture. Cars like the Honda Civic and the Mitsubishi Eclipse have led the way in what is often referred to as the “fast and the furious” crowd. Whether pushing it to the limit in an impromptu street race or at the drag strip, or hot-lapping it on a roadcourse, being fastest is key.

Tuner modifications can provide these affordable rides with performance that rivals those of Italian exotics. Engine upgrades often include superchargers, turbos and nitrous oxide to push power output to the extreme. Companies such as Jackson Racing, HKS, Volk and GReddy are quickly becoming household names, and business is booming.

To ensure exclusivity, tuners’ exterior modifications have gone from mild to wild, with some cars having little in common visually with their stock counterparts. Aerodynamic aids such as spoilers and body kits are used to complement custom paint jobs; in fact, tuners go to astonishing lengths to make these sedate sedans stand out from the rest of the crowd. It’s all about personal expression.

The rising popularity of tuner cars has even gained the attention of manufacturers. Mazda introduced the Mazdaspeed Protégé and, more recently, the Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata. Dodge followed suit with the Neon SRT-4, Ford unleashed the SVT Focus (though lagging sales have since moved the “Blue Oval” to ax its in-house pocket rocket), and Mitsubishi and Subaru released the Evo and WRX STi, respectively. Even Saturn entered the game with its supercharged Ion Red Line.

Updated: June 30, 2011 — 11:22 AM

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