The custom modding scene and car design, by Stephen Bayley: CAR+ archive, January 2005

Published: 09 January 2005

► Design critic Stephen Bayley vs car design
► Is the modding scene out of touch with reality?
► A classic CAR+ column from the archives

The art teacher I used to know in Copenhagen had, as you might expect, a beard and a wardrobe of demanding jumpers of rich and rare texture. More impressively, he bought one of the very last Deux Chevaux, stripped it down, dipped the panels to free them of what Citroen was pleased to call ‘paint’ and then had the whole thing galvanised. Marvellous. It both looked and sounded like an old-fashioned bucket. 

I mention this only because I have just seen a picture (from the SEMA customising show in Los Angeles) of a chrome 3-series coupé. One of BMW’s options allows customers of fastidious aesthetic bent to specify a de-chrome of the standard car, but someone has decided the way to make his mark is to electro-plate the entire thing. 

Customising is to cars what tattooing is to the human body. Which is to say some aberrant gene excites a perverse desire to modify what was perfectly good in the first place. And to draw attention to it. The current 3-series coupé is the most beautiful car in production, a masterpiece of aristocratic reticence, fine detail and tight proportions. But what does some sick do? Find a way of saying coo-ee, here I am, look at me. Pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis knew all about this. He noted that certain tribes were accustomed to have their ‘organ of generation’ tattooed. A naked native, holding his decorated member, explained to our investigator that it had ‘the same object as your clothes, to please women’. And instead of ‘clothes’ you could write ‘cars’. 

Voluntary mutilation of bodies and cars is certainly very odd and, therefore, very fascinating. For those whose customising budget does not run to full-body chromium plating, the contemporary affordable option is to buy what my arterial road correspondent tells me are called ‘spinners’. Wheels have always been among the most expressive aspects of a motor car. And because you are only four or five bolts away from a dramatic transformation, they offer a fast track to aberration. 

These spinners waste resources and energy. Which is exactly the point. They are flagrantly disengaged from function. All these car designers sit around their smoked glass tables musing about classic Ferraris, but out there are people with electro-plating budgets who are more interested in drinking Louis Roederer Cristal from rhinestone goblets while flashing their million dollar diamond encrusted Paget at their love-chicken.

The motor industry is hopelessly out of touch with popular taste. It reminds me of a story about store owner Bloomingdale and newspaper boss Murdoch. ‘Why don’t you advertise in The New York Post?’ one asked. ‘Because your readers are my shoplifters,’ the other said. There’s a similar dissonance between designers and their public. Put it another way: the most stolen car in the United States is the Cadillac Escalade. You could fit one with 26 inch spinners.

By Stephen Bayley

Design critic, guru, cultural watchdog, occasional annoyer of Ron Dennis