Loud, proud and modified

James Ruppert reveals a resurgence in the customising car craze
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Which is Britain's biggest selling motoring magazine? Could it be the weekly dose of four-wheeled news as supplied by Auto Express, or Autocar? The acerbic jottings of Car magazine, or the consumer-orientated What Car? In fact none of these has anywhere near the 190,400 circulation that Max Power enjoys as the most successful car magazine you may never have heard of. Launched as recently as May 1993, Max Power may be a publishing phenomenon - but, more than that, it is a reflection of a uniquely British car culture. It involves the smell of burning rubber, loud music, and the sound of cash tills ringing to millions being spent on making old hatchbacks go much faster than their manufacturers originally intended.

The phrase, "My car has been Maxed" is now an established part of the urban vocabulary. Translated, it means that the car has been radically altered. According to Darren Chades, a Vauxhall Astra owner, such motors can easily be identified. On the outside the car will look lower - revised suspension parts result in a ground-hugging stance. In addition, new, alloy wheels will be wider and more extravagant, and have lower-profile tyres (thin walls) than before. There will also be a change of colour, often to an unmissably lurid shade. The finishing exterior touches will be in the form of glass fibre body kits to transform the appearance; wider wheel arches; quad headlights; a bigger spoiler; air intakes; and an entire collection of bulges and orifices to distance the car from its showroom relations. Inside, there are many interior decorating possibilities - but the really essential element is a loud sound system. Under the bonnet the emphasis is on power - ranging from a total rebuild to the simple addition of a sports air filter and fruity-sounding exhaust system (known in Essex as a "Barry Kit").

So are all Max Power readers young and wild? Not according to the acting editor, Emma Bradshaw. "It's got nothing to do with age, just an attitude to life and having a good time. We reflect what is going on in the street but it is just as important to set the trends. This magazine has never been conventional, and that is the way it will stay," she says.

Thumb through the current issue of Max Power and it is obvious that this is a far from conventional motoring publication, mainly because it is full of young people enjoying themselves. There are no tweedy chaps fixing an oil leak on their MGB, or earnest road-testers tutting at the lack of lumbar support - just some men dressed as women in a Spice Girls parody, numerous naked body parts, some good jokes and bad puns, several swear words, and an endorsement from the mighty Ford Motor Company.

"We have a project Ford Escort which we will be modifying over the next few months and then giving away to a reader in a competition," explains Bradshaw, referring to the pink car on the August cover. "Ford is the first manufacturer to help us out on such a project. The company's attitude has been fantastic. They may not understand all the aspects of the magazine, but they think it's brilliant and that's a big step forward."

If Ford thinks that linking up with the Max Power lifestyle is a sensible thing to do, the company is not alone. One look at the pages of advertisements for sound systems, car accessories, records, computer games and cigarettes proves that there is a lot of money waiting to be spent. Indeed, if you've ever been caught up in a late-night city cruise you will have seen the lads-behaving-badly rituals: lots of young people and their cars with a thumping dance music accompaniment, enlivened by some burnouts; spinning the wheels with the brakes on; and loads of mates sitting on the bonnet as acrid rubber smoke fills the air. There's even a Max Power Live & Unleashed National Tour. The last one is at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh in September, but, as the promotional material implores, "Just don't bring your parents".

Max Power has become franchise, even endorsing a top-selling CD, and it has also spawned imitators with their own views on UK youth car culture. Ian Strachan is the editor of Fast Car, which has a circulation approaching 100,000. He believes this is a post-recession motoring boom. "People have money to spend now and there are so many bland cars about, they genuinely want to be different and individual. I think it is the popularity of the touring car racing series that has led to more sporty after-market items being available for people to add on to their cars. I don't think it is possible any more to say what sort of person does this. Everyone, from bankers to builders, modifies their cars now. It's a way of life."

Over at Fast Ford, the editor, Paul Wager, does not want to see his magazine lumped together with Max Power: "This is an enthusiast's magazine, for people who are loyal to Fords. It just happens that they also want to make them go faster and look different. Although the most popular car is the Escort Turbo, last built in 1990, we get phone calls all the time from buyers of P-plated Fiestas who want to know how they can make their model different. The best thing about Fords, though, is that you can get them to go very fast for little money. It is all about speed, power and proving what you have got."