Car owners guide to: Car Accessories > Car Styling

Car styling introductionAre you about to take your first steps into Car Styling? Well, here's an introduction to ease you in.

There was a time when restyling a car was often mainly done to improve the looks of a cheap second-hand vehicle. And, if you were going to go to the trouble at all then why not make it more sporty-looking. But today it's common for enthusiasts, young and not so young, to take an almost new and perfectly presentable vehicle and restyle it inside and out. As cars are so much more affordable than they were, more reliable and less prone to rust, today it's more about creating an individual look and making a statement about your style, rather than covering up the bad bodywork!

Like most 'style statements' it's fashion-led and it's easy to get carried away, add lots of 'cool' gizmos and end up with something that will soon date and looks like it has come from the head of a wacky professor rather than off the race track. And while exterior body modifications will generally not do too much to affect the performance or handling of the vehicle, some mods can leave you with a car that's dangerously unroadworthy and difficult to handle at speed - the exact opposite of what you set out to do!

Experienced car styling and car tuning professionals will tell you what you can and can't safely do, but your choice of professional dictates whether or not you can rely on their advice. If you intend to modify your own vehicle then you must get yourself well informed. You also need to bear in mind that modifications can severely affect your motor insurance premiums - in some cases making a young driver uninsurable.

Of course you don't want to know about all that, because you've saved for ages and now have a hundred ideas of what you're going to do to your new ride. Yep, we know it's a real pain having to be practical and think things through first, but you must... no really, you must.

Enough of that - where do I start with modding my car?

These days there are a thousand and one web sites where you can get ideas, share ideas and find the parts you want. There are some good magazines out there too, and those that give tips and show you how to do things are going to be of more value than the ones with loads of great looking cars and women but not so much practical advice. Though we can see a value in both types!

Starting with the interior, which is certainly the easiest place to begin customising your ride because just about everything inside the passenger compartment can be pimped 'off the shelf': gear knob, steering wheel, interior neon kits for your audio system - and of course the stereo system itself! There's a lot you can do without spending a fortune, if you shop carefully. But it won't be long before you'll want to alter the exterior appearance or go for true performance-enhancing mods.

Once you'd probably have had to make the part yourself - truly 'customising' your car. Car styling has become more popular partly because it has become easier - there are lots of manufacturers producing replacement lights, bodykits, and alloy wheels, as well as performance accessories such as uprated exhaust systems and custom suspension coils and kits. Just choose what you like and have it fitted.

Of course it's not always that simple. Some of those items we just mentioned can often just be fitted with little other work, but to get a truly custom look you have to go deeper. You may like to remove the branding and model detailing (de-badge the car), alter the wheel arches or take on other modification to the car's main body. These will certainly mean filling holes and gaps and then respraying.

Be warned that getting a glass-smooth finish and respraying so it perfectly matches the existing paintwork is much easier said than done. Don't make your car the testing ground! Test on rubbish bits of metalwork until you've perfected your technique. If you're in a hurry then get a pro to do it; never underestimate the task and never be tempted to do a quick job.

Performance Gains

Exterior styling such as side skirts, front DTM spoilers and Rear Diffusers will clearly affect the handling of your car. Products coming from reputable brand names for fitting to a particular vehicle will have been developed and tested. How much of a benefit these will give under normal driving conditions is questionable but, let's be honest, that's seldom the real point of fitting them anyway! They make the car look meaner, cooler, sportier, more eye-catching... for most owners that's really what matters. But it is important to fit the items correctly or they can adversely affect the car's handling.

Lowering a car's suspension can only be done as one of a group of things, for obvious reasons. You'll need new, lower profile tyres at least, probably new wheels/alloys, and the suspension will probably need to be stiffer than what you had. Of course these are very likely all things you'd already ticked on a list of must-haves anyway. You can probably find alloy wheels of a size that mean you don't have to alter the wheel arches, something which would otherwise make the whole thing a much bigger job.

The whole car styling thing can be seen as simply the cosmetic modification of a vehicle, altering its looks without changing its performance radically. This is often as far as many want to take it, but the next step is Car Tuning, and this is where real performance gains can come from.

It's worth bearing in mind that claimed performance gains will often, in practice, depend on the specification of the existing engine. For example, the manufacturer is likely to claim impressive results but it's based on their product being fitted to a high performance engine. On a standard vehicle with an engine producing under 90 BHP, the power gain is likely to be fairly small. And it can get worse than that, because fitting performance parts may even negatively impact on your car's engine dynamics, affecting economy and reliability as well as performance.

Car tuning takes us away from our core skills, so we won't go too deeply into it here. While MMSA approved retailers may well stock and fit exterior styling, including the application of window tinting and interior styling, car tuning demands different skills. But car styling will often lead beginners into thinking about performance mods, so we felt it was worth at least a mention.

Exterior Car Styling - some ideas

If your car didn't come with any kind of bodykit then that's likely to be high up your list, to give it that sleek, head-turning aerodynamic look. Search out kits manufactured from high quality fiberglass composites, as this ensures strength and easier fitting. Remember that a front spoiler will change the handling of the car at higher speeds and you may need to get used to it. Also, speed bumps and high curbs can suddenly become a painful problem - painful to your wallet that is, if you forget you fitted that spoiler...

Alloy wheels are another popular first step upgrade. These are cast aluminium, lighter than standard wheels, which improves steering and braking. Their lightweight, open structure also helps to dissipate the heat coming off the brakes. They look a lot nicer than standard wheels and come in a range of sizes to fit just about every car.

It's best to have your alloys professionally fitted as there are several extras you may need - the right fitting bolts for starters, and possibly wheel spacers. These move the wheel away from the hub. It gives the car a slightly wider footprint, improves handling (as it alters the car's roll centre), and gives the vehicle a sportier front/rear profile. Also, some vehicles will demand that you use spacers so the new alloys don't rub against existing brake parts.

There's likely to be a wheel diameter to suit your car, and the package may come with tyres fitted. If not then you have the option of what tyres to fit. This of course will be dictated by the amount of wheel-arch clearance. You may come across the term 'up-stepping', which is using a larger than normal wheel diameter and compensating for it by fitting a lower profile of tyre. Many will do it because of looks alone, but there's also a potential benefit in terms of better handling and steering response.

Sleek, stylish wing mirrors are another mod. Look for mirrors that come with vehicle-specific base-plates (check if the dealer supplies them free), and go for those made from strong ABS plastic as they will withstand knocks. Some can be sanded down and painted to match the car's paintwork.

Headlights and rear-light clusters are popular upgrades. Those extra-bright headlights you'll have seen are known as HID (High Intensity Discharge) types and you can buy HID type replacement bulbs that are interchangeable for standard bulbs. Simply replace your old factory bulbs with these. They are really Halogen bulbs but filled with Xenon gas, which is what gives the brighter burning light. The blue coating to the bulb balances the colour of the light, removing the usual yellowy effect to give a white light.

Make sure the supplier guarantees them fully road legal, also that they are E-Marked (the European standards mark) and that they conform to the 55W standard for headlight bulbs. If you are offered any D.O.T. approved bulbs avoid them, as they're not road legal in the UK. Make sure that your headlights are correctly aligned because the brightness of the Xenon-fired bulbs can severely dazzle oncoming traffic if your dipped beam is set too high.

To select the correct bulb for your car, check your original bulbs and look for the H marking on them (H1, H4, H7 etc.). The HID replacements will be coded the same. You can double check with the dealer, telling them your vehicle year as well as the make and model. If your headlights use plastic lenses, make sure the bulbs are compatible. The 55W standard means they use the same power and won't generate any significant increase in heat, but check that they are also UV protected or they'll eventually discolour the plastic.

Genuine High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamp conversion kits are the next step if simply replacing the originals for Xenon-filled Halogen bulbs doesn't do it for you. Apart from giving around three times brighter output compared to Halogen bulbs, while using less power, the bulbs have a lifespan matching that of the car itself. The bulb has no filaments - the light arc is created by two electrodes. It gives a naturally clear white light.

Angel Eye headlights can give your car a distinctive, fresh look. Make sure the units are a direct replacement suited to your specific vehicle, as fitting should then be straightforward. Of course they need to be types designed for right hand drive vehicles. Angel Eye Projector types include a projector lens to give increased light output. Some feature an LED Halo design, mimicking what you may have seen on some BMWs. An LED-powered ring of light is added around the projector lens.

Underbody neon lighting kits were a very popular addition and, while they may have lost some of their 'cool factor', they are still popular with those who like to show off their cars at meets. You'll also find underbody LED kits. Fitting them can be tricky and the tubes will break if you force them into fittings that were not accurately measured. To add to the underbody effect, you might like to add a bit of colour by replacing the side light bulbs, and how about a pair of styler LED wiper blades with spoiler! Oh, and it is illegal to drive in the UK with underbody lights switched on... but yeah you knew that, didn't you.