Magazine Cover - Classic Cars For Sale - 1000s of Classic Car Reviews, How To Service & Maintenance Guides

A guide to modified & converted classics

Preaching to the Converted Published: 6th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

A guide to modified & converted classics
A guide to modified & converted classics Uppercrust names like Alpina are greatly sought after by enthusiasts
A guide to modified & converted classics Vauxhall VXR range of performance lifts badge appeal. New Monaro packs 500bhp
A guide to modified & converted classics Minis and Cooper go hand in hand of course but there are many other famous names to be found
A guide to modified & converted classics Many top conversions are approved by respective carmakers such as BMW
A guide to modified & converted classics Uren’s Savage conversion was one of the first tailored and developed jobs
A guide to modified & converted classics Many classic enthusiasts like the look of originality twinned with tuning aids
A guide to modified & converted classics Days of wide wheels and GT stick ons have moved on somewhat since 60s
A guide to modified & converted classics VW Golf GTi has own tuning magazine, such is the appeal of the car, although most tuned and customised cars are not worth anymore than standard model - so don’t be fooled into believing otherwise
A guide to modified & converted classics Old gear from carmakers, such as British Leyland (BLST) and Ford RS much valued
A guide to modified & converted classics Period type tuning gear is well worth going for as it can add appeal to a classic
A guide to modified & converted classics Home-spun conversions such as this Cosworth Cortina Mk2 are hard to value
A guide to modified & converted classics Cars like E-Types, MGs and Triumph TRs are ripe for thoughtful improvement
A guide to modified & converted classics Car of the future is the new MINI of which John Cooper conversions and accessories are already approved and in strong demand
The latest issue of Classic Cars For Sale is on sale now - Pick up your copy from all good newsagents including WHSmith or click here to subscribe now

Subscribe to Classic Motoring Magazine and save over 20%

Subscribe NOW

Available at all good newsagents including WHSmith

Jeff Bailey looks at converted and modified classics and where they sit in the scene

Afew years ago when the topic of converted cars came up in boozers up and down the country, you could be certain any discussion would centre around a clapped out Ford Escort with a Richard Grant do-it-yourself bodykit, Carlos Fandango Ro-Style steel wheels and a dodgy respray in glitter green with a stick on flames mural. Lovely. In these enlightened times old habits still die hard and talk of car conversions will even now conjure up visions of greasy-thumbed copies of the dearly departed Hot Car for those over forty, whilst the younger guys out there go all dewy eyed at the thought of a Maxed-up Renault 5 Turbo, slammed to the ground with a fat pipe rudely poking out the rear. Forget all that. Conversions 2007 style are mature affairs, with manufacturers actually giving their blessing to their favourite aftermarket tuners, many of whom are vying with each other to produce the ultimate development of the base model. In many cases, you’d have to look carefully to spot the fact that these cars have been under the tuner’s influence at all, so subtle are some of them. All this has rather taken the spotlight off the modified classic scene, but those around when our cars were new will recall a thriving industry catering for those who wanted just that bit more from their cars. What’s more, the industry still thrives today, allowing owners of classic motors a huge range of performance and aesthetic upgradeslimited only by wallet size and imagination. So, the big question: is buying a modified classic a sound move? We take a look at the issues.

What is a conversion?

Tuners are companies that specialise in taking a standard factory car and enhancing the bodywork, the chassis, the engine, or all three. The conversion work is usually carried out after the base car left the production line, but is distinct from the individual who simply walks into Halfords and bolts on a spoiler or sports exhaust.

Who does them?

The main players in the modern market concentrate on the German makes, with companies such as Alpina (BMW approved) and Hartge, AC Schnitzer and Racing Dynamics and Breyton amongst the non-approved. Similarly, AMG are Mercedes approved, but Brabus aren’t (although that doesn’t mean the products are inferior). Don’t get these confused with manufacturers’ own motorsport divisions – BMW has its M division and Jaguar and Audi have their R and RS tuning divisions respectively, but these mainly sell (superb) factory-tuned mainstream models. These in-house divisions are a relatively new invention, whereas the likes of Alpina and AMG have been tuning BMWs and Mercs respectively for over 40 years. In 1963, Burkard Bovensiepen, son of Dr. Rudolf Bovensiepen (founder of Alpina office machines) had been developing engine modifications on Fiats, but he realised that customers who had recently purchased BMW’s 1500 model were disappointed with the introduction of the 1800. He saw an opportunity and began with development of a Weber twin choke carburettor kit for the Neue Klasse 1500 model and the first BMW-Alpina tuning kit was born. The Alpina tuning kits raised performance of the 1500 to that of the newer 1800 and received support of BMW’s R&D Department folk after they tested it – and BMW’s approval meant that the installation of an Alpina system did not void the BMW warranty. Suddenly all speed-loving young men wanted a BMW Alpina… So, in the 60s the tuning fad really took off as people yearned for greater personal expression and found it in bespoke offerings from a wide array of tuners. Some names endured, but many did not. Of those that did, Downton Engineering offered some nice engine upgrades on MGs and was particularly successful with the MGC, installing triple carbs and better breathing for a tasty power increase. Mini racer Ken Costello went one better and swapped the ageing four pot 1798cc lump in the MGB for the Rover 3.5 V8, which was pretty similar in weight but double the power - a recipe for serious fun. It took the monolithic British Leyland until 1973 to wake up to the potential with a factory model - just in time for the first oil crisis… In the 70s, companies such as Specialised Engines in Grays, Essex, were doing a roaring trade in engine swaps for the notoriously (then) unreliable Triumph Stag – or Snag as it was being called. No, not the Rover V8, but the venerable Ford Essex 2994cc V6.Interestingly, these units were similar in weight and capacity to the troublesome Triumph V8 and ensured the Stag got further than the first set of traffic lights before boiling the contents of its radiator. Conversely, the Rover V8 was lighter than the Stag unit and front suspension rates needed to be changed if the job was to be done properly, but rarely was… Companies such as Crayford specialised in taking bread and butter cars such as the Cortina and lopping the top off to create bespoke convertibles. That Crayford survived so long is a testimony to the quality of the company’s work. If the wind in your hair wasn’t enough in your Cortina, it would oblige by installing a 3 litre V6 to liven things up. Then Ford racer Jeff Uren become involved and developed his own range of V6 Fords such as the Escort and, the most popular, Cortina; Savage in name and in nature.

Classic tuning today

There are so many firms out there offering everything from small enhancements aiding driveability to full-blown race conversions that it would be impossible to cover them all, but the most popular modifications to classics today revolve around enhancements. Charles Ware’s Morris Minor Centre in Bath offers a huge range of upgrades to the Minor which it says make them easier to use as an everyday proposition in the modern world. Everything from servo brakes through to a five- speed gearbox and 1300 engine are available. At the other end of the scale, Eagle E-Types has long specialised in sympathetic upgrades to the iconic Jag and seem to have targeted all the car’s original weak points such as overheating and some pathetic stopping power to ensure stress-freedriving in today’s traffic conditions. MGs are still well-catered for and MG Motorsport in Bovingdon is one company following the old Downton style of tuning, but with a modern twist. Proprietor Doug Smith says business has never been better. “We’re sending out upgraded MGs week in, week out. They’re selling to customers who want to use their cars every day and demand tractability”. He goes on: “Of course, we’re happy to respond to those who want more performance too; we use uprated cylinder heads, Downton style manifolds, quicker steering racks and so on, but we keep our cars standard looking so customers get best of both worlds”.

Are they reliable?

This very much depends on who has tuned it. Even 40 years ago approved tuners such as Alpina and AMG worked closely with the manufacturers to ensure original product and the tuning work were harmonious. Wheels, tyres, suspension etc were carefully tested to the manufacturers’ own tolerances. Others were not so reverent - witness the 6.0-litre V12 Brabus shoehorned into the Mercedes SLK! Now, we’re not saying this is an unacceptable conversion, but there is a substantial amount of work involved in such a transformation which inevitably means bespoke components and these can be hard to replace if anything goes wrong - especially true in the older cars. Equally, a Saab 99 tuned out to 200bhp will be far higher stressed than the standard issue, so it will need careful looking after and is liable to have a shorter life. Still, the obvious fun factor in either of these examples may be worth taking the risk. The rule of the thumb in these cases must be to look at the tuner. Is it a reputable name? Then look carefully at what work has been carried out. A few suspension mods and a mild power increase will be fine, but a car that’s tuned to double the standard model’s bhp should ring alarm bells unless the rest of the car has been upgraded too. This can easily be true of turbo models where they can be chipped uncompromisingly - Sierra Cosworth being a prime example. Bodywork mods often do not stand the test of time too well. Still, checking against the tin worm is prudent even on standard cars and if remedial work has been carried out to a good standard, it needn’t put you off. Braking upgrades are always worthwhile on any classic and these are often in evidence on the better conversions.

What about insurance?

You’ll most certainly have to tell your insurers and you’ll find that the market for insuring conversions is limited. Many insurers just cherry pick the standard risks so won’t be impressed with the aforementioned V12-engined SLK. Nor are they likely to be receptive to a mildly warmed over Alpina BMW 3 Series B 3.0 either. Basically, if it doesn’t appear on their rating list, they’ll often decline your business. In such cases, a specialist broker will be the answer and they will usually ask for a Modified Vehicle Report plus a qualified engineer’s report to be completed in order to quote a premium. It is therefore vital you know exactly what has been done to the car. If you don’t know what has been modified you could risk being uninsured later. Better known tuners may have a build sheet to refer to and if not, they may simply keep records of the conversion. If it’s been carried out by someone you’ve not heard of, you may be less lucky.

The market’s view

With such a bewildering range of companies and modifications, how can you be sure what you’re looking at is going to be a sound investment? The first problem is that converted cars aren’t listed in any of the guides, so there is no universal starting point for price. The second problem (and this applies just as much to the approved tuners) is that each car is built to the first owner’s exact specification. This means the possibility of a list of extras as long as your arm – some useful and many fanciful. All very well, but how do you value these on the used market? The answer is there is no hard and fast way to value such classics, but some general rules do apply. Home made mods are best avoided if you want to be able to resell later. It’s all very well if the previous owner decided to stuff an Alfa twin cam into his MG Midget (yes, we’ve seen one!) but without an engineer’s report you’re never going to be sure it’s been done properly (or safely) and the market for such cars is very limited indeed. That translates to a low price compared to a bog standard example in good condition. Older cars from established tuners such as Downton, Crayford and the like are a better bet and are still very much in demand these days. They were well-documented at the time and had a reputation for quality. Take editor Anderson’s old Brabham Viva - these are so much more sought-after than the standard item today, mainly because of the name and the quality of the engineering. Ken Costello’s creations on the MGB theme are likewise still in demand and fetch commensurately firm prices. I saw one sell for £15k recently which is pretty strong money. On the other hand, a private owner buying a do-it-yourself V8 conversion kit and tackling the conversion at home won’t see the same return. In these instances it may even be the case that the converted car is worth less than a model due to uncertainty over its reliability or parts availability. MG Motorsport’s Doug Smith: “We’ve had cars we’ve sold come back for resale and they soon find an enthusiastic new owner. People will pay for quality - but on the other hand there are too many half-baked conversions out there that shouldn’t be touched with a bargepole; I know, because we often have to put them right before starting our own work!” John Sykes of TR Bitz says a lot of buyers for his TR classics want them sympathetically modified and most of the upgrades are approved by owner’s clubs these days. At the end of the day, provenance is all and this applies to modified classic in the same way it does the standard issue. There should be copious documentation of any conversion. If not, treat any asking price with strong suspicion.

Our view

It’s a jungle out there! The sheer choice is bewildering, but that needn’t put you off. In fact, a well modified classic can make a good car even better. Mild upgrades to driveability won’t hurt too much, but any major conversion, particularly to bodywork, is bound to limit appeal to the next owner. Whilst there’s much to be said for a bespoke car that your next door neighbour won’t have, the price of exclusivity could mean a harder time selling it on. When it comes to selling, however, we’d be wary. All things being equal, we’d plump for the standard car and save the uncertainty - they’re more desirable and you shouldn’t have trouble moving it on. However, modernising the key mechanicals is a different matter.This is the point of sympathetic upgrades; anything that allows our classics to be driven more often in a wider range of conditions has to be applauded and bear in mind that many of today’s upgrades are now so common that they are accepted by the once stuffy owners clubs.



User Comments

This review has 0 comments - Be the first!

Leave a comment

Keep it polite and on topic. Your email address will not be published. Please do not advertise products, all posts of this nature will be removed. We do not stock or supply any of these products, we independently review these products.

Latest Issue Cover - Click here to subscribe

Subscribe to Classic Motoring Magazine and save over 25%

Subscribe