Walk onto a college campus and you will see parking lots heavily speckled with cars displaying fancy paint jobs and drop kits. With the available technology and hunger for uniqueness, college students are turning their garages into their own version of the MTV show "Pimp My Ride." Being at school on a budget, it is surprising how much money and effort some students dedicate to the growing hobby of car customization.
"Simply stated, it’s human nature to show off," said Jeremy Bowles, a student and customized car driver at the University of Arkansas.
And showing off is what these young car enthusiasts do best. From dash overlays to shock springs and shift hub pedals, their cars don’t merely shine from fancy paint jobs, but from the knowledge and love the mechanic under the hood has put into their "ride."
"We want to be noticed and the easiest way to do that is with our cars," said Nathan Poverud, a student at Tulsa Community College.
Benton Hodges, a senior at Texas A&M University, said this hobby has recently taken off because students are realizing it’s attainable. Students see the cars in the media, get interested, and realize they can be a part of the trend. Young adults spend $4.2 billion a year customizing their cars, according to the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association.
For some, this hobby has been a lifelong interest. Poverud began customizing cars before he could drive. At 12 years old, his father and he started building hot rods together. "We have [built] two together and I have helped with several," he said.
At age 14, Eli Cantrell, a student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, began working on sound systems. Six years and three vehicles later, Cantrell says the hobby has allowed him to express his personality.
For enthusiasts like Hodges, the hobby picked up with a snowball effect. What began as adding a stereo system to an "ugly" car led to completely customizing a ’75 Pontiac Firebird. "Most people start with one item, like it, get carried away, and keep adding," Hodges said.
It is not uncommon for women to pick up on this trend. Natasha Perkins, of St. Catharine College, has been helping her father rebuild wrecked cars since she was young. "I love turning a stock car into something with more style," she said.
Bowles said there are a lot of products on the market now that girls are interested in, including fashionable floor mats and body graphics. Some girls end up with a better finished product than the guys, Poverud admitted.
"Some say that it’s just for guys," Perkins said. "But I think it’s different if you’ve been around cars all of your life. It’s hard not to like them."
The most popular cars among young adults vary between tastes and budget. "It all depends on what you are into and what you plan on doing," Cantrell said.
Bowles commonly sees customized Honda Civics and GM trucks. Perkins says students her age primarily want to fix up sporty cars, such as her 2003 Mazda 6. Import cars are popular too, Poverud said, because they tend to be less expensive and easier to work on.
"Really, there isn’t just ‘the car’ to have when it comes to customization," Bowles said. "The great part about customizing cars is you can find parts for almost any car anywhere on the Internet."
Steve Hatanaka, accessory operations manager at Scion, a leading manufacturer of customizable cars, suggests that every vehicle is customizable. He argues that Scion cars are unique because one can find customizable parts they are looking for right at the store. "We wanted to make the customization side available to customers," Hatanaka said.
Sports cars aren’t the only customizable vehicles. Trucks can have features added such as drop kits, lift kits, big wheels and suspensions. Country Music Television even has a show called "Trick My Truck."
Young drivers agree that adding a sound system is the most popular form of customization because it is cheap and easy to do. Performance customization is also popular, Hodges said, especially for those looking to race their cars. Another trend that is picking up is adding high-tech touches such as in-dash DVD and navigation systems.
"Not only do they look good in a dash," Bowles said, "but they are very practical to use, especially for individuals who drive a lot."
Hatanaka sees many young adults purchasing big wheels and anything that will make their vehicle appear "VIP." These customizations are not cheap. Hodges spent almost $20,000 on his Firebird. Cantrell spent about $5,000 customizing a Chevrolet S-10, $2,400 on a 2000 Ford F150 and has begun putting thousands into a new 2006 Mitubishi. He made such investments possible by setting up a budget and comparing his income to his bills. By saving money every month and limiting himself to parts he could afford, he slowly added everything he wanted.
Hodges agreed that money management plays a huge part in this hobby. Bowles suggests purchasing parts at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Perkins avoids name brand parts and prefers shopping in magazines such as Super Street and Import Tuner. By going to websites such as eBay and crutchfield.com, Cantrell believes you can save money while still finding everything you need.
For those on a budget Hatanaka suggests sticking with exterior details since they can be inexpensive. Working from the outside in, you can budget piece by piece. With the right amount of research and savings, customizing cars can be a hobby that anyone can pick up. Cantrell suggests starting with research into the kind of car you are looking at to see that there are parts available at decent prices.
The next step is to research what customizations fit your style and budget. Knowledge is important with such big investments. "I did all of my modifications with the help of eBay and the factory instruction manual," Bowles said.
Being involved in a club is another way to learn about the hobby. Hodges is president of the largest collegiate car club, the Texas A&M Sports Car Club. He said many people join not knowing much and learn from others. Members with customized cars participate in auto shows on campus.
Many car customizers dream of taking this hobby and making it a career. Cantrell hopes to eventually open a show with one of his friends and Poverud wants to find a way to use his mechanical engineering degree to design vehicles. Hatanaka said Scion is known to hire its own customers, since often they know more about the cars than some sales people.
Some enthusiasts, such as Hodges, have already made this dream a reality. Over the summer, Hodges had an internship with Sewell, one of the largest car dealerships in the country and will return full time upon graduating next August.
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