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By Priscilla Chen and Douglas Habecker
Translated by Cheryl Robbins, Jacpues van Wersch and Sam Chien

       If you take a careful look at the cars being driven around Taichung these days, you'll notice that more and more car owners aren't content with standard factory equipment. Many people have begun customizing their cars, though most of the changes are cosmetic rather than functional. Women like to prettify their cars with dangling dolls, or opt for unusual seat covers. Men tend to want to make their cars more stylish or ferocious-looking, so their additions include aerodynamic bumpers, spoilers, extra-large headlights and special wheel rims. Men who are really serious about customizing will even modify their cars' engines and change the chassis.

       Cars aren't necessarily just for transportation; they are a manifestation of a person's social standing and taste. And, of course, driven at high speeds, cars can be instruments of exhilaration. We can't overlook the fact, however, that as the car-buying population grows, the types of car owners gradually become more distinct. This month, COMPASS has provided a brief overview of car customization. Naturally, readers will be more or less inclined to make changes to their vehicles depending on their needs, tastes, and financial situations.

Light Accessories

       Lots of people like to jazz up their cars by putting objects, such as dangling dolls or decals, in the windows. Other cosmetic options include adding front or rear aerodynamic bumper guards and spoilers, or opting for customized lights. Since these changes don't in any way affect the car's basic structure¡Xeven though they can make quite a difference in appearance¡Xsome assembly is required, but practically anyone has sufficient expertise to carry out installation.

       The best way to get these accessories is to visit one of Taichung's large car accessory stores, like Car Fans (77, ChungTeh Rd., sec. 3, Peitun District; tel. 04-2422-5419) (820, Yung Chung E. Rd., Nantun District; tel. 04-2384-7585) or Autopia NODA (175, TaTun Rd., tel. 04-2471-2695) (853, WenShin Rd., sec. 4; tel. 04-2241-9836). Almost every car product imaginable can be found in these stores, from replacement lights and decals to shock absorbers and mufflers.

Car emporia aren't for everyone but, for car buffs, they're a veritable paradise. If you don't want to tackle installation yourself, you can visit the service departments of these establishments, where the staff will happily install your purchases for a fee.

Heavy Accessories

       Heavy accessories are items that require significantly more know-how, or specialized equipment, to install than light accessories. Sam Kuo, owner of Shin Shang Motortech (222, ChungMing Rd.; tel: 04-2322-0666) has many years of experience in both racing and modifications. He says that the average modification job these days is around NT$300,000, although some go well over NT$1 million. Many people embarking on the road to customization begin by changing tires, rims, suspension, seats and brakes. Good ¡§sticky¡¨ racing tires, essential because of their ability to grip the road, can cost NT$5,000 apiece and usually are replaced after only 3,000 kilometers. New bucket seats can range from NT$5,000 to NT$25,000. Some serious racers turbocharge their engines, or replace them altogether.

       The five most-changed accessories on Taiwan's cars are rims and tires, shock absorbers, tail fins, steering wheel, and mufflers. Prices vary. Examples of retail prices include a Momo-brand steering wheel (half wood, half leather; with a diameter of 36.5cm) that goes for NT$15,000; a complete replacement muffler for a Honda City sells for NT$31,500; and Koni shocks that are compatible with European, Japanese and American cars can be purchased for NT$5,300 per pair. Of course, original factory parts are more expensive than parts from secondary suppliers. People with limited budgets should consider getting the latter, as the quality isn't necessarily inferior to that of originals.

       Kuo says that the most popular cars used in modifications are the Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Virage or Lancer, and Subaru Impreza. Kuo--who speaks fluent English and has studied car racing and tuning in California, the UK and France¡Xdeals with Taiwanese and foreign customers, handling everything from racing modifications to simple oil changes. According to him, the biggest cluster of auto customization shops can be found on a stretch of AnHo Road, between Taichung Kang Road and the big new red bridge.

Online Car Buff Clubs

       As the information superhighway expands its horizons, car-related traffic is on the increase. Many car buffs trade information and tips online and information on all car models is available. Customizers can find out about outings and the occasional competition where they can show off their creativity and see how they measure up against the others with similar interests. One popular local site is www.station.net.tw

       If you want to find folks who are nuts about BMWs, check out the BMWFANS website. There's a Nissan March club at www.nippon.idv.tw/, and a place for Honda lovers at tw.club.yahoo.com/clubs/vteccoupe/. At Audi's website (www.audi.com.tw/), you can consult a list of recommended garages and auto accessory shops, or log into a forum to get help with any problem you're having with your car.

Racing Your Car

       What's left after souping up your car? Racing seems to be the logical answer. The 1.8-kilometer Lung Tan Racetrack (218, YangTong Rd., sec. 1, LungTan Hsiang [township], Taoyuan County; tel. 03-471-7688), also known as the Taiwan International Speedway, is currently Taiwan's only standard racetrack and is managed by the Chinese Taipei Motor Sports Association (CTMSA) (55, Ba De Rd., sec. 4, 2F; tel. 02-2764-5169). It holds races on Saturdays from 4 to 5 p.m. and from 10 to 11 p.m., as well as Sundays from 2 to 3 p.m.

       Races include those for novices and veterans, as well as for cars and motorcycles. You don't have to be a professional racecar driver or completely outfit your car to race here. The aims of CTMSA are to stop illegal drag racing on city streets and promote the sport of racing in a safe environment. Thus, it has opened up opportunities to allow the public to race their cars and motorcycles against the clock. Association President Yang Kuang-jung suggests that race enthusiasts first watch some of the weekend races at Lung Tan, to experience the excitement of racing and understand the rules of the track. A NT$2,000 membership fee also allows you to use the track during Saturday practice times (cost: NT$300 for 30 minutes for cars and NT$150 for 30 minutes for motorcycles). If you would like to experience competition, enroll in a training course and obtain the appropriate license. For more information, visit online at www.motoringfans.com.tw

       Many racers, including Kuo and Taichung-based Serbian racer Boris Djordjevic, aren¡¦t big fans of the Lung Tan racetrack, saying that it is too short, too narrow and has too many corners. Instead they opt for a variety of organized rallies¡Xoff-road, gravel, 4x4, mountain climbs and others--held in locations around the island, including Pingtung, Hualien and Taipei. Most are 200 to 300 kilometers in distance.
Kuo, racing with a VW Golf and Honda Civic, has won 39 champion cups, including the 1996 555 Subaru Championship. Djordjevic, one of two foreign racers on the island, recently managed to grab the 1.6-to-2-liter division championship against all odds with his little 1.4-liter Citroen AX. A few really serious local racers, like Kuo, also go to international rallies in places like China.

       There is no denying the fact that, although it is illegal and dangerous, many local street racers congregate regularly on weekends at places like the Taichung Metro Park, the Taichung-Changhua Expressway and a stretch of the second north-south freeway near Tsaotun, Nantou County. A single evening can see 200 to 300 cars at one location, effectively overwhelming police efforts to crack down. Fortunately, according to Kuo, the number of accidents from such illicit activities has remained relatively low.

       Hopefully, this information helps provide some insights into how and why so many Taiwanese residents are into cars. Whatever you may be driving, there is no shortage of ways to modify it to reflect your tastes and style.

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