12/1/2008 | 3 MINUTE READ

Days of Tuning Past

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I may not have done a lot, but I did something. And that's the point.


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Many years ago--too many if I am to keep fantasies about my fast-fading youth alive--I inherited a 1974 Pinto when my dad died. It was saddled with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder mated to an automatic transmission. Being a 1974 model, it also had large chrome bumpers-to describe them as "stamped metal railroad ties" would only begin to define their size-designed to meet some ludicrous government regulation. Eager to get rid of it before it rusted away, I mixed up the Bondo, pulled out the sander, and went to work patching the rust holes in the doors and front fenders. This was followed by a repaint at the local Maaco franchise (I spent enough, apparently, to also get him to sponsor our softball team), and a set of wheels left over from my brother Bill's Mercury Capri V6. Fitting a set of retreaded radials and painting the inner section of the grille black completed the package, and gave the old girl enough sparkle to entice someone to pay me the princely sum of $800 for the car.

Back in the early 1980s, we didn't call ourselves "tuners" or refer to the place we bought our parts from as the "aftermarket." Those terms didn't exist yet. However, the idea behind them, making your ride better/sexier/faster/more personal, was no different then than it is today. Though I wasn't interested in keeping the Pinto around, I would spend hours combing through catalogs and ads looking at parts for ideas for the next car. And while I left the 1980 Ford Fiesta alone for quite a while, eventually I fitted braided brake lines, the European-spec. front and rear spoilers, larger (13-in.!) wheels, and an anti-dive kit. With more money in my pocket I might even have gone for the full "XR2" specification. Thankfully, I decided to save what little I earned as the Fiesta was violated when it was hit from behind by a 1974 Ford LTD on the freeway-in stopped traffic!

It was about this time, however, that my tuner days came to an end. The Mercury Tracer that replaced the Fiesta was a good enough car, but there was little support for it in the aftermarket. Besides, it was a Mercury! I guess I could have used parts for the mechanically similar Mazda 323 to improve it, but what would have been the point? It was a Mercury! I'd have looked like an idiot. On the bright side, I was getting great gas mileage…

The first generation Acura CL that followed was a real step up, took me out of the entry-level market, and placed me in a near-luxury coupe. "Near luxury!" That's like being "almost famous!" Surprisingly, Acura offered a number of upgrades to the car, including the ubiquitous rear spoiler and fog lights, but I wasn't about to add either to my monthly payment, especially a rear spoiler that ruined the chiseled lines of the trunk. So, I once again combed the magazines for accessories that would make the CL "mine" before writing the check for the final payment actually did so. Only, the aftermarket-those snobs-completely ignored the CL, and left me with little that I could do to the car without alerting the Taste Police.

And then came the Mini. Now there was a car that reminded me of my beloved Fiesta! Not surprising, as the Fiesta was a modern interpretation of the original Mini. Nevertheless, I combed over the brochures and ordered the Sport suspension so I could get the handling and 16-in. wheels I wanted, and picked a two-tone (Indy Blue with a white top and wheels) color combination that would stand out. Only later, when I had begun to tire a bit of the overly plastic interior, did the girlfriend order chrome trim rings for the gauges and air registers, a driver's side package tray, a full-size cup holder, and various and sundry other items. Once again, I was in love-with the car. The girlfriend would have to understand.

Now a VW GTI sits in the driveway, with the optional chrome mirror caps, 18-in. wheels, and a chrome lower hatch trim piece. It's just enough to make the "United Gray" hatch stand out, but not enough to scream, "Hey, look at me! Over here! Look!" So far, that is as far as it has gone. However, I already have my eye on what potentially could be the next car: the 2010 Ford Fiesta. If Ford is going to get me out of the GTI, it had better offer some accessories I can use to personalize it. Otherwise, I'll pass it up just as quickly as I turned my back on the Fusion, though that also had something to do with a cheap interior, seriously unslick gearbox, and the little problem of two too many doors. Ford, you have been warned!

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