Car culture: Max factor

By Stephen Bayley, published in The Telegraph (UK)

The Max Power event in Birmingham reveals a parallel universe of naked gusto and feral cravings, says Stephen Bayley

When I read Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby on my knee in a school maths lesson, I immediately identified with it. Apart from the inimitably brilliant writing, it described and attributed value to a phenomenon that had hitherto gone almost unrecognised. A magazine sent Wolfe – a bewildered East Coast college boy – to report from a drag strip in California.

He returned understanding that the kids used cars as an expression of status in exactly the same way the Louis-du-Jour used Versailles. Of the amazing cars at Teen Fair in Burbank, Wolfe wrote: “Cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europe’s great formal century, say, 1750 to 1850. They are freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour – everything is right there.”

I have been to Birmingham not Burbank, but I have just seen something very similar. I am also possibly the only person (ever) to have left the Spectator summer party in London on a Thursday night and, with only a night’s sleep, turned up at the Max Power Live event at the National Exhibition Centre on a Friday morning. Urbane Telegraph readers will not need to be told that the Spectator summer party is a magnificent throng of suave opinion-formers and vividly flushed-up Tory grandees.

You might, on the other hand, need to be told that Max Power is the garish monthly bible of the custom-car subculture and that Max Power Live is its annual Glastonbury. But do not be misled into thinking that subculture means minority: circulation of this monthly magazine, whose cosmic tackiness makes lads’ literature read like Proust, is 220,000.

Significantly, we get the term subculture from the study of microbes. But the term has leapt the species barrier into sociology. A subculture is a group with a shared value system based on common expectations. These are often expressed in clothes or tattoos, but at Max Power Live they are expressed through cars.

In his classic book, Wolfe paid homage to the high priest of customising, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the Salvador Dali of chrome, trick paint and glass-fibre. Ed Roth was the West Coast garagiste who made the distortion and exaggeration of cars into an art form.

The Max Power subculture is the same but different, because it is more of a vernacular movement. Of course, there are specialist firms that undertake commissions but, essentially, this is a grass-roots movement. And the grass is coloured iridescent candy-apple green.

For someone like me, who hob-nobs with the occasionally epicene design establishment, Max Power Live is a compelling spectacle. By all reasonable standards of aesthetics, functionality and common sense, what they do is grotesque. It is a parallel universe.

Some values – essentially, the feral craving to impress – are shared, but the means of achieving them are different. Whereas Mr Tidy Paws in his halogen-lit studio in Munich frets artfully over a millimetre here or there, Mr Max Power is committed, with glorious lack of circumspection, to full-on vulgarity as in-your-face as being nutted by Vinnie Jones.

The invocation of the term “power” is not to be misunderstood. True, exhibits include a Toyota Supra with 1,000hp but, really, as my cicerone told me, it’s “all about showing off”. In this dedication to surface effects, to the hi-vis heraldry of automotive tribalism, customising takes its place alongside other forms of folk art.

The ingenuity, energy and raw, crazy creativity on display are mesmerising. Most industry studios completely lack these qualities. You don’t have to admire the results to be impressed. I mean, if you want to make something looking like that, why on earth start with an Astra?

But that’s creativity for you. Do not say these people are visually illiterate. On the contrary, their design language is highly developed and what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with force.

Sound systems are an important element. You find a BMW M3 with every significant function – including driveability and rear seats – subordinated to an acoustic installation that would turn your brain to brawn at half volume. I met someone who had insulated a Fiesta van with concrete (yes, really), the better to provide a stable platform for his suite of 10 1,000watt amplifiers and the seismic speakers they power.

As base metal for this alchemy, lumpen wheels – Vauxhalls, Honda Civics and, oddly, Citroën Saxos – are favoured material, presumably because their banality demands to be affronted with such scary gusto as an act of consumerist revenge.

But they do it to Porsches and late-model TVRs as well: as if a Cerbera were not already extreme enough, there are people who will re-upholster yours in a leather replica of a colonoscopic investigation.

Sex is a driver, of course. Again, this means the custom-car lot is not so very different from the mainstream, just less repressed. Driving any car contains elements of the mating ritual. Driving a vitreous-finished, pistachio-coloured Astra with 22in chrome wheels and scorchin’ sound just makes no bones about it. Which is more than you can say about the man in the Zafira that smells of dog and nappies.

At the time I was reading Tom Wolfe, DIY car magazines used to run stories on how to grease the knuckles of a Ford Anglia’s recirculating balls. It is a measure of social progress that today’s DIYer is fitting a carbon bonnet to his Subaru. What’s it all about? I call it a vigorous rebuke to the stuffy conservatism of the car business. It’s not nice, it’s not beautiful, but it’s authentic and true.