Patience and a plan are the two most important aspects of building a car and surviving as a member of the car scene because oftentimes people are forced to give up and just drive out of necessity. I've realized that in a few years, I'll be 40, certainly not old but old enough to have plenty of experience as a person who has had an automotive addiction since I could remember. I don't consider myself an OG, not like the people I look up to but I'm constantly approached for advice from my peers and those younger than me, and when it comes to some of you reading who are on the way up, I'd love to pass along some sound tips that can help you prevent the mistakes myself and others have made. It is of course a different world than it was for me when I was of legal driving age, hybrids were new, an AE86 could still be found for roughly $2,000, and that was for a well-used GTS model, and fuel was much cheaper. Today, the internet has made imported cars accessible but only if you can afford them, electric cars are all the rage, and if you don't want to drive you can easily spend your money on an E-bike or an Uber subscription; the latter would've been helpful when I was younger. This is, however, something for the young enthusiasts out there, the goal of writing this is to help people reading know that others have been where you are and encourage smart spending while chasing your automotive goals. I hope you can gain something from these five tips and since this isn't a car feature article, enjoy some photos of my younger self and old cars.
Two Cars or Best Car
Probably the most important advice I'll provide is going to be the hardest to swallow and that is: You cannot daily drive a project car. People will claim that they have, and the internet and all of the social media platforms exist to display opposing opinions on everything but the fact is that if you're buying something that is barely running, you're likely to spend more time fixing it than driving it. You'll need to invest your time and money into one of two options to get the most out of your enthusiast ambitions, one of them is buying two cars, and the other is buying one vehicle that is newer, reliable, and easy to modify if that's what you want. When I was younger cars like the AE86 were not very common but the parts were, I could go to my local parts store and buy everything from basic maintenance parts to aftermarket metal fenders, but those days are gone and so are the rebuild kits for many parts on some of our retro favorites. My first two AE86s were running and driving, they took me to work, school, car meets, and autocross, I could literally do anything reliably until I blew my motor and plans changed. What ensued was a full-on build that perhaps was more than I could handle but I dumped all my money into parts and paid for storage while I walked and used public transit for a while, not a place a car guy wants to be. Eventually, I was able to make enough money to buy a boring daily driver, a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta from my brother which did everything I wanted to do but have fun, but I had transportation that was reliable while my project car was under the knife. If you have a non-driving project car you'll need another car to make ends meet, some people are lucky enough to have multiple cars in their household that can be borrowed when needed, but if that's not the case and your budget allows, something like a base model Camry makes for a great way to get around during, and after your project is done. The other way to go about owning enthusiast vehicles is to buy one that is more modern, running, driving, and has all the features you want at your designated price point. Having two cars means you'll spend double on insurance and storage, but with one cool, functional vehicle, you can live a somewhat normal lifestyle even if your exhaust makes your neighbor display an abnormal face towards you in the morning. Buying the most car for your buck is a great way to have your cake and eat it too, this is something I didn't experience until I owned my Scion FRS, a modern vehicle with enough creature comforts and reliability that didn't leave me worrying before a drive if I needed a tow back. A car that can take care of menial tasks while also hitting a track day every so often can feel like Lexus LS levels of luxury, but it doesn't cost that much. Whether your garage has a boring car to get around and an off-the-rails neverending project, or just one well-sorted modern tuner car, just make sure that you're never left stranded when it counts.
Have a Plan
All builds need a plan, no matter what you're into if you don't have a vision for version one of whatever you're trying to do, it will be easy to get stuck in a cash-burning modification loophole. I'm guilty of going all in on an idea for my car only to part out whatever I bought to feed another parts haul, and that's common for a lot of people whose taste or needs change over time. While stance isn't my favorite part of automotive culture, I do understand the feeling a nice set of wheels brings when you're able to finally put them on. One thing to avoid is going through sets of different wheels that you really don't want, if your end game is something from Rays Engineering, then suffer through riding on whatever you have now until you're able to order that custom dream wheel you have had bookmarked since last year. This level of planning and patience goes into any sector of the car world, if you're planning on building a car to do track duty, make sure your modifications are going to be accepted by the rule book for the series or group you're looking to run with. Plenty of money can be spent on the wrong setup or an outdated part, and while you may have wanted something very specific but changed your mind, it's not always a guarantee that people with your same chassis are looking to buy the same thing for anywhere near what you paid for, it's just part of the game. Of course, things change, technology grows or a new product promises to be better than the one you bought a couple of years ago as evolving your build is fine, but having most of your final picture sketched out will help you keep track of what needs to be done. It may sound silly at first but a vision board, spreadsheet, or a group of categorized bookmarks is a great way to put together the parts that make up the look and performance you want out of your ride. I use the bookmark method, a folder for suspension, engine, electronics, car care, and another category and they are filled with what I need to get my "Latte Roku" back on the road and eventually on the track. Have a plan and stick to it! Mistakes happen but research what works before taking the plunge or you'll end up getting a "Is this still available?" message on Facebook marketplace for something you shouldn't have bought.
Learn to Wrench
Raise your hand if you or someone you know has dropped off a car at a shop and then either received an incomplete car back or it took literal years to get it back, this is a common occurrence that should be avoided if possible. The internet will argue the built versus bought nonsense until the end of time but the truth is you should know as much about your car as possible and drive it, regardless if you did all the hard work or bought someone's already completed project. Personally, I'm not very fond of wrenching anymore, between a small garage and just not wanting to ruin anything that I have or make a mistake, I'd rather leave it to the professionals when I can afford it. For some, working on a car on their property is just not allowed, in those instances, you need a shop to do part or all the work to get it running. I will say that there are many shops out there that can do the job in a reasonable timeline but the truth is that the faster and better the quality of the work they do, the more money you'll spend, which is great if you have it but also do you understand what they did? I recently came into the situation of not knowing as much as I thought about my current engine swap and the pieces needed to make my Fueltech standalone ECU communicate with my 1UZ, so I did research. Researching your car, how it works, how your mods work, and probably knowing how to take some of it apart or troubleshoot is the responsibility of anyone who calls themself a true enthusiast. I may not want to, but I'm able to replace wheel bearings, change fluids, bleed brakes, and safely lift my car without harming it or myself; these things become necessary when you have more time than money and allow you to get closer to that hunk of metal your parents hate. With the advent of YouTube and the many rabbit holes that exist in the DIY category of car channels, you're likely to find good visual instructions to pair with your illegally downloaded PDF owners manual you found on that old forum. If you have to use a shop, literally shop around, get opinions and estimates, and try to get an end date for whatever work you're getting done because 3 weeks can turn into 3 months and so on. A shop like Full Detail Automotive is local to me and does fairly fast work, this is a great place to go in Tampa Bay are if you need coil overs installed on your running car and then a few months later you're looking to upgrade to a standalone ECU or install a turbo kit, by staging your build you can enjoy your car until you're ready for it to be down a few weeks at a shop.
We all have our own style and motive as to why we love cars and how we want to drive them, this becomes an intricate part of how you identify and express yourself whether you believe it or not. The way your car is put together says a lot about the person behind the wheel, it's why we lower cars, tint glass, and source those rare quirky parts off of Yahoo! Japan auctions. While I may not like every car I see at an event or agree with things like demon camber, burble tunes, and tinted taillights; be yourself and disregard the opinions of others. Of course, one piece of advice to take while being yourself is to be safe, sometimes the silliest mods are the most dangerous ones as they affect the safety systems that are intended to prevent serious harm in an accident, things like ultra-stretched tires, excessively tuned suspension geometry, poorly routed oil or gas lines, and parts of your car that aren't properly secured; you may think people are "hating" but perhaps they don't want to see you get into an accident. Who you are in terms of car culture may not be clear, are you following trends and keeping up with the Joneses' or did you purchase your car for yourself? It's easy to get caught up worrying about what other people think and then trying to please them by not going against the grain, but if all you're doing is pleasing others then perhaps it's time for a change. A discussion that comes up often is whether or not a vehicle is age-appropriate, should a 20-something-year-old drive an old man Lexus car, or should a 40-year-old still lust after some hot hatch from the 90s? The answer is yes and yes and drive whatever you want along as you enjoy it. People who are affected by the car disease usually never find a cure, so it's okay to think that you may always drive your little AW11 even after you have a family, it is better to sneak away for a cruise than a cigarette when you need a stress reliever. Continue to be yourself but be safe, and be considerate of others when on the road, boomers aren't the only people annoyed by a loud exhaust first thing in the morning or a slammed car in the passing lane.
Finally, you must drive your car! We can get in over our heads by thinking we need a plethora of parts to get the most out of a car but usually, we are unable to find the limits of a stock vehicle, let alone something with all of the race car parts that some influencer told us to buy. Enjoying your vehicle by being behind the wheel is really what it's all about, it doesn't matter if it's cruising to cars and coffee, drifting, off-roading, or taking your car on track; get behind the wheel and enjoy the experience. I remember what it meant for me to get my license finally and then my first car, a 1984 Toyota Corolla SR5 (AE86), it was freedom on four wheels, a chance to venture out and experience the road from a different point of view. Eventually, I did some autocross events and as I got older I did a few track days that left an impression, it leveled up my driving skill and helped me learn the limits of the cars I had owned over the year, and by preparing correctly, I haven't broken anything just yet. Of course, not all of us can afford track days but some of them are fairly affordable if you plan in advance, almost every track in America has an HPDE organization that can safely get you the laps you want in the real world. For others, maybe track driving isn't their cup of tea, but that's ok as well, but aim to safely do the thing you're into and just get out there and make memories. Avoid repeating the mistakes of others, driving under the influence, driving recklessly on public roads, speeding excessively, and just doing anything that can endanger strangers, friends, or yourself; it's never worth risking your life behind the wheel. Hopefully, you'll create a list of places you want to go and drive, be it a trail or a track, maybe your bucket list has the Angeles Crest Highway or the Tail of the Dragon on it, and realize that those dreams are closer to coming true than you think.
Good advice is hard to come by, social media can cloud your judgment, and so-called experts might not have the answers you need to get the results you're looking for. Although these five tips are meant to help nudge you into making better decisions, the truth is that everyone will fail at doing something they consider great at one point in their lives, but you must learn from it. I've learned plenty through failure which is why I'm sharing a bit of what I know to help future generations as they navigate car culture so they can spend more time enjoying it, and less time wondering what it's like. We miss 100% of the shots we don't take, we know nothing about the exit we didn't take, and life is too short to be bound by the opinions of others, so in short, get out there and drive!