Owners of car customisation companies say industry has matured over time
Car customisation spawns $265m industry Mr Minjoot says the industry has shed the 'bad boy image' of its early days -- IMAGE: ARTHUR LEE

THE Singaporean love affair with the car, coupled with the desire to stand out from the crowd, has been fuelling a booming aftermarket tuning and customisation industry here.

While no official statistics are available, motoring sector insiders say this is a $265 million-a-year industry which is growing at more than 10 per cent per year.

"The market has been growing tremendously," says Brinal Chua, whose company Autovox specialises in performance tuning, interiors and body-kits mainly for continental brands like Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, Mercedes Benz and Volvo.

"Between 2001 and 2011, there were some 877,000 cars on the road," he said. "About half were not tunable. About 20 per cent of the remaining cars were owned by people who did some kind of aftermarket customisation. Today, most premium brands are high tech and tunable."

Autovox, which was established in 1999, has 25 engineers, and represents major global brands such as ABT, Schnitzer, Heico, Brabus, KW Suspensions, TechArt and others.

Keith Minjoot, who co-owns MB Motors, a specialist in customisation of super-sports cars like Lamborghinis and Nissan GTRs, says the industry has matured over time.

"In the early days, it had a bad boy image," Mr Minjoot said. "The industry was challenging the boundaries of what was legally allowable. Today, it is run by trained specialists who represent major global brands."

According to Messrs Chua, Minjoot and other industry insiders, today's customisation technicians are specialists in "value-added" engineering who are competent in upgrading engine-management units, replacing gearboxes, airflow management systems, aerodynamics engineering, suspension systems, and complete interior revamps. They can also take entire cars apart and put them back together.

"We are now at a stage where we can build complete cars, or at least completely re-badged cars like Brabus and Schnitzer," Mr Chua said.

The fact that many of the cars sold today are also very technologically advanced adds to the demands on the industry and its craftsmen, he added.

The market for specialist customisation and tuning started growing in the mid-1990s. Then came the Asian financial crisis, followed by a lull until around 2002. The industry took off again by 2006, and has been growing very strongly ever since. Today, even owners of cars from Malaysia and further afield bring their vehicles to Singapore for expert tuning and customisation.

The demand for tuning and customisation has also created its own supply, especially over the last six to eight years.

From around a handful of mechanics moonlighting as tuners about 10 years ago, there are now some 150 specialist tuning and customisation outfits dotting the island, with many concentrated in the auto-hubs of Paya Lebar-Ubi, Sin Ming, Alexandra/ Henderson and Jurong areas.

Foreign players are also getting into the act, the latest being German tuning specialist ABT, which set up its showroom and workshop at Commonwealth Road this year.

But like other industries here, it is starting to feel a labour crunch.

"There is a shortage of trained technical manpower," Mr Chua said. "Despite all the technical colleges and training, not many Singaporeans want to get into this business. So we have had to go overseas to look for technicians and engineers."

Part of the problem, industry insiders say, is the perception that the car mechanic's job is a lowly paid, "greasy", blue-collar one. Many graduates of ITE and other colleges also tend to seek "cleaner", white-collar jobs in the commercial, services and financial sectors.

But that has not dampened demand.

On average, most customers who come in for tuning or customisation spend in excess of $3,000 per car, according to Mr Chua. Mr Minjoot says his bills can sometimes run up to as high as the price of a new mass-market Korean sedan.

"Customisation is a specialisation in personalisation," added Mr Minjoot. "A lot of affluent customers want to exude individuality, power, uniqueness via their cars, which are aspirational and expensive purchases."

MB Motors is planning to move up the value chain.

"We will be setting up an R&D unit later this year to support the two brands we represent," he said. "In fact, it will be the dedicated support centre for these brands for Asia."

While many owners used to bring their cars in only after the warranty ran out three years later, today outfits like Autovox, ABT, MB Motors and others are seeing brand new cars being brought in by their owners within days of delivery.

"It's a bit like going to a party," he said. "You don't want to go dressed like everyone else. You want to look and feel unique. You want that special feel."

Indeed, given the rising value of cars and the aspirational nature of the purchase, the tuning and customisation party is set to rock on for some time.