Amongst European languages, English and German share many root words. The old adage that there may be something lost in the translation also holds true, though, and one of the common words that has evolved a slightly different meaning in the two vocabularies is ‘tuning’. On the British side of the Channel, ‘tuning’ means setting up correctly, as in the calibration of ignition and fuel settings to manufacturers’ specifications. It can also refer to engine modifications for power. In German parlance however, ‘tuning’ takes on a broader meaning which covers other areas of vehicle modification. Thus, we have ‘spoiler tuning’, ‘suspension tuning’ , and ‘motor tuning’. Needless to say, people everywhere have been tuning cars for years to improve engine and chassis performance, but the commercial road-car tuner outside of the motorsport field is largely a phenomenon of the last three decades. The oldest of the ‘VW tuners goes back further, though. Oettinger started off in 1946 with the Okrasa Beetle by fitting hydraulic brakes and then went on to extracting more performance from the flat-four engines.
Seven years later, Karl Meier, one of the first engineers with VW, designed the first spoiler for a road car. Enthusiasts quickly recognised the contribution this made to the stability- of the Beetle at speed and his company, Kamei, grew from there.
Both BBS and Zender started around the same time, in 1970, the former making superlative light alloy wheels and the latter, spoilers. BBS was founded by Heinrich Baumgartner and Klaus Brand. The company name comes from their surname initials and that of Schiltach, the town the company is based in. They started off with the intention of making accessories for racing cars but before long this developed into the aftermarket for road cars too. The company was floated on the German stock exchange in 1987. Hans-Albert Zender started off as a one-man show and today employs over 300 skilled people in four linked companies that cover activities from design, marketing, original equipment manufacture and restoration to new car retail.
Another contemporary firm, D&W, also started in 1970. Detlef Sokowicz and Werner Bauer, an insurance salesman and a car accessories sales-man respectively, were chatting in a pub in Dortmund about a business venture that would in time change the face of the aftermarket industry in Germany forever. They realized that the days of plastic roses and furry’ steering wheels were over and that quality and function were soon to be the industry watchwords. They withdrew their savings and opened a car accessories shop in Dortmund, carrying quality accessories from companies like BBS, Kamei and Zender. Their reputation soon spread far beyond the Ruhr and they were able to move to big new premises in nearby Bochum. The attraction for customers was a radical open-plan showroom where goods were imaginatively displayed. In the centre was a coffee bar with a selection of catalogues and motoring magazines for customers to browse through at their leisure while piped music provided a relaxed atmosphere. D&W has expanded dramatically with six of their own specialist stores in Germany and agents all over the world; nearly half a million of their specialist catalogues are sold every year and they have their own range of styling kits and accessories as well as continuing to sell the products of other manufacturers.
These big four German accessory manufacturers have been astute enough to spread their influence far and wide across the globe to America, Australia and Japan as well as most of the countries in between. But they would not have had the opportunity to do so were it not for the sudden craze for styling kits and wheels created by the phenomenal success of the Golf GTI . Before the Golf came along, only cars like the BMW 2002 and Opel Manta provided any sort of market for personalization. Mercedes-Benz made superb but rather staid cars which did not appeal to the younger buyers. The Golf on the other hand had the perfect image to scoop up buyers from all age groups and all walks of life.
Kamei, BBS and Zender all responded to the new \~W with front and rear spoilers and then complete body kits. Before long, many other smaller companies jumped on the bandwagon and were creating their own designs to offer customers even more variety. Most of these kits started off being made from glassfibre, but, as production numbers increased, the bigger firms started to use more exotic materials like polyurethane and PL -RRIM which are injection moulded and less easily damaged in daily use. But the tooling for such mouldings is very expensive, so the smaller companies still use hand-laid glassfibre today.
The early designs were very functional; they were meant to enhance the shape of the car by offering a more integrated look, enhance aerodynamics by incorporating a front spoiler with brake cooling ducts and enhance the stance and roadholding by offering the chance to cover wider wheels and tyres. As time went by, more radical changes were made by designers like Michael Neumann of Style Auto, who created a very sculptural styling kit for the Golf. The more brutal lines of the Zastrow kit appealed to others, while in Italy, Orciari sought to change the frontal appearance of the car dramatically. Engine cooling was not one of this kit’s strong points! Further down the line, W alter Treser was the first to undertake a serious styling change to the Golf 2 that looked integrated rather than stuck on, but the prohibitive cost of his kit precluded a flood of sales.
In the meantime, Vittorio Strosek had created the sensational wide-bodied Ferraris and Mercedes for Koenig, and this style, introduced at great expense to the top end of the market, began to filter its way down to the GTI enthusiasts. Thus, the late 1980s found a rash of wide-body kits on sale for the Golf and Scirocco. Notable ones come from Rieger Tuning who has the widest range of kits with small and intermediate body size alternatives on a similar theme. While the small BBS and Zender style kits can be painted and fitted by a skilful DIY enthusiast, the wide-bodied kits require the full facilities of a body shop and take as long as three weeks to fit properly. They need the cutting away of the original wheelarches, bonding, laminating and foam filling. The need then to virtually respray the whole car has given many people the excuse to make the colour change they always fancied.
©Ian Kuah. This article was published with explicit permission from author Ian Kuah