“The tint is illegal,” he told me, “but I’ve never gotten pulled over for it.” I was standing in a freezing-cold garage looking at a blacked out 2011 Nissan 370Z. It crouched so low to the ground that preschoolers could play leapfrog over it. Its marriage prospects had been improved by the addition of a top mount turbo. Decals on the windshield subtly asked you if you had noticed that it wasn’t stock.
I felt an uncomfortably guilty thrill.
I was there because my own project car, a troubled Mitsubishi Evo X, had been on blocks for a year after an engine swap and subsequent minor fire, and driving my ancient Camaro for work was becoming increasingly problematic. Ignoring the new-car recommendations from my peers, I instead invested days of my life digging through mod and boost forums instead.
After hours spent corresponding with individuals hidden behind screen handles like nastyevoman and fairladyfck, I had found this promising specimen on www.the370.com forums. It still had the 3.7-liter V6, but its single owner had sent it to Florida for VSR’s spendy top mount single turbo setup—P6266 turbo, Tial Q BOV, Deatschwerks injectors, Precision intercooler, on and on. The list sounded great when it was someone else’s money paying for the build. The list sounded better when it ended with the phrase “550 WHP.”
But once I was actually standing looking at someone else’s finished build, my feelings were… decidedly complicated. It felt like I had told people I was going to foster a child but was instead considering adopting a 22-year-old college graduate with an apartment in Hoboken. Well, probably not Hoboken, not with those wheels. Trenton.
But still. It had already powered through diapers and puberty and SATs. It didn’t need me.
“I disabled the safety feature on the display,” the guy told me as I eased myself behind the wheel. It smelled like someone else’s car, but it felt good. Come away oh human child it whispered, as I put my foot on the clutch pedal. God bless Nissan for making cars for short people. He continued, “So now you can watch a DVD while you’re driving down the road. Let’s see what’s in there.”
He pressed eject. The DVD player revved softly before producing a copy of 2 Fast 2 Furious.
I looked at him. He looked at me. He said, “I guess that comes with the car.”
What are you doing, Stiefvater? I asked myself. Is this who you are now?
Five-hundred fifty horsepower at the wheels. It sounded like a Tyrannosaurus Rex continually passing gas.
It felt like cheating.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
I was not always into cars that accidentally came with DVDs of 2 Fast 2 Furious. I grew up surrounded by elegant, restrained British sports cars that aged with rusting dignity.
Later, I bought a ’73 Camaro that I drove for work; not as austere, but still, one of those red-blooded cars that was easily identifiable in Matchbox car form. People liked those cars. People understood those cars. Even when they were broken, they were charming. They had names people could remember. Sometimes they were in James Bond movies. Classics! That’s what they call those cars. Like meatloaf and spaghetti; family favorites. They were my ancestry and my destiny.
Then I turned 30. I bought a Mitsubishi Evolution X, wrapped it, started messing with things under the hood. It was noisy and it was uncomfortable and many people found it ugly.
“This is not a car,” my brother said. “This is a heart attack.”
It was not a classic.
It was possible I was having an identity crisis. Fight Club by way of a fart can exhaust. By day, responsible professional, loving mother, role model to a generation of teens. By night, Tyler Durden with an aftermarket intercooler. A club for raging against the machine and all that, so long as you understand that by so-raging, you’re voiding the machine’s warranty.
Friends and family were puzzled. My non-car acquaintances couldn’t even understand what I was doing to the car. My classic car people understood precisely what I was doing to my car but they clearly didn’t get why I didn’t just buy a new Corvette like a normal asshole.
Because I am a goddamn special snowflake, that’s why, and anyway, the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about the new Corvette, you just put a subwoofer in your trunk.
That said, I didn’t really know how to talk about the Z. My Z. Weeks after acquiring it, I felt profoundly duplicitous saying my Z. Even though the title had my name on it, the car still felt like it belonged to a man named Chad.
He was the one who spent five years molesting it, tuning and dreaming, tinkering and tinting. Every time someone complimented it, I felt I ought to deflect them: that wasn’t me. Every time someone asked me — lip curled — if every decal added ten horsepower, I wanted to protest that wasn’t me.
It was a furious and glorious mess of a car, but... look, I know this is going to sound like a really douchey thing to say, but it turns out there’s a difference between fucking with your own car and buying a car that’s already fucked up.
Earlier this year, I was eating dinner beside a guy who worked for a major luxury car maker. When he heard I had an Evo, he immediately pulled out his phone to show me photos of his own. It was nothing like the elegant, poised powerhouses his employer produced. It was petulant and compact, a car spoiling for a bar fight. He had made only minor modifications to it, but they were cohesive. Tastefully done, and I told him so.
He confided, “This car is what I look like on the inside.”
He didn’t have to say it. That was the whole point.
So that was the problem with the Z. It was the concrete manifestation of someone else’s dream. It was almost the car I would build if I’d done the whole project, but not quite. The wheels were wrong, the clutch was wrong, the tune was wrong. It had a 2 Fast 2 Furious DVD in it. It had a lot of decals on it. Actually, here was the truth: it could be exactly the car I would build and it wouldn’t matter, because it didn’t have my fingerprints on it.
I got pulled over for illegal tint the fourth time that I drove it.
“This tint is way too dark,” the officer told me.
“That wasn’t me,” I replied.
I wished my Mitsubishi would return from the war.
Weeks passed. I changed the Z’s wheels and tires. I paid the ticket for the tint and made it legal. I put on a new under shroud and added a weighted gear shift knob because why the hell not; everything cheap had already been done to this car. I kept the 2 Fast 2 Furious DVD in the car as a reminder to never total the car, lest I be pulled out of wreckage that includes a DVD of 2 Fast 2 Furious.
I drummed my fingers.
I got the Evo back from the tuner. It looked identical to when I had last seen it, only now it put out 520 WHP thanks to an AMS 2.2 and a GTX3076 turbo. Its performance had been changed from twitchy energetic shitbox to seizing dragon on speed. Was it faster or slower than the Z? I didn’t even care. My heart attack of an Evo felt like home.
All was right with the world.
Since I started to modify the Evo, I’ve been asked innumerable times why I decided to make it faster instead of just buying a fast car. Why I bought a boosted Z instead of a GTR. Why I’m in the fart can exhaust club. I’m usually asked this while waiting for a tow truck, or while laying under a vehicle with a pair of pliers and some zip ties, or while actively on fire.
In a world of easy, cheap horsepower and mass produced performance art, there’s no practical reason for me to modify my cars. The — my — boosted Z puts out an only slightly larger kick than a GTR from the factory (and the Z uses its horsepower and torque with the efficiency and grace of a trash fire). The money I sank into making my Evo fast and noisy would have also bought me a gently-used and equally capable 911 of the same vintage. New car lots are choked with eye-poppingly bright vehicles that can hit 0-60 in oh-my-god. Everything is customizable. Nowadays there are all kinds of straightforward methods to getting a one-of-a-kind vehicle from the factory.
So why, they ask, did you fuck with your car?
My discomfort with the Z tells me exactly why it’s more important to me to build my special snowflake than buy my special snowflake. My bright-yellow crap car is an extended metaphor for I am not stock. It’s not only not stock, but it’s modified in a way that only I could pull off. It means that it’s not just a car.
It’s a year of my life squirreled away in every modification; a story dug into every part. The oil pan holds memories of a small engine fire in Ohio. The wrap covers other people’s benevolent graffiti. The wheels are actually a forged love letter, and the clutch reminds me of a rainy afternoon at a metro station.
As that guy said so poignantly over dinner, it looks on the outside like I look on the inside.
It’s a fucking weird car, because I’m a fucking weird chick.
Does that answer the question? I don’t know. It’s possible people who modify their cars are the goth kids in the prep school hallway. It’s possible we like being misunderstood. It’s possible that we like that you think we’re funny-looking. It’s possible we can’t actually tell what you think because our tint is too dark to see out of.
It’s also possible we’re all having identity crises. Hey, is 2 Fast 2 Furious any good? I have a copy if you want to watch it.
Maggie Stiefvater is a novelist, musician, car enthusiast and occasional rally driver based in Virginia. She’s more badass than you are.