Top 5 First Modifications for a Beginner Car Enthusiast

By Sevan Shahijanian | November 5th, 2021
1999 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS Project Car Up on Stands - Suspension
YouTube – DoubleOSevan

Let’s start with the basics

I’m going to preface everything in this article by saying that being a car enthusiast comes in many different forms, shapes, and sizes. Whether you’re into the performance track racing scene or like to cruise low and slow down the boulevard, modifying cars and making them your own is something we share across the board. We’re all here to have fun and distract ourselves from the inevitable impending doom that awaits us all anyway! So grab a seat, buckle up, and prepare yourself for a whirlwind of emotions. Modifying cars isn’t just about buying parts and slapping them on the car, there’s actually a lot of swearing and broken feelings along the way! Let’s get started.

Pre-Mod Mod: The Driver (You)

The first thing I recommend to any new enthusiast is to actually not modify their car at all! If you have the luxury of buying new, or your used car hasn’t been molested to hell and back by its previous owner(s), it’s best to learn and enjoy the car in its stock form first. If you can’t comfortably handle the performance of your unmodified vehicle, then a new set of coilovers or increased power output isn’t going to make matters any better.

Proper maintenance and upkeep should also precede any form of performance modifications – as what good does a shiny new turbo kit do if your engine blows a few miles after install? Focus on getting your ride all buttoned up, leak-free, and chugging along at its best.

You wouldn’t run a marathon with a runny nose and sore throat; so make sure your car isn’t sick either before you beat the ever-living snot out of it.   

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Mod 1: Tires

I say tires first because they are the ONLY points of contact your car has with the road (unless you’ve done something horribly wrong). Tires affect your cars acceleration, braking, and handling, so it’s no wonder they stand as one of the most important modifications an enthusiast can do.

Most cars come from the factory equipped with decent all-season tires that are designed to perform “okay” in all weather conditions. Sports cars like the 2023 Chevy Z06 may come with ultra-high performance summer tires like Michelin Sport Cup 2 R’s, but we suspect (and hope) a total beginner wouldn’t be behind the wheel of one anyway.

So, does this mean you should go out and buy the most aggressive summer performance tire for your ride? Probably not. It’s a good idea to get what suits both your driving use (street, sport, track, etc.) and the climate you live in (year-round Los Angeles sunshine or snowy winters in New York?).

For someone who’s going to take their car to the track, it’s usually a good idea to get two sets of wheels and tires: one for daily driving on the street and the other for performance driving on the track. This ensures you aren’t punishing your street tires on a road-course or quickly running down your expensive R-compound tires on the streets. If you’re like me and don’t have much of a commute, you can probably get away with running 200 treadwear tires all the time (because racecar!).

If you get snow in your area, the same applies to a winter set of wheels and tires. Many people have the misconception that all-wheel drive is required for snowy conditions when a good set of winter tires will really do wonders. Figure out what suits your use case best and go from there.

Mod 2: Brakes

Installing a Wilwood Big Brake Kit on my JCW Mini Cooper

Although I prefaced this article with a statement mentioning different types of car enthusiasts, I’ve geared this guide for those more performance inclined (like myself). That being said, all cars still need to stop! Simple changes such as rotors, pads, stainless steel brake lines, and high quality brake fluid can make a world of difference. Not only is it a good idea to get some practice learning how to work on this important maintenance item, but pedal feel and braking performance will be significantly improved depending on your driving application.

There’s a common misconception that upgraded brakes reduce stopping distance; and while they do play an important part in stopping the car, there are many factors ranging from the car’s weight distribution to tire choice that will make a bigger impact. What upgraded brakes are primarily designed for is improved heat dissipation. Brakes work on the simple principles of friction: pushing the pad material against the rotor and slowing the car down. A byproduct of all this action is heat, which can severely affect continued brake usage and degrade performance in stressful conditions (like on the racetrack).

Big brake kits, or BBKs, usually contain larger components than your standard brake system and generally provide more area for heat dissipation and pad-to-rotor contact. While they usually look cooler, they’re really only necessary for seasoned performance drivers on the track. A good set of rotors (no need for fancy drilled or slotted ones) and pads for your factory calipers will most likely provide more than enough braking performance for your car – they were specifically designed and tested for it after all. Upgraded stainless steel brake lines replace the original rubber ones and prevent from swelling under stress (again, usually under repeated heavy use like at the racetrack).

Brake fluid plays an important role in that it’s the non-compressible hydraulic fluid that moves through your brake lines and translates your pedal force into stopping power. The problem here is that said fluid has a boiling point… remember that bit about friction and heat? Overheated brakes boil the fluid, causing small compressible air bubbles to arise. This results in spongy pedal feel and, in extreme cases, brakes that stop working entirely! I’ve personally driven a car equipped with factory brakes and fluid down the front straight of Willow Springs International Raceway only to realize the brakes were totally shot (thankfully there’s a large skid pad at the end)!

Brake fluid is also hygroscopic (it absorbs water) – racing brake fluid even more so – this means the more aggressive the fluid the more often you’ll be changing it out. Get what makes sense for your driving application and make sure to flush and bleed those brakes lines!

Mod 3: Exhaust

Fujitsubo Legalis R Exhaust Install on my AE86
Battle Garage x Martelius Header Install on my AE86
Invidia Q300 Exhaust Install on my Friend’s RSX Type S

This mod deviates a bit from my “function over form” mantra, but I still think it’s an important one for a few reasons. First of which are the theatrics of driving… otherwise known as just having fun. Modifying cars is a hobby, and although performance gains from an aftermarket exhaust are usually minimal (depending on the car), the added joy of controlling a symphony with your right foot is well worth the investment in my book.

Factory exhaust systems are often designed to reduce resonance in the cabin and provide a comfortable “regular” driving experience. They also tend to be surprisingly heavy and can sometimes have a restrictive design. An argument for performance can be made here, but let’s be real, most people install an exhaust for the sound. It doesn’t have to be eardrum-shattering loud, but a well-designed exhaust can really improve driving experience… just make sure the exhaust you want doesn’t resonate or drone in the cabin (read: headaches and nausea).

Exhaust modifications can range from catbacks (connects to the catalytic converter and extends all the way to the rear), axlebacks (the piping and mufflers after the rear axle), turbobacks (from the turbo), and so on. When talking about exhaust mods, I’m usually referring to catback exhausts, but the terminology can also refer to a variety of parts including the downpipe, midpipe, test pipe, and even exhaust manifold.

A simple catback exhaust is probably the best one to go for as a beginner as it’s usually a full bolt-on solution with all the required piping, mufflers, and parts needed for install. On my current AE86 project car, we’ve replaced the entire exhaust system (so everything from the exhaust manifold and on) but that usually involves needing a custom tune and other modifications. For now, follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! 

Mod 4: Wheels

I separated wheels from tires because the wheels already on your car will likely do just fine from a beginner’s perspective. That being said, the fact that you’re reading this article means that you’re probably itching to customize the look of your ride and make it your own. Changing wheels is one of the simplest yet most effective ways of altering a car’s appearance – but the act of doing so isn’t just for visual appeal.

Unsprung weight, most of which is rotational mass, has an exponential effect on the way your car performs. Parts that rotate (like your wheels and tires), require a lot more force and momentum to move than sprung weight (aka everything else that’s supported by your car’s suspension). Weight reduced in the unsprung category will pay dividends compared weight reduced elsewhere; so if performance is your goal, getting a set of strong lightweight wheels will be a good move. 

There’s a lot more to choosing the right wheel than just liking the design. Quality and price can vary drastically – ranging from $100 a wheel from your local auto parts store to thousands on a custom set of HRE’s. Price is often dictated by many factors, but can usually boil down to material (steel, aluminum, various alloys), size (width and offset), the methods used to create the wheel (cast, flow-formed, forged), and quality control. The last bit is often overlooked, but remains an important factor in choosing the right wheel.

Well known companies, such as BBS, Rays, and HRE, don’t just cost more because of the materials and methods used, but because they employ rigorous oversight and quality control of the wheels they make. Replica wheels and cheaper wheel manufacturers may put out “good wheels” that receive positive reviews online, but the likelihood of micro air pockets or other manufacturing defects that can affect the integrity and safety of a wheel shouldn’t be overlooked.

Budget allowing, I always suggest saving up and buying your favorite style from a reputable wheel manufacturer. A well designed set of wheels with properly sized tires can do wonders for the look and performance of your ride – buy once and don’t regret it! 

Mod 5: Suspension

Mini Cooper Suspension Overhaul Part 1: Part Overview
Mini Cooper Suspension Overhaul Part 2: Installation

Suspension modifications can include everything from bushings to full coilover kits. The problem with going straight to a coilover system is that quality sets with half-decent dampers usually cost much more than what most beginners are willing to spend (or even utilize).

Researching sets for your car will likely bring up tons of buzzwords involving endless adjustability and blah blah blah. Look, you’re likely not going to need the ability to adjust minute amounts of rebound and compression or ride height, so it’s best to start off simple. This category of mod is one where you can really spend lots of money and end up ruining the overall experience (and suspension geometry) of your car. There’s a science to setting up a suspension properly, so if you’re willing to dive in and get more involved with working on your car, I’d highly suggest researching parts that will suit your desired driving application. You can often find and get recommendations from other owners on dedicated forums and message boards for your car. The trick here is to find a quality damper (also called a strut or shock absorber) and pair it with a spring that has the well-matched spring rate.

It’s also important to note that changing the ride height will often times throw off a car’s suspension geometry, thus requiring further mods in the form of adjustable camber plates, suspension links, and more. You’ll likely also need a professional wheel alignment after installing a new suspension. Make sure you’re aware of these requirements before tackling the suspension of your particular car.

Hopefully I haven’t completely scared you away from modifying your car’s suspension! When done right, an overhauled suspension system can totally transform the driving experience: reducing body roll, increasing stability through corners, and improving acceleration, among many other improvements. 

Enjoy the process!

And that’s a wrap! This beginner’s guide isn’t meant to go into all the details, but rather introduce some important topics for you to research on your own. There are a plethora of reputable online sources explaining everything from the engineering and science behind spring rates and types of springs (linear and progressive) to pad materials and brake fluid properties. One thing you’ll quickly realize when getting into modifying cars is that you’ll spend just as much time (if not more) researching parts online than actually installing them! The worst thing one can do is buy parts without being sure they’ll fit or perform to your expectations; and so, the “measure twice, cut once” rule applies here (though I recommend measuring ten times and cutting once – you’ll thank me later).

Feel free to check out my YouTube channel if you’re interested in following my automotive journey restoring and modifying project cars. I try to have fun with the process and hope you enjoy watching and modifying your own cars as well. It’s all about sharing the passion with others, so grab a few friends and start wrenching!