As a young man growing up in the UK, I was exposed to car culture in a variety of ways. You could even say I was overexposed, whether it was Top Gear, Need for Speed, Underground 2 or Hot Wheels – cars managed to seep their way into almost all the popular culture I consumed.
Video games like Need for Speed and Midnight Club 3 stood out for me, being able to customise your car was new and exciting. I still remember countless hours watching my older brother customising paint jobs on a Forza Motorsport 2 (usually flames, half dressed women and ridiculous spoilers).
Playing these games opened my eyes to these cars. I soon began pointing out every Mazda RX8, Subaru Impreza and Golf Mk2 that drove past, much to the annoyance of my dad. But what were people doing with these high-performance cars in a small town like the one I grew up in? In fact all over the UK, people were driving cars built for a race track.
“You’re not racing for pink slips. You’re racing for bragging rights.”
I was aware of boy racing through the countless articles in the 2000s, a time when police were really clamping down on dangerous driving. Headlines from The Telegraph such as “Kerb crawlers and boy racers face a lifelong driving ban,” didn’t exactly show their best side.
In the 1990s to early 2000s boy racers and joy riders were very much in the public consciousness as “enemy number one”, especially among the tabloid newspapers and conservative press.
Figures show that almost a quarter of young drivers (23%) crash within two years of passing their driving test, according to the Brake website. How many of these are involved in illegal racing is difficult to tell.
Being eight years old in 2005 meant that joining a modified car culture was never really an option. I figured the best way to find out more was by talking to the people who were involved, old and new.I met barber Jamie Tatlow at his flat in St Albans to talk about his time going to car meet-ups in the early 2000s. Jamie is something of a collector, although he might not say this of himself, but the countless Nike shoe boxes and collection of Noah NYC T-shirts in his wardrobe tell a different story.
“I mainly used to drive old Fiestas, late 80s Fiestas, just because at the time I was young and the insurance was cheap,” said Jamie. “I had a few Mark 2 Fiestas, Fiesta RS Turbo, Fiesta Zetec S, a couple of Mini Cooper ‘S’ supercharged, Fiesta RS1800” – the list went on.
As well as owning his fair share of Fiestas, Jamie also managed to crash and write off a few during his youth, racing at the Lakeside shopping centre in Essex. “At night the roads were dead because the shopping centre was closed. It was all dual carriageway and straight roads,” Jamie says. The perfect playground for drivers to show off their custom-built cars.
Several high profile crashes in the media mean that modern boy racing as a subculture is less visible than its 90s and 2000s predecessors. “The modified car scene, it’s not died off now, but it’s not as mad as it was back in the 90s and early 2000s. You’d go to Lakeside in Essex on a Saturday, and there would be hundreds of cars there, people racing. In the late 2000s the police locked it down a bit ’cause there was a couple of big crashes at the Lakeside,” said Jamie.
It is undeniable that reckless driving can have a devastating effect on those involved. Having left his racing days behind him, Jamie insists there is more to the modified car scene: “Street racing aside, when everyone’s just meeting up in a car park on a Saturday night, everyone’s there, no-one’s causing trouble on the streets. It’s a good environment to be in.”
This highlights the underlying problem – for young men growing up in small towns, there isn’t much else to do. Car meet-ups provide a community and give people a sense of belonging: “Where I grew up in Suffolk, it’s a reasonably big town I guess, but there’s not a great deal to do there,” explains Jamie.
“Street racing aside, when everyone’s just meeting up in a car park on a Saturday night, everyone’s there, no ones causing trouble on the streets. It’s a good environment to be in.”
The one thing car culture can be credited for is its inclusiveness: “You get a lot of people who had just turned 17, with all their mates in their car and then you get blokes who have been involved in cars for 20-30 years,” Jamie tells us. With many of the older drivers moving away from illegal racing, it could be argued they act as role models for the younger drivers.
Jamie reminisces on his own time participating in races: “When you’re young and you first pass your test, you go on a bit of a mad one for a couple of years, trying to race everyone and having a fast car. But when you get older, you settle down and move away from that.” After being fined for dangerous driving and witnessing his friends receive a driving ban Jamie realised it was time to stop.
Ironically, Jamie blames films for glamourising car culture and contributing to its bad name. “It’s not like Fast and Furious, and it’s not like in the States where you trash talk each other. Most people in the scene are pretty friendly.” He argues that, unlike in the films, “you’re not racing for pink slips. You’re racing for bragging rights.”Jamie tells us he’s noticed a change in the community from when he was younger. “For me, I’ve always worked on my own cars, and it’s the pride of looking at that car and saying ‘people think that car looks sick’ and I built that myself.” However, in recent years, he tells us that the scene has become more about outdoing each other. “Now people are buying brand new cars straight off the forecourt and whacking a £2,000 set of wheels and £2,000 air ride on it. Everyone’s trying to flex and outdo each other. The modified car scene isn’t about that. It’s about what you can afford and doing it yourself.”
This shift in attitudes could be representative of a more materialistic and social media-obsessed generation as a whole.
Despite opportunities to race in controlled environments becoming more accessible, Jamie believes that boy racing will always exist. “People will always seek the thrill of racing on the streets. It’s that thrill of doing something illegal.”
We asked Jamie if he still has contact with many people from the car meets he used to attend, to which he replies “I’ve sort of drifted apart from them,” surprisingly, there was no pun intended.
After talking to Jamie, I wanted to get the perspective of someone interested in car culture now. We met up with Jake Khodabacus, whose love for cars is rooted in the music and the culture that surrounds it.
“I wanted to have something of my own, a lot of people see cars as a means of transportation, they’ve always meant a little bit more to me”
He picked me up in his purple Golf Mk3, finished with purple leather interior. “Highlines were produced in Schwartz Black and Mulberry. They came with colour coded leather,” Jake explains. A USB plugged into his car radio played Croydon-born dubstep producer Benga as we drove around North London trying to find a parking space.
What separates the UK’s car culture from the rest of the world is the intrinsic link to other cultures. Music is a huge part of the British identity. Being from London, the city that produced grime and dubstep, it is no surprise that Jake’s relationship with cars is tied to music.
“The rave scene, for instance, you’d get people bombing it down the motorway in Sierra Cosworths, old Bimmers and old Golfs to go to the rave and come back. That was all very part of the experience,” Jake explains. For many people in the UK, their love of cars comes from nostalgia: “That’s what separates the UK car scene, that link between nightlife and young culture.”For many young people living in London, the idea of having a car doesn’t even cross their mind. The traffic, congestion charge and parking do not outweigh the upsides of owning your own car. “I wanted to have something of my own, a lot of people see cars as a means of transportation, they’ve always meant a little bit more to me,” Jake says.
With all these downsides, there has to be a more personal motivation for owning a car in the capital. Jake’s love for cars began in his youth: “Growing up, personally, I’ve always been in and out of Volkswagens. Mark 1 GTIs, Mark 2 GTIs, Mark 3 GTIs, VR6s, 1.4 turbos, Mark 4s, R32s. I’ve been in pretty much every single variant.”
One of the biggest reasons young men aren’t buying cars is the extortionate costs to insure their car. A study carried out by Money Supermarket in January 2018 showed that young male drivers aged 17-19 were quoted twice the amount than drivers aged 25-29. It is argued that the boy racer stereotype contributes to these high prices, despite it being made illegal for car insurance companies to factor in gender when pricing insurance.
‘Boy racer’ is not a term that is commonly associated with young men living in central London. That being said, it is interesting that location has little influence on the high amount of insurance they have to pay.
“The term ‘boy racer’ in my view came from rural parts of the UK that had very big open roads and country lanes. Living out in the sticks, these people are probably into agriculture or machinery work, so when they get a car, they want to use their hands. In London, people work jobs where they don’t really have the opportunity to tinker with stuff or take things apart,” says Jake.
“In London, people work jobs where they don’t really have the opportunity to tinker with stuff or take things apart.”
“It’s a bit shit that I have to pay a lot of insurance, but at the same time, it doesn’t really tarnish the fact that I have the car that I wanted,” says Jake. However, he feels insurance companies’ algorithms are impersonal and do not account for the sentimental value cars can hold.
“Everyone who drives a modified car would never in their life imagine crashing it. Insurance companies are very quick to write off old cars rather than pay out, because of what it’s worth in their eyes. When people don’t declare their modifications, and they have small smack in their car, they could literally lose everything.”At the other end of the spectrum, you have people who lease expensive cars they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. Lease cars are a growing market “the total number of vehicles on contract is up 10% from the end of 2016,” according to the BVRLA website.
Jake, who saved up to buy his own car believes that “people that hire purchase cars, it might be nice having that car, but plunging yourself into debt because you want something too early is a little bit short-sighted.”
An inevitable consequence of an instant gratification generation, “that’s only due to the demands of social media and people around you,” Jake continues. This goes back to what Jamie told us about the materialistic nature of car meets in 2018.
Jake’s own exposure to car culture and street racing came at an early age visiting Southend: “You’d go down the pier, and there’d be everyone in their cars. Flying up and down the pier and just having a good time.” Perhaps this represents what street racing and car modification is all about, feeling a sense of belonging in a community. Often coming from rural parts of the UK that are underrepresented.
“The very sad thing about it is people who do drive recklessly, do crash, do kill themselves and other people. It’s very unfortunate that the vast majority of media coverage are young drivers.” Jake tells us.
His memories of Southend are positive, but he understands the dangers of street racing. “I feel like a lot of people within that scene have matured. Police can take your car, and you can lose your license, for that 10-20 seconds of bliss, sometimes it’s not worth it.”
The modified car scene is often criticised but rarely celebrated. One thing that goes unmentioned is the engineering and craftsmanship that goes into these cars.
“You do get a few dickheads, people who rock up in a brand new A45 AMG. They just come to be the boss, they’ve actually got no interest in cars whatsoever.”
Aaron Logan is a 20-year-old mechanic from Ashford, and a firm believer in modifying everything himself: “I did two years at college doing motorsport engineering, and I’ve taught myself through that.”
It is this engineering and mechanical skill that the UK’s custom car scene can be commended for. “It’s a project. It’s fun. You can start from scratch and build it how you want it,” Aaron explains. Pairing young drivers who drive dangerously with career paths in mechanics and engineering could be a way to shake the negative stigma.
Aaron tells us that in his experience, people with modified cars are more likely to drive well, because “they have more respect for the car, rather than people who finance a new car and rag it about.” He argues that “people who have got these quick cars or flashy cars, they know the limits.”
Jamie, Jake and Aaron have all said that drivers who have financed expensive cars are often more likely to drive dangerously than people with modified cars. Having been to a few car meets, Aaron explains that people are quite sporting, “you do get a few dickheads, people who rock up in a brand new A45 AMG. They just come to be the boss, and they’ve actually got no interest in cars whatsoever.”Aaron tells me that most car meets are arranged through Facebook groups, however, increasingly they are becoming more wary of police joining the groups. “They don’t want to close it off, so people don’t come, but I have seen it personally before, we’ve been at a car meet, you’ve got drifters drifting round roundabouts, and then you’ve got a modified A3 or S3, and he puts his blues and twos on,” Aaron tells us.
“I prefer older cars, but to insure older cars is stupid and a lot less reliable,” Aaron says. It is becoming more apparent that expensive insurance is stopping young people buying their first car or forcing them to finance. “It’s stupid to single out the good people from the bad,” Aaron continues.
When driving a fast car, it is natural to be curious about how fast you can take it, “some people want to put their car to the limits, track days are expensive,” says Aaron. He argues that if track days were less expensive “people would move towards track, ’cause it’s regulated.”
Whilst dangerous driving is a problem that can not be ignored and young men are undeniably the largest perpetrators, it is clear the skills learned in the modified car scene are transferable to jobs.
Programmes that encourage young people to pursue careers in mechanics and engineering, as well as opportunities for track days would put the skills many ‘boy racers’ possess to better use.
Featured image by Marcus Brown.