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Hot wheels

Like the idea of transforming a plain Jane into the hottest thing on four wheels? Unleash your creative talents as an auto modifier, advises Vimal Chander Joshi.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:50 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi

Sitting comfortably with a client while doing cost estimates for his next project, Arush Vohra browses through pictures of customised cars on his computer.

Impressed with the jazzy mean machines, the customer enquires about add-on costs should a new music system also be installed in the vehicle he wants modified. After a brief chat, he leaves with Vohra’s business card in his white Honda Civic.

Vohra, an auto modifier, has just managed to impress and get a new client whose car he will now be doing up. The vehicle will soon be in his workshop for modifications and be customised as per the client’s directions.

A graduate in automotive technology from Western Michigan University in the US, Vohra joined his father’s workshop in Karol Bagh, Delhi, in 2001 before he could tap into his creative instincts.

“In India, this (auto modification) is a nascent industry and people who get into this business do so as an extension of the car workshop,” says Vohra.

Though Vohra has studied engineering, there are others who take up the profession after studying design such as Dilip Chhabria, a veteran in the field, who studied at the Art Center College of Design in California. Ideally, one ought to have the knowledge, of or at least the knack for both engineering and design to ace the field of auto modification (better known as customisation).

“Most of the modifiers understand the manufacturing aspects but lack creative skills. You need to be in the thick of things where both are concerned,” says Amit Paul, the founder of Design Edge, which designs four and two-wheelers for automakers.

Dealing with the customer is a big challenge. “Sometimes we suggest that only a few changes be made in the car but when the customer wants more, we don’t push further. After all, a satisfied client is what matters to us the most,” adds Vohra. The “ideal” clients, however, are those who give him a free hand.

“If you are asked to change the shape and interiors of a car, then there is wider scope to execute your creative abilities,” he says.

Another challenge is to modify good-looking cars like the Hyundai i20, Maruti Swift or Honda City. “One should be trained to modify all kinds of cars from an Ambassador to a BMW. Currently I am working on a dream project — a Mitsubishi GTO, which is my own car and I want to improvise its looks to bring it at par with a supercar such as a Lamborghini or a Ferrari. The project will cost me around R20 lakh,” he says.

Convincing the client to buy a package is also a difficult task because most of them find the prices quite exorbitant. “A car bumper which can be bought for R2,000 at a company showroom would be sold at our workshop for around R10,000 to R12000 because we don’t produce them in large numbers as companies does.

There is no limit to how much you can spend on a car. At a TV show for Discover Travel and Living (Now TLC), we designed an Ambassador car where we spent R6lakh just on the dashboard,” he adds.

But does this mean that the profession pays a lot of money? Not everyone agrees. “The growth is slow because car customisation is not mandatory. Not everyone wants to spend money over and above its actual price,” says Yatharth Das, proprietor, Performance Zone.

What's it about?
An auto modifier changes a vehicle’s looks, interiors, door panels, bumper, colour and accessories. The work is done on a company-manufactured car which the owner wants spruced up. The trend is popular in many western countries, but in India only a few people — especially the young — prefer modifications

Clock Work
. 9 am: Work out prices and product variants with client
. 10 am: Take brief from a new client
. 11 am: Explain the brief to the mechanics in the workshop
. Noon: Supervise the work at the workshop
. 4 pm: Meet new clients
. 7 pm: Check progress of work on cars in the workshop and make plans for next day

The Payoff
You can make good money in this business, depending on your clientele and popularity. If working for a design studio, however, the salary is linked to the reputation of the company. Beginners can earn Rs40,000 to Rs50,000 per month depending on the clientele, which may increase to a few lakhs if your network and popularity widens. As we all know, there is no fixed money in the profession

Skills
. If you work on exteriors, you need to have a keen eye for design
. Technical knowledge is a must for those focused on improving the performance of the car — as they would be required to work on the engine too
. Patience needed while dealing with demanding customers
. Ability to work hard for long hours — day and night — amidst the din created by use of tools and infuriating sputter of car engines
. You need to have a knack for entrepreneurship in case you plan to run your own workshop

How do i get there?
Take up design studies from a good institute. After that, it is advisable to work in a design studio for some time before branching out on your own. It’s essential to hone your skills and also to develop new contacts before you set out alone

Institutes & urls
. Undergraduate and postgraduate courses in design, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad
www.nid.edu
. A programme in automobile design from DYP-DC, (an instituted floated by Dilip Chhabria)
www.dypdc.com
. Foundation/ advanced course in industrial design, DSK International School of Design in Pune
www.dsksic.com

Pros & cons


.

You will be doing a lot of creative work


.

Money is good as long as you have a well-heeled clientele


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Since it’s a nascent industry, you will find it tough to establish yourself

The challenge is to add value

A veteran talks about the changes in this segment

What do most customers ask for? What are the most common services provided by auto modifiers in India?
There are two distinct kinds of customers. One is the young and passionate people who want the looks for their cars. The second set is older people who ask for comfort.

Which vehicles comprise the majority of auto modifiers’ work here?
We don’t do vehicle modification any longer. We started as modifiers and were successful, so we ascended the value chain. We do very intense design work. We had to keep optimising. This is a continuous process. Others move up the value chain and somebody else will take their place.

However, I guess the models that are common (for modification) are brands such as Honda, Suzuki and Hyundai.

Since the time you got into this line in 1993 and now, what changes do you see in terms of work done by modifiers, earning potential, scope of work, etc?
There is a lot of change. When we started in 1993, there were not many choices in vehicles. So, customers wanted their automobiles to look different. They were willing to pay to stand out in the crowd. It was easy to cater to them.

I don’t think that level of demand exists today. Today, there are many more choices in the auto market. The manufacturer can provide greater variety to buyers. Having said that, one would like to add that customers are open to spending big time. It’s because of changing attitudes.

What differences have you noticed when it comes to people’s payment preferences in the early ‘90s and now?
Then it was as much as R3 lakh to R4 lakh. Now, people can spend as high as R50 lakh.

What are the challenges for auto modifiers in India?
The challenge is to add value, not to damage (existing) value in the vehicle.

Which qualifications or skills help in becoming a good auto modifier?
You should have a degree in automotive design, a high level of passion and be a good communicator, marketer and people’s person.

Dilip Chhabria, founder of DC Design, Mumbai Interviewed by Rahat Bano