Zero to (Basically) Hero: Southeast Asia’s Culture of Car Conversions

If you’ve ever played the first Need for Speed: Underground, you may recall that a base Mitsubishi Lancer was available in the game. Amidst proper sports cars like the RX-7, Fairlady Z, and the S2000, you might wonder why a humble Lancer took the spot of its own Evolution brother.

While this article won’t tell you why, it might’ve occurred to you that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to drive off with a model’s performance variant. Such is the case in Southeast Asia, where ‘affordable’ enthusiast-focused rides like the Celica, 350Z, and the Impreza were sold through import specialist dealers in their time. Some were sold through official dealerships, albeit with fewer options. They have since doubled or tripled the price of a used, neat example in, say, the USA. Only base models were sold normally through official dealers. The rarity of these sought-after vehicles that are uncommon everywhere else causes a massive appreciation in the second hand market. Adding salt to the wound is restrictive import laws that charge sky-high values and/or bans for importing vehicles altogether. With price tags capable of fetching properties, some were determined to obtain their heroes in other ways. Those who were not willing to be arrested for contraband settled for car conversions.

To set an example, Mitsubishis, particularly Galants and Lancers, are often subjected to conversions of varying degree, with most only having its exterior made to replicate their performance counterparts. People with greater connections and access to rare parts end up with a near fully-fledged Evolution or VR-4; a great hustle to avoid restrictive import laws or taxes that will last the next seven generations. Some have managed to replicate certain models from a completely unrelated base. Full conversions can often be registered in the law as the base vehicle, which helps avoid paying the higher taxes of the legitimate model. Theoretically, it would cost less than buying a legitimate one, but high expectations for resale should be kept down, knowing people’s logic of buying legit or not at all.

Unless stricken with an emergency, the thought of reselling shouldn’t have crossed their minds; converting cars is a showcase of devotion for attaining an altered dream close enough to fulfill an otherwise costly wish.

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