Saturday, 23 October 2010

Uninsured? Undeclared? Unintelligent.

Kids like cars, kids like going fast in cars, so kids like fast cars. And kids will do everything they can to try to create the illusion of speed in their own cars, whether it be the sound of speed by fitting oversized, over-loud exhaust systems, or what they perceive as being the look of speed, with wide wheelarches, extra grilles, spoilers and wide alloy wheels, all of which ironically add to the weight of whatever 1.2 litre shopping trolley they’re nailed to.

I managed to skip this phase, the most boy-racer thing I ever achieved was affixing front fog-lights to my Triumph Acclaim. But I did read Max Power magazine until I grew out of it, so I knew all about Peugeot 106s painted in Ford Citrine Yellow. And of course, I know how to make a car go faster. We’re talking about playing with the oily bits, here, not buying plastic body addenda or spending your Halfords gift vouchers on stickers and fake carbon fibre.

We’re talking mechanical upgrades here, starting with generic stuff like less restrictive air-filters, hotter plugs, any of which may or may not make a difference to your engine, depending on what it is. Then there’s the traditional methods of overboring to increase cylinder capacity, higher lift cams, gasflowing the cylinder heads to improve breathing. Nowadays, too, you have the option of changing the way the cars electronic brain is programmed. An Electronic Control Unit looks after the way a car is fuelled, the mixture settings, the ignition and, on turbocharged cars, what pressure the turbocharger operates at. Changing the electronic information stored on a chip in this ECU can completely change the characteristics of an engine.

Of course, to do this legitimately your insurers need to be informed. Technically, every single change to your car since it left the factory should be recorded, of course, common sense dictates that this isn’t always possible. My car has non-standard alloy wheels, for example, and they’re declared with my insurers. But I could have argued that they were a replacement part rather than a modification. My original wheels went rusty and needed replacement, so I got some new ones. The original Audi ones were unavailable, so I bought these. It’s a compelling story and no mistake.

But what about internal modifications to the engine? To declare or not declare? If you had your 2.0 Pinto bored, polished and ported, fitted with high lift cams and high-compression pistons, who’s to know unless you tell them? Externally the engine is still identical, you’d only find the modifications if you tore the engine down and measured it intimately. I will admit that, in that sort of situation I would question whether there was any point in declaring it. The chances of anybody finding out are very very minimal. Engine chips are a little different, if the authorities are really determined they can read the ECU to determine what tune it’s running at. But as it’s such a simple upgrade to perform I would guess that those who declare it are in the minority. Fair enough, the chances of being caught out are still slim.

Engine transplants, though, are a whole different barrel of cows, especially if you start to get greedy. In the old days you could get away with swapping a 1.3 Kent for a 1.6. a 1.6 Pinto for a 2.0. They looked virtually identical. But nowadays more and more cars are having increasingly daft engine transplants carried out.

Several years ago, back in my Max Power phase, somebody determined that you could fit the Vauxhall Calibra Turbo engine into a Vauxhall Corsa. This is a turbocharged 2.0 engine into a car that had was sold with a 1.6 at the very most. And the master craftsmen who performed this operation did so with some aplomb, improving the mountings, suspension, brakes, gearbox and everything else required to harness the extra grunt. The cars they created were exactly as they would have been had Vauxhall elected to build one themselves.

By all reports, though, they weren't especially good to drive. Fast, biblically so, but with little finesse in putting the power to the ground. Enthusiastic understeerers which could easily catch somebody out if their skill was lacking. Really, on balance, a turbocharged two litre engine didn’t really live in a Vauxhall Corsa.

But this doesn’t matter to the 98-Octane veined children of this post-Max Power generation. Big engine, small car, big fun. These days lock-up garages the breadth of England are whirring away with the sounds of little Vauxhalls being butchered to accommodate monster engines, and it is fair to say this is often without taking too much care over the quality of the installation. I would venture that there are probably turbocharged Corsas out there still running the standard tiny discs found at the sharp end of a base-model 1.0 three cylinder. This is scary. No, it’s bloody terrifying, because the chances are this hyper-power “1.0” is being piloted by a seventeen year-old with no more than a few months driving experience.

Don’t believe me? Visit eBay and search for “modified Corsa”. Within a few seconds you will have struck gold and will see that a good number of these deathtraps are being built and driven by people who have no intention whatsoever of declaring them to their insurers. Here’s one to start with, a Corsa Sport with a C20let redtop transplanted:-
“…The car was rolling roaded in 2009 and was reading 259 bhp i do have print out…The car is a 1.6 cosra (sic) sport on log book….”
This means, if the new owner opts out of informing the DVLA and his Insurers of the throbbing powerhouse under his bonnet, he is essentially paying the insurance and road tax of a 90hp car for a machine with three times that output, if he bothers with insurance at all. This is a worrying and prevalent trend, and this convenient side-step of proper declaration is seen as a positive attribute to increase saleability of the car. Here’s another redtop transplanted Corsa:-
“…2.0l redtop still logged as 1.6gsi (up to new owner to change)”
Really? I would have thought it was the responsibility of the bloke wot built it and has been hooning it around the council estate since it came off axle stands? He’s just said; “look, I’m doing you a favour, mate, you can tax it and insure it as a 1.6, you won’t set the police number-plate-recognition systems off ‘cos the car will show as taxed and insured, but you’ll be driving a much more powerful car! “
What can possibly go wrong? What about if, say, being a 17 year old with no road skill you plough off the road in your furiously wheelspinning hatchback and run down a bus queue of children? What happens then when Mr Policeman sees ECOTEC written atop your engine, a red plug cover and bloody great turbo on the front? You’re buggered, that’s what. You’ve been driving without insurance, or driving with irrelevant insurance; it’s the same thing. You Are Not Covered, should it all go tits up. This affects you, but it affects me as well. If you plough your grossly overpowered shitbox into my car, and it’s your fault, I’m screwed ‘cos you’re uninsured. And the worst thing? You’ve wasted your own hard earned cash buying irrelevant insurance for a car you haven’t got. Would you try to insure your Ferrari F40 as an Escort 1.3? No, that would be stupid, but that’s what you’ve done.
These people are convinced that running a totally ridiculous undeclared engine is a legitimate way to run a fast car with cheap insurance and tax. How do I know this? It’s because they shout it loudly when they advertise their car. Here’s an old E30 BMW 320i which has been fitted with a heavily modified 325i engine.
“…Also on log book it's still marked down as a 2.0si so really cheap on insurance I'm 25 and it costs me £367 for the year and I've got 6 points and no no claims…”

Says it all, really. 25, 6 points, no no-claims (so he has form…) and an undeclared engine swap. Not very clever really, are you mate? At least we get the last laugh if he did get caught, he wasted £367 on pointless insurance and will still be charged with driving an uninsured car.

So, if you’re too young to afford insurance for a fast car, wait until you’re older, then you’ll possibly have garnered the skills to drive one. If you’re not determined that it’s still a good idea to drive one of these deathtraps, and you’re scouring eBay for a 1.2 Nova with a 3.2V6 in it and “really cheap insurance”, do us all a favour. When you crash, and you will, please try to only kill yourself.