UAE’s amateur modified cars are ‘moving bombs’

Mohammed ben Sulayem, rally champion and president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, says the modification of cars needs regulation and a federal law in the pipeline will help to make this hobby a lot safer.
Mohammed ben Sulayem, the 14-time FIA Middle East Rally champion, says he couldn't control some of the modified cars on UAE's streets. Pawan Singh / The National
Mohammed ben Sulayem, the 14-time FIA Middle East Rally champion, says he couldn't control some of the modified cars on UAE's streets. Pawan Singh / The National

This is a country where the car you drive can define you. It is home to some of the world’s largest, rarest and most powerful supercars. Even Dubai Police has a fleet of some of the world’s most sought-after vehicles.

With a love of all things fast and loud comes a desire to make things faster and louder, and the UAE’s culture of car modification has filled the streets with pitch-black windows, hypnotic and spinning wheel rims, roaring engines and racy spoilers.

“There is a love of cars in this part of the world,” says Mohammed ben Sulayem, champion rally driver and president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE. “With modification, you just have to respect the cars.”

Kit and tuning upgrades can be harmless fun when carried out by professionals, but alterations can kill when carried out by naive motorists or unqualified workshops.

It is possible to find armour plating on vehicles as small as sedans and as large as buses, with many dealerships offering customising services.

“How can you go and put all of this metal used in bulletproof or armoured cars? Then it is double the weight, but you are still using the same suspension. You are using the same brakes,” Mr ben Sulayem says. “How can you stop?”

Modified cars do not have to be registered as such, and much of the work is carried out by enthusiasts or unlicensed garages, meaning there are no statistics or data on how many there are.

But this will soon change, after an agreement was signed between the touring club and the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology to produce federal regulations for car modifications.

Mr ben Sulayem was guest speaker at the first GCC Car Modifications Conference recently, where he described some modified cars as being so poorly tuned that they were essentially “moving bombs”.

“Who doesn’t like cars and who doesn’t like speed?” he asks. “I have been in the business myself and I love to modify cars, but the problem is that other people sell cars I would call a moving bomb.

“We’re talking about over 1,000 horsepower – even I cannot handle 1,000hp. We had maybe 500hp in our rally cars at the time, and these have 1,000hp – with what, a kid of 19 or 18 years [driving them]?”

Mr ben Sulayem knows what he is talking about.

From 1986 he won every FIA Middle East Rally Championship he competed in and eventually became the most successful FIA title-holder in the world, with 14 titles.

He has appeared with some of his cars on the BBC programme Top Gear and has featured in the racing video game Dirt 2.

Mr ben Sulayem’s speech was well received by car modification enthusiasts. He said he had no problems with cosmetic upgrades to a car and would rather see youngsters drawn towards it than to antisocial activities.

But people need to be educated. He warns that enthusiasts cannot just add horsepower without improving the brakes, suspension and steering. “You cannot stop modification. You cannot stop tuning. People will do it.”

“But I have seen cars with over 1,200hp – a 1980s Nissan. It’s Jurassic Park.”

Regulating modifications should not discourage people from doing it. “Maybe when it’s new, just the name of a law, people get scared of it – ‘oh, it’s a law’,” Mr ben Sulayem says. “They think it is against you.

“But it’s not, actually. After a while I think people will adjust to it, people will accept it. Internal regulation will be in and I believe it will work.”

Bodo Buschmann, the president and chief executive of German high-end tuning company Brabus, knows all about the electronics at the heart of tuning high-performance cars. His company recently modified a Dh1.5 million Mercedes G-Wagen 700 for Dubai Police and has worked on cars in the Arabian Gulf since the 1980s.

Mr Buschmann elaborates on the dangers of amateurs fiddling with complicated computer systems. If, when adding 10 horsepower to a car electronically someone accidentally disables the electric roof of a convertible, he says, this is not dangerous.

“This is just uncomfortable for you, because you have to go to your authorised workshop to fix it,” Mr Buschmann says. “But what if, instead of blocking the electric sunroof, you block the brake system?”

This is one of the most dangerous aspects of amateur car tuning. “This is not tuning by coincidence, like in a lottery. You hit the right buttons and the right numbers. Nowadays, we have to have specialised mechanics, trained technicians and engineers.”

Mr Buschmann returns to Mr ben Sulayem’s example of armour-plated cars. “Some companies here take cars and put on a lot more weight, like steel protection and special glass and so on. But they don’t think about the connection to the road, or the wheels.”

When cars weigh double the wheels’ collective load-tested index, wheels break, says Mr Buschmann.

“This is dangerous, not only for the passengers inside the car but for everybody around. People are fitting larger wheels and tyres, which are definitely touching the body when they move.”

It is a matter of physics. Cars are built around very precise physical properties, such as weight, and the whole car must work together to function safely, says Mr Buschmann.

His favourite cars are his customised 800hp Mercedes Benz G-Wagen and the classic SL-Class Roadster.

“Everything we have to do has to be according to European regulations, at least,” he says. “How can I sell something here if I sell it and know it is against the rules?

“You know what would happen to me as a manager? I would not like to go to jail, here or in Germany.”

Federal regulations are necessary, “because otherwise somebody will say ‘No, everything is forbidden’. That’s the most wrong thing you can do”.

Mr Buschmann also touches on one of the most problematic upgrades in the region – tinted windows. “How many cars around here in the UAE have black windows?” he asks. “Have you ever driven such a car in the darkness? You see nothing.

“You don’t see the lorry coming, which is dangerous for yourself, but you also don’t see the pedestrian next to you, and this is dangerous for them. So we have to stop it. Today. Not tomorrow.”

He says that people are always going to want more power, different colours, unique interiors and hi-fi systems.

“It’s better if we have clear rules that define what is possible and what is not. Otherwise we will have cars like this,” he says as he points to a photograph of a car with large bull’s horns attached to its front.

“Okay, it’s a nice design, but it’s really, really dangerous,” Mr Buschmann says.

In terms of drafting regulations, he says there is “no need to reinvent the wheel”.

Mr ben Sulayem agrees that laws should not be perceived as prohibiting all car modifications, but a way of controlling the industry.

“If you look at the UAE, the love of cars among both locals and expats – they love their cars and you cannot stop tuning,” he says. “I was speaking to Mr Ahmed Bahrozyan from the Roads and Transport Authority – a very knowledgeable person. He says: ‘Mohammed we are not here to just ban things. We want roadworthy cars with roadworthy drivers’.

“I blame parents a bit for allowing their sons at the age of 18, 19 or 20 to have a 700hp [car] just because they cannot say no to him. Then they have some fatal accidents.”

Although he has a large collection of customised modern and classic cars, Mr ben Sulayem’s sons are not allowed to drive them until they are capable.

He suggests dealers should encourage or provide driving lessons on the UAE’s “beautiful” circuits.

“Okay, I won the Middle East Championship 14 times. I have been winning, winning, winning. But when I go to the stage I’m prepared mentally and physically. My car’s prepared. I know what I am up to.

“But if something crosses the road in front of you, or a car comes in front of you at 140kph, I’m sorry – whoever that person is, he must be out of this planet to say that ‘I can handle the car’.”

Published: December 3, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one