A car tuning specialist is an automotive engineer who specialises in the modification or race preparation of a customer’s car, for the purposes of competition or exhibition.
A car tuner is similar to an auto mechanic in the respect that they both operate or work in a workshop dedicated to taking care of customer vehicles. In practice, the two jobs are very different. Whereas a mechanic working for a dealership or garage will complete repairs, servicing and general maintenance on customer vehicles, the tuner will complete modifications, re-engineering, bespoke part-building and engine tuning. This is the performance end of the market that caters to people who want to change or improve their cars, and extract as much performance as possible, either for showing, racing or for ‘street’ applications.
Some of the modifications the tuner may be asked to carry out will be purely cosmetic: body kits, spoilers, side skirts and general body preparation. This requires great attention to detail, and the knowledge of moulding and GRP preparation (Glass Reinforced Plastic) techniques which go some way beyond a traditional mechanic’s area of expertise. Many tuners are also highly skilled at painting and finish.
Much of a tuner’s core work is in the area of engine improvement and refinement. This is a far-reaching area which depends very much on the vehicle being worked on. Japanese cars, for example, respond well to technical tuning; software in the cars can be changed to allow for higher running speeds, and chip swaps can yield positive improvements. Conversely, American cars tend to be more mechanically simple, and require old-fashioned tuning techniques, such as port polishing and camshaft upgrades. Tuners will usually specialise in one area; it may be a specific manufacturer, or it could be a certain region or time period, for example, “late-model North American General Motors” cars.
Car tuners usually begin with an apprenticeship, which could be at a specialist tuning firm, or a general automotive workshop or franchised dealer. An apprenticeship typically runs for three years, and pays a very basic living allowance, often in the region of £7500-£8500. Candidates should, however, bear in mind that they are effectively bypassing the costs associated with college by going down this route.
The typical salary for an engineer working for a successful tuning shop runs slightly above the standard rate for an experienced mechanic (around £25,500 as a UK average, after four years of relevant practice). The chance to earn larger salaries is the reason experienced mechanics choose to set up their own auto tuning businesses; the earnings potential can be massive, given the right area and the right choice of specialisation. For example, Novitech Rosso is a tuner in Germany which specialises in late-model Ferraris, and turns over millions of Euros per year.
- Agree tuning plan, budget and timescale with customer.
- Source or fabricate tuning components based on customer’s requirement.
- Advise customer on how to get the best performance from their existing equipment.
- Carry out engine repairs for race vehicles which have sustained mechanical damage.
- Prepare car to ‘show’ condition for customers who want preparation services.
- Work to keep the costs down to a limit close to initial quotation.
- Actively source exotic components from overseas.
Candidates who wish to join a tuning shop as an apprentice tuner need no skills or experience; this is the reason for the limited remuneration. Apprenticeships are typically only available for candidates aged between 16 and 24 as there are positive tax benefit schemes offered by the government to firms who take on apprentice workers up to this age. A tuner becomes qualified once they have completed a City & Guilds in Vehicle Mechanics, or a BTEC in Vehicle Repair & Technology.
This qualification is enough to seek professional work as a mechanic, but tuning shops will typically demand the candidate demonstrate a high level of skill on a particular type of vehicle. It may be that the candidate spent many years learning to tune their own Corvette or Subaru, and so will specialise in an area of particular enjoyment and expertise. It can be tricky for tuning shops to find people in a certain geographical region with the appropriate skill set, so the candidate’s choice of specialisation is key to long term career success.
- A fundamental understanding of vehicle mechanics, backed by City & Guilds or a BTEC qualification.
- Express knowledge in a specific make or model of vehicle, for example, “late sixties Fords”, or “Mustang GT350”.
- Specific knowledge in a focused engineering area, such as “suspension set-up” or “supercharging”.
- Must be able to respond to customer demands and plan the project without exceeding budget or time constraint.
- Detailed knowledge of the aftermarket tuning business, and how to source exotic parts.
- Knowledge of GRP, aqua-forming, pressing, moulding or metalwork for custom fabrication.
- An eye for detail and pride in finishing and preparation of a customer’s vehicle; these are not motorist’s “run-abouts” but are often one-off cherished examples.
The modern tuning shop, despite the plethora of computer equipment and mechanised tooling, remains a dirty, fast-paced and sometimes “bloke-ish” arena. However, many women choose to enter the profession as auto mechanics, and express knowledge in a particular specialisation makes it easier for enthusiastic candidates to find work. There is one example of a Californian tuning shop which specialises in Cadillacs and employs only women. For those with a love of cars, the standing oil and noisy wheel-nut guns are all part of the fun.
It is worth noting that the tuning shop remains a dangerous place to work. The amount of heavy lifting equipment, carbon monoxide, threats to hearing loss and other such pitfalls can result in injury and death. Tuning shops are subject to rigorous health and safety requirements in the UK and Europe. Legislative requirements in other territories vary.
Tuners will normally begin with a three or four year apprenticeship, after which they have sufficient skills to work as a qualified mechanic. At this point, they can technically work for a specialist tuner, although most do not have the skills that tuners require, especially if the tuner focuses on exotics such as Alfa Romeo or Porsche vehicles. Often, mechanics who wish to make the transition into tuning will freely give up their weekends and work as unpaid race mechanics for a local team, to learn about race preparation and to take on a broader, more engineering-centred approach to tuning and repair.
Candidates who choose a certain area of specialisation, for example “1970’s American muscle tuners”, can become quite well-known for it within their region. A love for a certain type of vehicle often means a vast knowledge of that application; candidates tend to pick something they enjoy.
Demon Tweeks of Wrexham is perhaps the largest and most well-known tuning shop in the UK. For an illustrative example of the differences between “car repair (mechanic)” and “car preparation (tuner)”, look no further than Demon Tweek’s huge array of geometry pits, custom finishing areas and race-prep services. Other famous brands include Brodie Britain Racing of Northants (world-famous as a tuner of Mazda MX-5), ProDrive (huge Subaru rally specialists) and AutoDelta, who specialise in Alfa Romeo tuning and preparation.
Also known as…
- Auto tuner
- Car tuning specialist
- Tuning shop owner
- Import car tuner
What’s it really like?
Mike Frumusa is the founder of New Era Performance, a GM specialist operating successfully in Rochester, New York.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
After high school, I started an apprenticeship programme as a mould maker, and completed this after 4 years. I proceeded to do this for another 2 years, designing and building plastic injection moulds. In doing moulds, I was always playing with high performance stuff for cars, and it was a passion, so I started selling performance parts online. Then, internet sales were evolving for about a year and it became too much to be a mould maker and run my business at the same time so I chose to do the business full-time, and ended up building a one-stop GM performance shop, right from the ground up.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of exercise?
We do a lot of work with all late model General Motors cars with a V8. A few of the most popular products that we make are our cold air intake kit for the 08-09 G8GT/GXP, 2010 Camaro and 08+ CTSV.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
A little bit of everything. Some of our sales come because the customer is comfortable with their purchase from New Era based on reputation. Some are our own products, which are always unique; everything we design we want to be unique, and to be the best. That is why we get such a broad mix of customers, but some projects are recurring.
What do you like most about this job?
We compete a few times a year right now in drag racing events, in strip cars, and cars that compete in “streetable” classes in drag racing. The scene is amazing. Plus, I’ve always loved my cars.
What do you like least about the job?
What are the key responsibilities?
Making sure the customer gets what they want. Making sure the stuff we manufacture is as good as it can be, so we can keep doing parts that nobody else is able to do.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A levels?
The US and the UK vary but you would certainly need to complete a mechanics course. People coming to me would need a few years under their belts; they would need to be familiar with the newer General Motors cars.
What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
It depends, year on year. Down south (US), the economy is better; there is more money and sports cars can for the most part be driven all year round. This means there are a lot more potential customers in the south, and it allows businesses from a local standpoint to be able to maintain a consistent load in the shop. When there is a vast clientele in one area, many speciality shops can co-exist in one area. We focus on quality and a smaller customer base, so earnings are not everything.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
You need to know what you are doing, and the best way is through experience. And, with tuning comes diagnostics; a lot of vehicles I tune have a mechanical issue, which is why they bring it to me for “tuning,” when it really needs to be fixed before it can be tuned.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Be skilled as a mechanic but open to using new technology. Generally, the tuning industry advances very quickly; be forward-thinking.