Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond

Thoroughly modding Hammond

I was 17, it was my first car and I modified it, not to try to compensate for its creaky, aged awfulness, but in the belief that I could make it a better car than it was when it left the factory 15 years earlier.

The subject of my fevered and entirely misguided engineering ambitions, was a Toyota Corolla Liftback. I loved it much more than I did life itself - though it wasn't a perfect specimen. The 1,600cc engine could just about haul the thing along, the threadbare interior released interesting, faintly organic smells and the suspension barely managed to keep its rusty belly from scraping on the ground.

Squirting more than two quid of petrol on board was a waste of time, as the tank was so full of holes that the fuel would leak out before the engine could suck it up and turn it into forward motion. Fortunately, I rarely had more than two quid to spend on petrol, so the problem seldom impacted on my life. And yet still, I decided that I could improve on this wondrous creature and elevate myself even further in the estimation of my fellow art-college pupils.

Strangely, the improvements I made addressed issues other than those above. Rather than worry about leaky tanks, sagging suspenders, stinky seats and wheezy engines, I turned my attention to the really important things. I painted a flag on the roof using a brush and tins of enamel. I fetched up a couple of old stereo speakers from the back of the garage and wired them up on the parcel shelf and in a final flourish, using black electrical tape, stretched two Shelby stripes over the length of the entire car, including the back window. But perhaps the best boost of all to my technical works came during one of my regular trips to the local scrap yard when, in search of a replacement fuel jet - having dropped the original on the gravel outside my house and, despite hours of searching, been unable to find it - I came up trumps with a piece of motoring treasure of inestimable value.

"Rather than worry about leaky tanks, sagging suspenders, stinky seats and wheezy engines, I painted a flag on the roof"

Having located a rare example of the same car rusting at the back of the yard, I crawled over it and inspected it prior to performing delicate surgery on its carburettor to remove the required fuel jet. This, by the way, I planned on doing whilst the scrap-yard bloke wasn't watching as I was damned if I could see why it was necessary for me to hand over a couple of my hard-earned quid for what amounted to little more than a bent piece of pipe that no one else on the planet could possibly want.

I had practised the routine many times before on other cars of a similar type, having spent some weeks now in search of the missing jet, and was pretty confident that I could have the bonnet up, the air filter off, the top of the carb removed and the jet safely in the pocket of my jacket before the fat old goat had made his tea and rolled a fag.

Suddenly, with spanner in hand, I was distracted from my illegal plan, by the car's back window. Emblazoned across it, etched into the glass, was an eagle, its wings spreading the width of the car.

It was possibly the most ghastly thing on earth at that specific moment, but in the eyes of a teenager with a fiver burning a hole in his jeans and a Corolla in need of modifying, it was more precious than the Grail itself. This would not fit in the pocket of my jacket, but I would pay readily for it - a kidney, if necessary. I bought it, fitted it and was proud of it and all my other modifications, right up to the point when I smeared the car down the side of a Volvo estate that failed to indicate and consigned the thing to the same scrap heap that had so recently provided the eagle window.

I still modify vehicles. I had my Harley-Davidson cut in half and widened to allow for a fatter rear wheel, the engine de-chromed and a custom seat built to look like the toe of a cowboy boot. I have had my Land Rover lifted and fitted with a stereo loud enough to cure constipation and a hand-built V8 and chromed side-pipes.

And there is one binding thread that runs through every modification that I and perhaps every other car modifier has wrought on their vehicles over the generations; none of them have made any vehicle better than it was on the day it rolled out of the factory. I'll do it again though. There is no need for logic, practicality or sense. The desire to modify a car or a bike is no different to the desire to modify yourself with a tattoo or a massive pair of plastic jugs. It just makes you feel better, and if other people choose not to do it, they don't have to. But it won't stop me.


Richard Hammond, Column

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