When I first became an automotive editor back in 1998, it was at the tail end of the mini-truck craze. I fondly remember triple-blade neon windshield wipers and bed nets in place of tailgates.
Soon after came the first wave of what we now know as sport compacts. Fueled by the surprising popularity of the 2001 movie The Fast and the Furious, the tuner movement burst onto the aftermarket scene with a brash attack of tricked-out Civics and Accords, and a new generation of enthusiasts looking to make its own mark on automotive culture.
Many older hot rodders and racers—as well as the shops that supported them—laughed at the giant rear spoilers, buzzing exhausts and undercarriage neon of the small cars cruising past on Saturday nights, calling sport compacts a ridiculous fad that would never last.
The tuners ignored them and continued to modify any import or small car they could get their hands on, creating their own events and laughing themselves at the “graybeards” and their refusal to embrace the future of automotive performance and customization.
A little perspective is a great thing, and roughly 15 years later, it turns out everyone may have been right.
The outlandish (some would say annoying) sport compacts eventually gave way to subtler improvements that now focus on handling, speed and control, creating sleek, powerful and desirable street cars and racers.
Meanwhile, more traditional V-8 enthusiasts have learned a thing or two from the import crowd as well, particularly when it comes to things like in-vehicle electronics and EFI tuning.
John Carollo’s recent article in Performance & Hotrod Business that explains how the sport compact market now has a “classic” element brought back a lot of those memories of when tuners first appeared, and how divisive those early years really were.
During last winter’s trade show season, I had a talk with a long-time shop owner who initially resisted sport compacts, and years later wished he hadn’t. Now in an industry where there are questions about where the next generation of enthusiasts and professionals are coming from, “the worst thing we could have done was ridicule and ignore those kids,” he said. “We should have welcomed them and started mentoring them right away.”
People were saying it back in the early 2000s, but again, with the passage of time, it now seems clearer—at their core, sport compacts really weren’t much different than the hot rod generation that preceded them. Youngsters found cheap, readily available vehicles and went about personalizing them.
“The classic import car market provides an affordable entry point with solid parts and accessories support for today’s younger generation of performance enthusiasts to get started, or for those in their late-30s/early-40s to relive their youth,” says Ivan Snyder of Fluidampr.
There’s another example of this going on today. In his excellent series of columns over the past year, Ron Knoch, president of DIESEL Motorsports (NADM), has explained how the diesel performance movement has carved a niche for itself in this industry in much the same way. Originally denied access to certain tracks and race classes, diesel enthusiasts created their own events and have been building momentum ever since.
One of the great things about this industry is that everyone brings passion and an opinion—they like what they like, and they don’t like what they don’t like. That’s great for bench racing and the barstool, and I’m as guilty of it as the next person.
But when it comes to business, and keeping the performance aftermarket alive and vibrant, it seems counterproductive be exclusive. We’re all hot rodders at heart, and there’s room for everyone.