Men who modify their car engines to make them as loud as possible are not, it has to be said, a well-liked demographic.
Last year, the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, caused a stir by suggesting that these men are “compensating for something”. When I posted on Reddit, looking for men with loud engines to interview, one playful user replied '“you should try r/micropenis”. Clearly, the implication that men who make their cars loud are poorly endowed is something of a trope.
This specific type of car modification – making it louder by replacing the muffler, or adding a sound-amplifying exhaust tip – is commonly associated with a performative kind of masculinity, which many believe is rooted in some kind of insecurity, as well as being rude and anti-social. But is this really fair? What actually motivates men to make their engines so incredibly loud?
Sam has modified a number of cars, including his current one, to make the engine louder. “To a car enthusiast, the sound the engine makes is a huge part of the driving experience and the joy of driving,” he explains. “It’s been a large factor in why I’ve bought many of my cars, such as my previous one, which was a V8 Audi S5. The engines of this model are known by anyone who has an interest in cars to be one of the best sounding – it creates a deep and powerful rumble, which is hugely satisfying to be in control of, along with the power and speed it can make.”
The previous owner of Sam’s car had modified the exhaust to make it louder, which he loved: he finds the noise particularly satisfying while driving through a tunnel. But it’s not just about the sound – modifying an exhaust can also improve the power of an engine. “Volume is not always the only reason to modify, and for me I would be looking for improvements to both sound and performance,” he explains.
Sam understands why some drivers with loud engines are considered obnoxious by the public, but he doesn’t see the two as necessarily going hand in hand. “I get irritated myself at dickheads who drive through town or past my bedroom window at 11PM revving their loud cars,” he says. “Personally, if I was driving through anywhere residential late at night, I would drive at low revs to make as little noise as possible. I prefer making noise on an open road.”
“Saying that,” he adds, “the echo of the exhaust you get from buildings in town can also be satisfying!”
Despite having modified a car to make it louder, Rideout – which is, as you can probably tell, an alias – is aware of the fact that it can be anti-social. “If you’ve ever had a neighbour with a heavily modified car, you’ll realise why they are awful for their community,” he says. “In my old car, a Volkswagen Passat, there was no way to make it quiet after I cut out parts of the exhaust. When I started it at 5:30AM to go to work, it was fucking loud, especially while the engine was still getting warm and therefore idling a lot higher. This understandably pissed off my neighbours.”
Dag Balkmar is a Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Örebro, Sweden, and the author of a thesis on masculinity and car modification. As part of his research, he spent a considerable amount of time with groups of young men (and some women) who were involved in the car modification scene. “I think, in the UK, you’d call it the ‘boy racer’ scene,” says Dag, “which became far more popular after films like The Fast and the Furious.”
One of the most common explanations of loud engine modification is that it’s an expression of masculinity. Is it really this straightforward? Not quite. “These people want a unique car, and by making their car unique they become unique themselves,” Dag explains. “It’s about standing out from the collective, as well as being a way of testing and developing their own craftsmanship.”
The noise itself is also part of the appeal. If you’ve ever heard one of these cars go past, you’ll know it makes an impression. Is this about a particularly masculine way of inhabiting space? “Having a loud car can really make an emotional and affective impression on drivers, or the people outside of the car,” explains Dag. “It’s about making an impression, saying, ‘I’m here. You have to take notice of me.’ It’s definitely a way of expanding and taking over space, which is a typically masculine way of being.”
“It’s also about being associated with risk and speed and competition,” he continues. “A loud car is definitely more race-y than an ordinary station wagon. In that sense, it’s linking them to masculinity rather than anything else. It’s also related to the relationship between appearance and performance. It’s relatively easy to make your car look and perhaps sound like a really souped-up racer, but it’s not necessarily performing like one. That’s much harder to do, and more costly. But if you manage to do both, that’s seen as a sign of good craftsmanship skills and ascribed high status amongst the modifiers I spent time with.”
It would seem as though modding your car purely to make it loud is often viewed by those within the car modification scene as childish or antisocial. As with Sam and Rideout, many of the people Dag spoke with were eager to enjoy their loud engines in a socially responsible way. “The group I studied mainly was the ‘elite’ of the scene,” he says, “so they wanted to improve the reputation of car styling. They were keen on doing the right thing, not speeding, not being anti-social or revving their engines.”
While car modification is generally coded as a masculine activity, some women are getting involved too. According to Dag, “There are much more women taking up space in the culture as modifiers themselves.” While they might sometimes play on femininity, modifying their cars in a stereotypically feminine way (a pink paint-job, for instance), “Mostly, these women are into it in the exact same way as the guys,” says Dag – which includes making their engines louder.
Guys who make their cars louder get a bad rap, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Depending on who’s doing it, it can be as much about craftmanship as it is about projecting masculinity. As with basically anything, you can do it in a considerate way, or you can be a dickhead about it.