10 of the craziest legal car modifications around the world

James McCay

Oct 30, 2020

There are many reasons why we modify our cars. Maybe we want to stand out, join in a cultural practice, improve vehicle performance or help the car go off-road. Sometimes we modify cars to personalise them, creating something that’s uniquely our own.

But what about those modifications that take the average set of wheels to the extreme?

We’ve explored examples of crazy yet legal car modifications in 10 countries around the world. We’ve chosen some interesting scenarios to modify a car’s design as much as we can – based on the laws of each different country. Our concepts also pay homage to famous vehicle modifying subcultures in these countries.

When we look at what constitutes an extreme modification, we’re looking at cars that have been heavily altered compared to the way they left the factory. Some of the modifications themselves are also pretty extreme and have huge impacts on what the car can do.

N.B. Information is accurate to July 2020 and is subject to change. If you’re thinking of modifying your car, don’t take our word for it; you should always check with your local road authority to confirm that what you are planning is legal in your jurisdiction.

Japan: Punk rock and cybernetic fusion

You can’t have a list of extreme car modifications around the world without including Japan. The island nation is famous for its car scene, including various vehicle modification subcultures, a couple of which we’ll examine here; Bōsōzoku and Dekotora.

Bōsōzoku translates to ‘running out of control tribe’ and this style of car modification has its origins in youth bikie gangs that formed in the 50s.1 While it started with motorbikes, those wanting to embrace the Bōsōzoku method of vehicle modification turned their attention to cars.

Modifications common to Bōsōzoku style cars include:

• huge front splitters
• exterior-mounted oil coolers
• loud and brightly coloured paint schemes
• oversized exhausts either stretching over the car through the engine’s bonnet or up at a high angle from the rear of the car
• wider wheel arches and bodywork.2

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, car modifications that have their roots in illegal motorcycle gangs may not be roadworthy. For example, in Japan extreme body modifications that increase the car’s dimensions can lead to the car failing an inspection.3

We’re going to have to pare back the crazy exhausts, front splitter and wheel arches in our concept design to keep it legal in Japan, but we’ll still keep the spoiler, exterior oil cooler and a touch of Bōsōzoku bodywork.

Of course, Bōsōzoku isn’t the only vehicle-tuning subculture in Japan. Another style of note is Dekotora.

Dekotora refers to ‘decorator trucks’, which are often decked-out with:

  • neon and LED lights,
  • chrome, silver, or gold metallic surfaces,
  • additional struts and bodywork to make room for more lights, and
  • special paintwork depicting Japanese cultural scenes and iconography.4

 

There are special rules and permits for Dekotora trucks when used at special events. However, regular road vehicles (including modified ones) have to obey the following rules when driving on Japan’s roads and highways:

  • The headlights can only be between 12,000 to 15,000 candelas (a measurement of luminous intensity), depending on how many primary headlights there are and how they’re arranged.
  • Additional decoration lights can only be 300 candelas (except for indicators, fog lights, brake lights, licence plate lights etc. which have their own regulated brightness levels).
  • Lights at the rear cannot be white, and additional accent lights around the body cannot be red or amber (unless they are an indicator, hazard light or warning light).5

To comply, our concept design has light blue decoration lights across the body panels. We’ve still kept a bit of the punk-rock flair of Bōsōzoku and combined it with the sci-fi vibes of Dekotora.

 

Brazil: Custom lowrider

In the South American nation of Brazil, any changes to the factory finish require approval from the Departamento de Trânsito (Department of Transport, or DETRAN).6

  • While some updates, like changing the colour of the vehicle, simply involve notifying the state licence department, the following modifications need to pass an inspection by an accredited vehicle inspector:
  • bodywork modifications,
  • fuel system (such as converting a car to run on LPG gas or replacing the petrol engine with an electric one),
  • engine power changes,
  • modifying the axis,
  • chassis modifications, and
  • modifications to the alarm system on the car7

 

This may feel restrictive, but it’s still possible to have a heavily modified ride.

A popular car modification style in Brazil is that of the ‘lowrider’. Lowrider cars which typically have the suspension springs and coils cut and re-welded or replaced so the car can sit lower to the ground. Often, hydraulics are installed to allow the car to rise or ‘bounce’ up and down or lean on an angle – a style of car modification which is particularly popular in the city of Sao Paolo.8

To keep the vehicle design street legal, some hydraulic suspension has been added to allow the car to rise up and down, but nothing too crazy.

Our conceptual design also includes a large spoiler (more for style than any aerodynamic improvement), fancy seats, metallic paintjob and a sweet entertainment system. The bodywork has also been altered in the lowrider style with long, smooth rounded panels – this will add a little aerodynamic improvement to the car, plus some visual flair.

There is also some work we’ve got going on under the hood, such as an air intake filter to bring cooler air into the engine and a turbocharger to boost air pressure for increased power and engine efficiency.

All of these changes will need to pass inspection and meet the safety standards set in Brazil’s Traffic Code.9

Canada: Enough light to rival the sun

The picturesque nation of Canada regulates all car modifications to pass inspection, though specific laws differ between provinces. It’s still possible for a car enthusiast to modify their ride legally if they want to make some alterations.

Many of these legal car modifications focus around helping the car get through inclement weather such as snow, with lifted suspension and additional lights.

For example, in the province of British Columbia, in addition to the car’s basic headlights you can add:

  • two fog lamps
  • two spot lamps and
  • a number of off-road lamps 10

 

Any additional lights must be spaced apart in accordance with British Columbian regulations, and off-road lamps will need to be concealed with an opaque cover when driving on the highway.

In the province of Quebec, you can replace the headlights with brighter xenon lights (also known as high-intensity diode lights or HIDs)11 and install LED lightbars for off-road driving.12

Furthermore, in Quebec, you can raise the car’s suspension so that the car’s height is increased by a maximum of 6.4 centimetres (2.5 inches), and you can add bigger tyres – so long as the increase in diameter is no greater than 7.6 centimetres compared with the original tyre diameter. For cars, the maximum wheel diameter allowed is 89 centimetres (35 inches).13

There is some additional work that’s permitted too, which we’ve included in our modified concept car designed to brave Canadian snowstorms:

  • adding a four-point harness to the seats
  • replacing the tyres with studded tyres in the winter
  • modifying the side skirts
  • adding a spoiler

United Kingdom: Long-reaching luxury

Have you ever seen a stretch limousine and thought, ‘That’s pretty fancy. I wonder if I could turn my car into one?’

Well, in the United Kingdom (UK) you can create a home-made limo.

According to UK law, a wheeled motor vehicle can reach 12 metres in length.14 The trick will be getting it registered.

While a vehicle can be heavily altered, including its shape and length, anything which affects the vehicle’s handling, performance, structural integrity and stability must fit the UK’s regulations.15

This includes the chassis, axle and suspension.

Other regulations include ensuring the rear overhang (the distance between the back of the car and the rear axle) is less than 60% of the distance between the front and rear axle.

To make this home-made limo even fancier, we’ll add other modifications including under-glow neon lights – a coloured light that sits under the body of the car to add a ‘glow’ on the road underneath the vehicle.

To make it conform to UK law, we’ll need to meet the following requirements:

  • the bulbs can’t be visible; only the glow from the light can be seen from the front of the car (not the rear).
  • the light can’t be red, blue or green, to avoid confusion at night with emergency vehicles.

 

Lastly, on the inside, we’ll add a fancy entertainment system with a screen in the back for passengers. Any video in view of the driver is illegal,18 but the passengers far in the back can stream Netflix while the driver transports them to their destination.

Pakistan: A moving piece of art

For a long time, Pakistan has had very lax regulations when it came to car modification. However, that’s all about to change, because the nation (as of 2020) is in the process of implementing a new road safety act.19

In these new changes, anyone who has a heavily modified vehicle will need to report the alteration for inspection so it can be registered.

However, there is a style of vehicle modification that’s been popular in Pakistan and surrounding nations for decades that doesn’t alter the vehicle’s handling or performance.

Since the 1920s, when Pakistan received imported Bedford trucks from Britain, truck drivers in the region have been customising them and adorning them.

Known as ‘jingle trucks’, these vehicles are decked out with:

  • bells,
  • chains, and
  • hand-painted colours, words, symbols and imagery20

 

Other common modifications to these trucks include increasing the vertical height of the transport bed on its back with higher walls and additional layers. These walls allow room to transport more goods – and also provide more room for decoration.21

We’ve decorated an everyday passenger vehicle to look like a jingle truck, creating a set of wheels with distinct cultural flair.

USA: Flashy and colourful

Car modification laws in the United States of America vary by state, and in a country as big as America, there is a lot of room for variation. What if we wanted to ensure our car had some pretty ‘out there’ looks and got noticed?

Changing the paint job can have a profound effect on the overall look of a vehicle, but sometimes it can be hard to pick the right colour. Fortunately, you don’t always have to make a choice.

Iridescent paint means that the car will exhibit multiple colours depending on the angle by which it’s viewed at. The state of Virginia refers to this as a ‘prism effect’ but does note that this can’t be applied to windscreens.22

We can tint the windscreen however for some extra style, though the amount that the window can be tinted by, and what colour it can be tinted by will also differ between states.

As an example, in Alabama:,

  • the front window can’t be tinted, apart from the top six inches of the windscreen
  • the side windows can be tinted to allow at least 32% light visibility23
  • mirrored tints are not allowed, but the window can be a different colour such as red, black, blue, green or amber – so long as it maintains the minimum standard of light visibility.

 

In contrast, Oregon, doesn’t allow red, gold, yellow, black or amber window tints.24

Given that many US states do not allow red, yellow, black or amber window tints, our concept design has a touch of blue.

To add even more colour, we can add some swanky gold alloy rims on the wheels, and have some neon lights – though laws on neon lights will also differ by state. For example, the state of Connecticut notes that neon lights can only be white, yellow, amber or red – so long as they pass the technical regulations.25 Furthermore, if we wanted to add neon hubcaps or wheel covers on a car registered in Connecticut, the front wheels could only be white, amber or yellow, and the rear wheels could only be red.

Finishing touches to our swanky American ride include some bodywork, such as a spoiler on the back (that doesn’t block driver visibility), scissor doors (which lift and rotate vertically rather than swinging outwards) and changes to body panels. Generally, as noted by the Government of Maine, modified body panels are acceptable so long as they’re securely attached, not rusty and don’t pose a danger to pedestrians (i.e. any edges are smooth and blunt).26

With a flying buttress at the back, side air intakes, hood scooped and modified front and rear panels, we have one swish looking concept car.

Iceland: Hardcore off-road modifications

Iceland is a beautiful place, but the weather and road conditions – particularly in winter with snow and sleet on gravel roads – can be tough on cars. The solution? Modify the cars to make them extra tough.

During winter months tyres can be studded for extra grip on the snow, with the number and size of the studs determined by the class of vehicle and the size of the tyre. The wheels can be increased in size by up to 44%,27 and it’s not uncommon for modified off-road vehicles having wheel diameters of 50 inches (a whopping 1.27 metres) or more!28

Legal car modifications in Iceland include:

  • lifting the suspension to accommodate the extra big wheels – so long as the headlights are not higher than 1.35 metres off the road surface.29
  • modifying the length of the car
  • adding seats, and
  • adding extra doors.

 

There are custom made ‘super jeeps’ with six doors, three on each side, that can fit eight people. Icelandic vehicle modification company Ísar is working on their own super jeep prototype designed to travel across glaciers and snow.30

We’ll include those extra doors and seats in our concept design too, so we can bring more people along to experience Iceland’s jaw-dropping natural landscapes. This does mean that it might not fit in a regular home garage, and parking it in a shopping centre will be difficult.

Lastly, to help us see where we’re going during the snow, we’ll add some additional lights. The Iceland Ministry of Transport allows two LED lights to be added to the front of the car.31

United Arab Emirates: Opulent modifications

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is home to Dubai, one of the ‘most extra’ cities on the planet – which makes standing out a bit difficult.

Furthermore, in 2017 the UAE updated their road safety laws, with a focus on car modifications.33 Depending on the modification you wish to make to your car, you’ll need to request permission from the UAE licence department to get the car registered.

This makes car modification a bit more complicated. It’s still possible to modify your car to stand out, but what can you do in the UAE now they’ve updated their laws?

Modifications that don’t require governmental approval:

• replacing the car seats
• entertainment system
• adding a bumper
• modifying the radiator
• ignition system alterations
• wheel rims
• side-skirts
• installing roof racks
• intake manifold and air intake filter
• adding or replacing a spoiler

 

Modifications that do require governmental approval:

• engine upgrades
• hood and canopy modifications
• seating arrangement and number of seats
• transmission changes
• chassis modifications
• adding or replacing the bull bar
• exhaust system modifications
• suspension modifications

 

There’s a lot that can be done, so long as an application is submitted and alterations are kept within the scope of the law. For example, modifying the exhaust is allowed so long as it doesn’t affect the vehicle’s emissions or make the engine louder than 95 decibels.33

Following UAE guidelines, our concept design involves both modifications that don’t need written approval and some that do.

For example, scoop and hood modifications are allowed so long as they don’t affect driver visibility,34 and bodywork is allowed so long as edges on any grills, curves and body panels are blunted, so we’ll definitely have some cool upgrades to the bodywork.

Additionally, we’ll add a spoiler, neon under-glow lights, and some slick spinning chrome wheel rims (also known as floating rims, which turn independently of the wheels). While we could also give the car a new paint job, we could instead replace some of the body panels with carbon fibre (or at least make it look like carbon fibre with a body wrap).

Carbon fibre has a unique look thanks to how it’s made, but might not cut it if we want to show off in Dubai. However, it’s possible to have a marbled carbon fibre body – a particularly expensive and flashy bit of bodywork. This was shown off by Mansory Design & Holding GmbH on a modified Bugatti Chiron, dubbed the Mansory Centuria, at the 2020 Geneva International Motor Show.35

And, because we can, we’ll add some extra spotlights out the front, even though they don’t really go with the overall vibe of the car. But this is the UAE, and we want our design to stand out.

Switzerland: Spy-level sci-fi

Switzerland is known for a few things: chocolate, skiing and its global banks. When it comes to extremely modified cars, however, Switzerland has a few tricks up its sleeve that allows motorists to turn their vehicle something that resembles a sci-fi machine.

While a number of modifications are fairly average, like the addition of fog lights, you can also add a projected Heads Up Display (HUD) speedometer that appears on the windscreen to help make your vehicle feel like the cockpit of a jet fighter.41

For some serious spy level car modification however, we’ll turn our concept car into an amphibious submersible that works on the road and the water, just like from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.

Swiss automotive builder and design studio Rinspeed, known for creative concept vehicles, heavily modified a Lotus Elise in 2008.

This intensive project included:

  • Replacing the petrol-powered combustion engine with an electric one.
  • Waterproofing the interior, the steering, and dashboard.
  • Mounting electric jets onto the side so that the car could submerge and dive down to 10 metres below the waterline.
  • Adding a control system so the driver could switch from steering the wheels on land to controlling the jets underwater.42

 

Known as the Rinspeed Squba, it’s a road-legal concept – drivers just need to connect up their own oxygen masks to the tanks so they don’t have to hold their breath when taking the car for a swim.

Our extremely modified car design has an electric engine, jets on the side so it can dive underwater, oxygen tanks on the inside, a projected HUD and additional fog lights on the front.

South Africa: Subtle and scary

When it comes to car modifications in South Africa, standing out can invite trouble, and it might be better to blend in. According to the South African Police Service, the number of car-jackings is declining slightly, but there were still 16,026 reported cases from April 2018 to March 2019. 36 So how is it possible to have some extreme modifications on a car that looks like any other?

Well, adding a flamethrower is pretty extreme.

Back in the 90s, Charl Fourie invented a flamethrower to add to his BMW. It sat underneath the sides of the car, and when activated would shoot flames up vertically and at an angle to deter would-be hijackers. 37

The crazy part is that it’s a legal modification, if rare. Only a couple hundred were sold, as the high expense meant the product didn’t take off. 38

As for other legal car modifications, Arrive Alive, an initiative of South Africa’s Ministry of Transport notes that modifications that affect the look of your car are typically ok – so long as they don’t impact the vehicle’s handling or safety on the road. 40

Examples of these include:

  • tinted windows,
  • sound-system upgrade,
  • off-road tyres, or
  • lifted suspension.

 

Modifications like lowered suspension, a more powerful engine, modified differential or gearbox are more serious and may affect a car’s handling. These modifications might not pass a vehicle inspection.41

Our concept design includes a range of small mods to improve driver comfort, like a new sound system, some comfy chairs, tinted windows, off-road tyres so we can go on safari, and some modest flamethrowers.

Insuring a modified vehicle

Whether you make some extreme modifications to your car or just some small alterations, you should notify your car insurer beforehand to make sure it won’t invalidate your policy.

SOURCES

  1.  Subcultures and Sociology: Bōsōzoku. Antonix Davis, Grinell College. 2017.
  2.  Devrim Ülkebaş. Modernity, consumption and identity representations at the edges of the Silkroad: Modified automobile subcultures in Turkey and Japan. “Archi-cultural Interactions Through the Silkroad” Post Conference Book of Selected Papers, Third International Conference of International Association of Silkroad Universities. 2016.
  3. Compulsory vehicle inspection – JCI/Shaken(車検). Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. 2020. 
  4. Marta Fosberg. Fylla rum med ljud och ljus: Om att ljussätta music (Fill rooms with sound and light: About lighting music). Kungliga Musikhögskolan (Royal College of Music), Stockholm. 2016.
  5. Chapter 2: Details of Safety Regulations That Apply to Motor Vehicles. Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. 2020.
  6. LAW no. 9.503, of September 23, 1997 – Institutes the Brazilian Traffic Code. Presidência da Repúblia (Presidency of the Republic), Brazilian Government. 2020.
  7. Vehicle Characteristics Change. Departamento de Trânsito Santa Catarina (Deparment of Transport santa Catarina), Government of Santa Catarina. 2020.
  8. South-American Cho-Low. Directed by Phuong-Cac Nguyen. Performance by Antonio Carlos Batista Filho, Christopher Hall, Leandro Martins. Produced by Unhinged Jaw Films and Hairy Denim Productions. 2014.
  9.  LAW no. 9.503, of September 23, 1997 – Institutes the Brazilian Traffic Code. Presidência da Repúblia (Presidency of the Republic), Brazilian Government. 2020.
  10. Motor Vehicle Act: Motor Vehicle Act Regulations. Government of British Columbia. 2010.
  11. Xenon Headlights. Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (Automobile Insurance Company of Quebec), Government of Quebec. 2020.
  12.  LEDS. Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (Automobile Insurance Company of Quebec), Government of Quebec. 2020.
  13.  Modifying your vehicle. Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (Automobile Insurance Company of Quebec), Government of Quebec. 2016.
  14.  The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986. The National Archives, United Kingdom Government. 2020.
  15.  Vehicle Registration: Radically altered vehicles. Government of the United Kingdom. 2017.
  16. Extending a vehicle’s length behind its rear axle. Government of the United Kingdom. 2010.
  17. The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989. The National Archives, Government of the United Kingdom. 2020.
  18. Modified cars – what you need to know. Driver and Vehicle Agency, Department for Infrastructure, Government of Northern Ireland, Government of the United Kingdom. 2019.
  19. Road Safety Act, 2020. Road Safety Pakistan, Ministry of Communications, Government of Pakistan. 2020.
  20. From the Grand Trunk Road to Route 66: Visiting Truck Artist Haider Ali. University of Southern California Pacific Asia Museum. 2014.
  21. Humanity’s Sketchbook – Pakistani Page Four: The Skills to Compete! Claire Farinha, Penn State University. 2018.
  22. Code of Virginia: 46.2-1052. Tinting films, signs, decals, and stickers on windshields, etc.; penalties. Legislative Information System, Commonwealth of Virginia. 2020.
  23. Alabama Tinting Regulations. Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Government of Alabama. 2020.
  24. Oregon Laws 2015: Chapter 579. Oregon State Legislature, Government of Oregon. 2015.
  25. Frequently Asked Questions on Customizing Vehicles. Department of Motor Vehicles, Government of Connecticut. 2020.
  26. Maine Motor Vehicle Inspection Manual. Maine State Police, Maine Department of Public Safety, Government of Maine. 2017.
  27. Ibid.
  28. A big visitor at the arctic trucks HQ in Iceland. Arctic Trucks. 2017.
  29. Ministry of Transport: Regulation on vehicle type and equipment. The Regulatory Library, Ministry of Justice – Regulations, Government of Iceland. 2004.
  30. Vision: Roadless Rapid Transit for a Better World. Ísar. 2020.
  31. Ministry of Transport: Regulation on vehicle type and equipment. The Regulatory Library, Ministry of Justice – Regulations, Government of Iceland. 2004.
  32. Road safety. United Arab Emirates Government. 2020.
  33. Technical Regulation for Vehicle Modification. Emirates Authority for Standardization and Meteorology, United Arab Emirates Government. 2017.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Mansory – Mansory Centuria. Geneva International Motor Show. 2020.
  36. Crime Statistics: Crime Situation in Republic of South Africa (12) months (April to March 2018_19). South African Police Service, Department of Police, Government of South Africa. 2019.
  37. Flamethrower now an option on S. African cars. CNN. 1998.
  38. Personal Flame Thrower. Sally Sara, Australian Broadcasting Commission. 2001.
  39. Vehicle Modifications, Alterations and Road Safety. Arrive Alive, Ministry of Transport, Government of South Africa. 2017.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Directives no 2 A: Modifications et transformations de voiture automobiles et remorques (Motor car modifications and conversions and removals). Associations des Services des Automobiles (Association of Motor Vehicle Services), Government of Switzerland. 2018.
  42. Rinspeed’s Zero-Emission World Debut at the Geneva Motor Show – a Green “Fish” With Q Factor. Rinspeed AG. 2008.