Just as in other countries all over the world, car tuning and customization in Russia encompasses enthusiasts from two extremes: those who crave power and speed, and those who just like to cruise. The really hard-core speed junkies take part in the popular Moscow Unlimited 500+ event, a side-by-side standing-mile drag race for standard and modified supercars held on the very long runway at the Minsk-1 Airport runway. There are two categories: fastest car over one kilometer and fastest car over one mile. While this event is not about trading pink slips, honor is most definitely at stake.
The counterpoint is aftermarket customization with the conventional blend of body styling, wheels, suspension, and special interiors. While most of the well-known German tuners are represented in Russia through local partners, there is also a small but vibrant homegrown customizing industry that caters to the specific tastes of Russian clients.
Depending on social class and higher education, the taste of a Russian client can be either similar to or radically different from that of European as well as Arab and Far Eastern customers. Thus, it is important that a local tuner or customization specialist be able to meet his client's needs with a total understanding of what is expected in terms of style, materials, and color.
For instance, Russia is the only market where crocodile leather is a popular material for car interiors. I have personally seen several Russian-owned Bentleys and Mercedes in Marbella and Monaco with dashboard top rolls and other interior trim made from real or imitation crocodile skin.
However, mimicking German tuners with homegrown body styling and interiors, but with a local twist, is far from where Russian car customization begins and ends. In the former Soviet Union, new cars and spare parts were relatively scarce, although not to anything like the extent they are in Cuba.
During the communist times, the wealthy and well connected could always get imported cars and service support, but the average person had to put his or her name down for a Lada and wait several years. Needless to say, spares for the local machinery were also hard to come by, and you were advised to remove the windscreen wiper blades when you parked on the street!
It was no wonder then that the best motor engineers and mechanics from the former Soviet Union countries exhibit world-class ingenuity and creativity, as they often had to make from scratch what was not readily available. That ingenuity was allowed to shine on the world stage after the Berlin Wall fell, with a very special one-off car from a Moscow-based company called a:level that briefly became the doyen of the international press.
A custom coachbuilder whose fanatical pursuit of exclusivity for its wealthy clients meant that it only ever made one of anything; a:level created its iconic Volga V-12 Coupe from a stretched, widened, and modified GAS 21 Volga saloon shell, underpinned by the mechanicals and interior from a BMW 850CSi. Sadly, a:level no longer exists, as there was apparently a problem with its overseas investor after the debut of the convertible version of this car in 2006. But the vision and talent that made these and other unique cars possible showed the world that the Russians play second fiddle to no one in this business.
Moscow-based Top Car is a bit more conventional in its approach to tuning. It uses current Porsche models as the canvas on which the company places its distinctive stamp. Rather than being a coachbuilder, for whom business depends on finding high-net-worth individuals as patrons, Top Car is organized along the lines of German Porsche tuners like Gemballa and TechArt, but with a unique Russian twist.
The man behind Top Car is Oleg Egorov, whose very successful advertising company in Moscow is his core business. A passionate car enthusiast, Oleg originally set up a company in 2002 to represent Gemballa in the Russian Federation.
"As much as I loved Uwe Gemballa's designs, I was frustrated by erratic supplies and other issues," he explained. "It was at that point that I decided the only way to make the business work properly was to establish my own brand and control the supply chain from A to Z."
Top Car was founded in August 2004 to do precisely this, and under Oleg's watchful eye, it has gone from strength to strength. "We will have a 10th anniversary party at this year's Moscow Motor Show, where our Macan and 991 Turbo conversions will debut," he said proudly.
The Top Car concept took a lot of planning and organization before it became a reality, but with the Gemballa experience, and his advertising and media awareness behind him, Oleg had a pretty good idea of all the potential pitfalls, as well as what was required to create a slick operation.
"I brought together a team of designers and engineers who now do everything from start to finish," Oleg said. "Today, over a decade down the line, we have almost 70 staff, 40 of whom are specialists in designing and crafting the special interiors that our clients are increasingly demanding."
At this level, only high-quality carbon fiber will do for the aerodynamic styling components, he explained. "We make these in Russia so we can keep a close eye on quality. However, the raw materials come from Western European sources like Germany and Luxembourg, who produce the best automotive grade carbon fiber."
Of course, using the best materials is of little consequence if the fit and finish of the parts are not also world class. "That is why we spare no expense to ensure that our tolerances are as exact as possible," Oleg continued.
"We use a state-of-the-art laser dimensioning machine on an actual car to get its measurements down to a fraction of a millimeter. These readings form the basis of our prototype parts and the subsequent molds."
As a former concourse judge, I tend to pick up flaws in fit and finish very easily. However, the aero kit on the yellow Top Car 991 Carrera S stood up to close examination when I first examined it outside Top Car's recently opened operation in Marbella, Spain. To my mind, this is a great achievement as it is a very difficult three-dimensional puzzle to create wheel arch extensions that complement, both visually and physically, the complex compound curves of the 991's sensuous lines.
The finished article has a sense of flair that makes the Carrera look more purposeful, like a tame version of the RSR race car for the road. Most importantly, it captures the Porsche 911's essence.
Central to this tougher look are the big-wheel arch flares whose lines and contours suit the 991 perfectly. At first glance, they are reminiscent of the 993 GT2, but sans the distinctive quick release attachment bolts. The deeper front spoiler and new rear valance continue this philosophy, with character and detailing that harmoniously blend with the rest of the conversion.
These visual cues alone give the styling strong Porsche connotations, underlining how Top Car's stylists understand the original design philosophy and go with the flow rather than trying to impose a conflicting design language on the base car. Judging by its equally successful takes on other Porsche models like the Macan and 991 Turbo, this critical part of good aftermarket styling is a consistent Top Car trademark.
Used properly to show its presence as a structural material, naked carbon fiber can be used to emphasize a design theme. Unfortunately, it tends to be used by many tuners as a decorative material, which rather defeats this material's intrinsic physical properties of high strength and low weight.
Oleg had come over to Marbella from Miami during my visit, so I had the chance to interview him face-to-face. He grabbed a Stinger front wheel arch off the showroom wall and handed it to me to demonstrate how little it weighs, as well as to show me the fine surface quality of this unpainted panel.
As applied to the whole car, the carbon-fiber Stinger body kit weighs less than 30 pounds, but the extended front spoiler lip and TechArt rear wing are able to significantly reduce lift over the front and rear axles at speed.
All the carbon-fiber parts of the Stinger aero kit, which include the front bumper/spoiler, bonnet, wheel arches, side skirts, and rear bumper are normally color-coded to the bodywork. The parts left in lacquered carbon fiber are the front splitter, the lower part of the side skirts, rear diffuser, and the rear wing. You can, of course, choose to have all these parts color-coded, too, but I personally think the stark contrast works very well.
The only purely decorative parts of the kit are the vertical insert on the trailing edge of each front wheel arch and the triangular pieces under the daytime running lights that give the illusion of larger air intakes.
I commented on the stock interior in the yellow show car, one of the first to be built and hurriedly shipped to Marbella for the opening of the new showroom. "Wealthy Russians love the individual interiors we create that can cost up to 30,000 euros depending on materials," Oleg explained. "It would have been a waste to find that a prospective buyer did not like the one in our test car, so we decided to leave this as a blank canvas until the car is sold."
Sitting on its American-made 9.0 and 10.5x21-inch ADV1 forged alloys, shod with 255/30ZR21 and 305/25ZR21 Michelins, the car rides at stock height because it lacks the H&R fully adjustable suspension kit that normally goes with this conversion. Considering the numerous large speed bumps that litter this part of Spain, looks apart, this is probably no bad thing for the driver's sanity. But once again, that choice will be left to the client.
Oleg also told me that Top Car is in the process of making its own forged alloys, which will be far more unique than these off-the-shelf offerings. The company is the Russian dealer for the world-famous Akrapovic titanium exhausts and uses Brembo brakes if a client should want upgraded anchors.
As Oleg lives in Miami, where Top Car's U.S. headquarters is situated, he sought an engine conversion specialist who could do a good job with no comebacks. The kind of customer who buys a Top Car conversion wants more power with no downsides, so exotic tuning with displacement increases for naturally aspirated cars and huge power outputs that tax reliability and engine life of the turbocharged models are definite no-go areas for Oleg.
After a negative experience with a German tuner, Top Car has settled into a comfortable relationship with Champion Motorsport in Pompano Beach, Florida. Champion's background with the Audi and Porsche factory ALMS race teams has given it legendary status in the aftermarket tuning world, and the company's drive for perfection in quality and reliability is exactly what Oleg was looking for in his search for a technical partner.
Champion has a nice conversion for the Carrera engine, which consists of BMC free-flow air filters and GIAC software for the ECU and Tubi exhaust. This conversion delivers about 30 hp and 28 lb-ft of peak torque, with low-end torque gains of as much as 40 lb-ft. Throttle response and soundtrack are also improved.
While this is a really good result for a naturally aspirated engine, the really big power gains remain the province of the Turbo and Turbo S conversions. The Akrapovic titanium systems that Top Car sells in Russia work equally well in lowering backpressure and save additional weight from that critical area in the tail. However, the test car just had Top Car's fluted end pipes that fit to the stock exhaust silencer.
Ten years is an eternity in the motor industry, but Top Car has come a long way in that time. Russia no longer exports the cars of its miserable state-run auto industry, but in the aftermarket tuning and customization business, Top Car can hold its head up high with standards of design and quality that match the best of its world-famous German and American rivals.