Currently reading: The best cars to modify - that you wouldn’t expect
There are hordes of upgraded hot hatches out there, but what if you're looking to really stand out from the crowd?

From the colours of our front doors to how we dress every day, it seems we're predisposed to expressing our personalities by any means possible. And it’s no different with cars: for almost as long as they’ve been around, we’ve been fettling them to suit our wants and needs.

Indeed, the culture of custom paintwork, bigger wheels and even conversions to completely bespoke bodies can be traced back to the aristocracy of the early 20th century.

Things have, of course, moved on since then. Hot-rodding in the US’s Prohibition era brought some of the first significant performance upgrades, then the Mini and Volkswagen Beetle boom during the '60s and '70s brought radical rebodying to the fore.

Turbo fever swept the nation in the '80s, then the '90s put modding in the public eye.

Today, custom cars are as popular as they’ve ever been, despite public scrutiny and police crackdowns.

Head to any major industrial estate on a Friday night and you will doubtless come across a pack of tuned Audi S3, BMW 1 Series and Volkswagen Golf R hot hatches.

Alternatively, set course for your local off-road track and find out what a 4x4 can do when it’s not bound by driving nicely on the road, with outlandish takes on classic Land Rovers and Suzuki Jimnys galore.

This is all to say that there’s plenty of metal out there that’s ripe for modifying.

Whereas other publications might cover all the clichéed stuff you’ve probably seen done hundreds of times over (Ford Fiestas, Honda Civics and Toyota Supras, for instance), we prefer to take a more holistic view, shining a light on some tuner heroes that might not have had their day in the spotlight just yet. Welcome to our guide.

The best cars to modify – that you wouldn’t expect

1. Austin Seven

The first car ever road tested by Autocar (in Gordon England Sunshine Saloon guise, we’ll have you know) wasn’t just responsible for getting Britain motoring but also for platforming many of the world’s greatest modern marques.

It's quite obviously far behind today’s city cars on performance, let alone anything sporty. But viewed with a creative eye, that’s a virtue. Its rudimentary mechanicals and body-on-frame construction make it incredibly easy to turn into all manner of machines, ranging from svelte convertibles to V8-swapped hot rods and practical vans.

Among its most famous proprietors is Lotus founder Colin Chapman, who used it as a basis for his first four competition cars. His first track car, the Mk3, was built for the 750 Formula series, which still runs as the Historic 750 Formula today. Our own Matt Prior recently had a go in two of its racers, calling them a “total joy”. 

Sevens are much cheaper than you might expect for an antique. Complete cars can be bought for around £5000 and rolling chassis with V5 documents are cheaper still. That leaves plenty of money in the kitty for a total overhaul.

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2. Lotus Elise

From the factory, the Elise was one of the best sports cars ever built, thanks to its flyweight construction and the range of willing engines that it featured over the years.

Even in its original form with a 118bhp Rover K-Series engine, it’s more than punchy enough for B-roads. Take an Elise on a faster circuit, though, and you might find yourself wanting for power.

The good news is that the K-Series was so ubiquitous in its day that there are plenty of specialists out there capable of ekeing out extra power. Lotus itself later upgraded the engine to 143bhp (in 111S models) and its Special Vehicles Operations arm offered a track-focused conversion with 187bhp. 

Common modifications include fitting a freer-flowing exhaust system and independent throttle bodies. The combination doesn’t do much for overall power levels, but it does improve responsiveness, and it makes a hell of a noise too.

The Rover engine’s potential to make big power reliably is somewhat limited, however, and it can quickly become expensive. So much so that many owners wanting for more than 200bhp will instead look at an engine swap. 

The most common option is Honda’s K-Series engine. It’s featured in everything from the Stepwagon Minivan to the Civic Type R and even the Ariel Atom, so there are plenty out there.

It’s receptive to tuning too, with supercharger kits available to take outputs well beyond 300bhp. Just beware that it’s an incredibly expensive conversion, often costing more than £10,000 at a specialist.

That much power in such a lightweight car can be a lot to handle, so it’s well worth investing in upgraded suspension and a set of sticky tyres at the same time. Adjustable coilover suspension kits range from £1000 to £6000, which makes one well worth considering even without the extra shove provided by an engine swap.

3. Tesla Model 3


There’s no doubting the prodigious acceleration offered by electric cars. Even humdrum saloons will comfortably see off the supercars of yesteryear off the line and multi-motor models can leave even hypercars in the dust. 

It’s a good laugh, but not one that continues through the bends. The high weight of many EVs compromises their agility in the twisties, and they aren’t helped by comfort-biased chassis set-ups.

Thankfully, a nascent industry has popped up to rectify this, offering coilover suspension upgrades, bigger brakes and much more besides.

Naturally, the availability of these parts is biased toward the more popular EVs on sale, with the Model 3 among the most prominent.

It’s a good platform for modification, with pre-facelift Performance cars packing 444bhp at a relatively (for an EV) lithe 1847kg. And thanks to the flood of ex-fleet cars onto the used market, they’re incredibly cheap too, starting from £15,000.

Add an extra £10,000 or so of chassis upgrades from a provider such as Tevo Solutions and you’re all but guaranteed to have one of the quickest cars at any track day in the land.

Having used a Tevo-converted Model 3 Performance to compete in a sprint at Abingdon airfield, our Steve Cropley said: “The cars were very fast, of course, but they were also surprisingly well balanced and stable. You don’t drift a Tevo Tesla unless you’ve made a grievous mistake.

“We soon found that the cars’ enhanced brake feel, their surprisingly powerful retardation, their very decent high-speed stability (even on those swoopy taxiways) and their sheer grip in fast corners rapidly took our cars close to the top of the field.”

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4. Alpine A110


The A110 is one of the most lauded sports cars in recent memory. But that isn’t to say that it can’t be made even better with a couple of well-chosen aftermarket parts. We like those offered by Life110, the brainchild of former JLR engineer David Pook, which add more precision and road feel to the steering, making it feel appreciably more responsive. The trade-off is a slither of ride comfort, but not so much that the A110 loses its trademark waft.

If it’s more power that you want, tuning firm Litchfield – perhaps best known for its Nissan GT-R upgrades – offers an ECU recalibration that boosts the car to an impressive 305bhp and 306lb ft. It’s also said to improve the automatic gearbox’s responsiveness.

There’s never been a better time to get into an A110. Early cars have depreciated below £35,000, some £20,000 cheaper than you’d currently pay for a new one.

5. BMW 3 Series Compact

The third-generation BMW 3 Series, better known as the E36, spawned a curious short-tailed version called the Compact. Up front however, it was all regular 3 Series, meaning there’s room for one of BMW’s signature straight sixes.

We’d suggest opting for one of the more powerful versions of the M52 powerplant, such as the 2.8 deployed in the contemporary 328i, 528i, 728i and Z3. It’s a simple swap in the E36 Compact, although it’s slightly more complex in the later E46 Compact.

Of course, you could also use the S50 engine from the M3, which was offered with up to 320bhp. Or you could go bonkers and cram a 4.7-litre V8 in there, just as tuning house Hartge did.

Given the massive increase in power offered by a swap, you will also be wanting to upgrade the car’s chassis to cope.

Thankfully, because the compacts’ front ends are identical to their larger 3 Series twins, there are plenty of parts to choose from. You can even opt to swap in the suspension set-up from the M3, should you wish.

If your Compact is an E36, it’s a bit trickier to finesse the rear end. That’s because it used the trailing-arm rear suspension set-up from the previous 3 Series saloon, the E30, which can make it feel slippery when pushed hard.

The E46 Compact shared its rear axle with the contemporary saloon, so it’s much easier to upgrade.

Regardless, a Compact is very easy to turn into a rapid hot rod. Best of all, it’s a project that will neither incinerate your wallet nor fry your brain in trying to work it out.

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6. Honda Jazz (2001-2007)

The Honda Civic has long earned its place on the Mount Rushmore of modded cars, but we think its smaller sibling, the Jazz, deserves a moment in the spotlight. 

You see, the Mk1 Jazz was a semi-popular race car in Japan’s lower tiers of motorsport. Renowned Honda tuner Spoon even took one endurance racing, stripping it down to around 800kg and upgrading its single-overhead-cam engine to 123bhp. That plus suspension modifications and semi-slick tyres made it as quick as a regular Honda NSX supercar on a twisty track.

It’s also (just about) possible to fit the Honda K-Series engine mentioned earlier, giving you Type R power in a much lighter and nimbler shell. You would need to spend some time fettling the suspension to make sure the Jazz could cope with that much power, but the end result can be shockingly quick. 

7. Vauxhall Monaro/VXR8

The Monaro is rapid as it was from the factory, but there’s plenty of head room for amping it up. Its General Motors LS small-block V8 has been used in many muscle cars over the past 27 years, such as the Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac CTS-V.  

That means there’s a very healthy aftermarket for it in the US, with plenty of options for making more power. 

It’s also a hardy engine, with strong enough internals to cope with around 400-500bhp. Upgrade it, add forced induction and swap to high-grade fuel and it can even top 1000bhp.

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8. Hillman Imp

Rear-engined, rear-wheel drive and featherweight construction make the Imp an intriguing proposition today, against a backdrop of endless superminis.

That formula meant it was hugely successful in motorsport, winning the British Saloon Car Championship in 1970, 1971 and 1972.

Fifty years on, there’s still a budding community around racing Imps, so there are plenty of options if you want to upgrade one.

The four-pot engines can make more than 100bhp if completely overhauled, which is more than adequate in a car that weighed roughly 700kg in road-going form.

As with any 60-year-old car, you will want some money to rectify rust, as well as any other dodgy repairs the bodyshell has received over the years.

That said, Imps are pretty cheap for a classic – starting around £3000 – so make for good projects.

9. Mini Cooper S (2002-2006)

BMW’s first Mini Cooper S used a supercharger rather than the turbo used on today’s car. That made it riotous to drive, with a delicious whining soundtrack when pushed hard.

It’s not too hard to eke out an extra 20bhp or so from that supercharger. Swapping its pulley for a smaller one ups the boost pressure, improving output. Combine that with a freer-flowing exhaust and a tune from a specialist and you’re well on your way to dicing with full-fat John Cooper Works Minis.

If you’re technologically inclined, there are also plenty of kits available to add infotainment touchscreen with Apple Carplay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.

If your car doesn’t have the factory-fitted Chrono pack, we would recommend buying one second-hand to relocate the speedometer behind the steering wheel; freeing the central gauge for replacement with a touchscreen.

Alternatively, you can mount a touchscreen above the heater controls, but that leaves it in a poor place for reading maps on the move.

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10. Volkswagen Caddy

The Caddy makes it onto this list not through handling poise or the potential for drag strip heroics, but for sheer novelty. 

Because this van has historically been based on the Polo or the Golf, it isn't too complicated to swap its oil-burner for something more exotic from cars based on the same platforms.

Favoured swaps in the Caddy community include the five-pot from the Audi RS3 and the turbo-four from the Volkswagen Golf R, which can easily hit the 300bhp mark. In a van.

Charlie Martin

Charlie Martin Autocar
Title: Editorial Assistant, Autocar

As a reporter, Charlie plays a key role in setting the news agenda for the automotive industry. He joined Autocar in July 2022 after a nine-month stint as an apprentice with sister publication, What Car?. He's previously contributed to The Intercooler, and placed second in Hagerty’s 2019 Young Writer competition with a feature on the MG Metro 6R4

He is the proud owner of a Fiat Panda 100HP, and hopes to one day add a lightweight sports car like an Alpine A110 or a Lotus Elise S1 to his collection.

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Big Jeff 8 April 2024

Er, MX-5????