A multitrillion-won industry drifts in the shadows
The writer is a broadcaster, journalist and educator in Seoul. He has worked with BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, CBS News, Sky News, Al Jazeera, LBC freelance television and radio from 2010.
A screech of tires greeted me as I arrived at one of Korea’s biggest events since the pandemic. Joined by an unexpectedly large turnout of around 20,000 people, I didn’t know what to expect from the inaugural TS Tuning Car Festival on Incheon’s Yeongjong Island last weekend. Car tuning, or customization, has a reputation for creating monsters out of otherwise safe vehicles. But this was an event hosted by the Korea Transportation Safety Authority (TS) under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.
“This festival is an effort to revitalize the industry within a safe range and to dispel the preconception that car tuning is illegal,” I was told by Kim Ho-kyung of the TS Vehicle Tuning Office Department. “We want to promote a healthy tuning culture.”
Given the monotonous parade of plain black, white, and silver cars in Korea, I was surprised to learn that Korea’s car modification market is expected to be worth more than 10 trillion won by 2030, having already reached 5.9 trillion won ($4.8 billion) in 2020. Far from being solely focused on speed and handling enhancements, it’s a sprawling industry that incorporates modifications for everything from disabilities to food services.
Two main car tuning applications were on show at the TS Tuning Car Festival: camping and performance. The former has been a growing area of interest during the pandemic, with the rise of staycation culture and personal space upgrades encouraging creative ways to attach tents to cars along with energy sources like solar panels. In other words, an SUV can be adapted to perform at least some of the functions of a traditional camper van.
As for performance, I witnessed this aspect for myself when I was offered the chance to have a ride in a modified Genesis Coupe. My demonstration driver displayed its drifting power, sliding us one way and then the other, leaving a cloud of rubber-scented smoke in our wake. This was a vehicle that was a hybrid between a road and racing car, one that would be about as suited for the Olympic Expressway as a tiger on a leash in Namsan Park.
Yet, there were thousands of other cars modified in more subtle ways. Drivers waited their turn to take their vehicles for a spin, just about literally, around a track of cones. In broad daylight, far from the nocturnal scream of illegal street racing that you occasionally hear about in the news, these drivers had been given the green light by the government to open up and express themselves at the wheel.
Despite the big forecast for Korea’s tuning industry, I couldn’t help wondering if the performance end of the market is in trouble. Gasoline-fueled engines at the festival seemed to be revving a final roar of resistance in a world that is embracing the electronic hum of EVs. Then I recalled that Hyundai has been meeting local demand for meaner machines by expanding its N range of performance vehicles, which effectively come tuned out of the box. Either many of the festival goers — and Korea’s biggest automaker — are ignoring the apparently impending demise of gasoline-powered vehicles or they see enough life in this market to carry on for now.
In any case, the sight of the odd Tesla being thrown around the festival’s makeshift track prompted me to realize that Korea’s burgeoning passion for tuning could survive fossil fuels. Officials even anticipate more people modifying their cars to make them electric. And if anyone doubts the performance potential for EVs, Formula E is set to make its Seoul debut this August and will be seeking to leave a legacy in Korea where its high-octane counterpart Formula 1 failed a decade ago.
But if Korea’s car tuning industry is going to survive the eco-friendly transition, it needs yet more government support, according to one its prominent members who was manning a booth at the festival. Cho Su-ho, a director of the Korea Auto Tuning Industry Association, told me there “are still many regulations” and he particularly hopes for more official backing for small companies seeking to thrive in this market.
The potential seems to be there both in the willingness of government officials to listen and the interest shown by the festival’s attendees. And consider this next time you are stuck in traffic: 6 percent of vehicles in Korea have been tuned, and they’re just the ones the government knows about. Which means there’s more to the queues of bland sedans and SUVs than meets the eye.