We were invited to take a rare look into Korean tuning car culture
Every motoring enthusiast knows at least a little about Japanese tuning car culture, but despite Korea's success in building cars for the world very little is spoken about what enthusiasts are up to on the peninsula.
To find out, I planted a seed with a few contacts I had made. If possible, I wanted to tell the story that so far seems to have eluded most English sources. I wanted to talk to real Korean car enthusiasts. I wasn't sure if anything would come of it.
Then, something unexpected happened. We were invited into a local tuning garage called Torcon.
Located south-east of Seoul, the Torcon garage sits in a quiet industrial estate and backs onto farmland in a stunning valley. The owner, Tony Kang, tells me this spot was chosen so that he didn't receive noise complaints from his neighbours.
Located in a stunning valley somewhere south-east of Seoul, the Torcon garage is a humble spot for a renowned tuning institution.
When I started talking to Tony, I didn't realise who he was, but our interpreter told me later that he is famous in Korean tuning circles, and at motoring events anywhere dropping his name will trigger approving nods.
I asked Tony where his journey started, and he told me he started tuning cars 20 years ago. Back then he worked on his first car, a Hyundai S Coupe.
From those roots he built up his garage, and it is now one of the more renowned stops for cars tuned for the street or track. Torcon specialises in KDM cars, plus custom ECU work for other vehicles.
Tony provided me with a wealth of information about the life of a car enthusiast in Korea. He laments that not much is talked about overseas due to the language and network barriers.
The Torcon garage produces kits for cars popular with tuners in Korea like this Avante (Elantra) SR.
Much Korean culture is hard to research in the west, due to the limited reach of western search engines in the country. Instead of Google, the locals turn to a giant local search platform called Naver. Using it is hard unless you are fluent in Korean.
We started out by asking him what kind of cars were most often tuned at the Torcon garage. He says for a long time, the Hyundai Avante (that we know as the Elantra) has been the go-to choice for many Korean enthusiasts.
That's down to its affordability, availability of parts and ease of modification, not unlike the Civic in earlier days of Japanese tuning culture.
Torcon sells an intake kit for the previous Avante for the equivalent of around AU$400.
He says this is changing recently with the release of the Veloster N. Those enthusiasts who can afford one and started out tuning Elantras are now trading up to the N. He adds it's so popular there will soon be a one-make Veloster N cup race series.
Enthusiasts are now swapping their turbocharged Elantras out for the new Veloster N, which already has an enthusiast following.
As we chatted we walked around the facility. I point out a Genesis Coupe and told Tony it was never sold in Australia. He says this car has its own single make race category, and is also popular for street tuners and drift events.
The V6 engine, however, is a popular swap candidate. Tony's seen it in everything from a Toyota 86 to a BMW 3 Series.
He says the entry rung for motorsport tends to be a race series that allows only Chevrolet Sparks (Holden Spark) and the Kia Picanto. Many of the competitors come through his shop.
The Chevy Spark/Kia Picanto racing series is the first rung for motorsport in South Korea. Many of the cars come through Tony's garage.
Tony excitedly wanted to show us off the work of his garage, and so he took us for a drive in a Kia Forte that had been extensively modified to produce 300kW. The thing was slammed to the ground and had aftermarket bodywork jutting out the front as well as an unnecessary number of extra gauges sticking out of the dash.
I ask if the coupe Forte was popular for this, and he said it is for the youngest enthusiasts. You might not see them every day, but they're around. Like the Elantra, it's cheap and easy to work on. Older, cashed up enthusiasts tend to prefer BMWs or Mercedes-AMG.
After he took us for a 'brisk' drive I was prompted to ask some other questions about general life for drivers in Korea. I asked him whether speeding was heavily regulated like Australia, and how tuned cars were treated by police.
He says nobody really cares if you speed on the road. Cameras are well noted, so drivers who exceed the speed limit simply slow down for them. I'm told in many areas police seldom patrol the freeway.
In terms of modified cars, like the loud-in-many-ways Kia we were screaming down the freeway in, he told us the police don't really pay special attention to them.
This Kia Forte was extensively modified to produce 300kW. Tony says despite its looks and sound, Police seldom bother individual enthusiasts.
Police in Korea require a warrant to search your car, including opening the bonnet or boot, and fines for offences like speeding are only around AU$100. He was shocked when I relayed the cost and consequence of speeding fines in Australia.
I asked him if, like Japan, there was a culture of illegal racing at night when the roads are quiet. He said there was a scene a few years ago, with some routes that became well known around Seoul. Notable spots were the forested hills near the centre of the city, and a run to the airport and back.
These events were cracked down on by police because they became popular enough that catering trucks started showing up, and locals started reporting them.
Elantras, much like the Honda Civic in Japan are cheap and easy to modify, so they are popular among street tuners in Korea.
Tony became curious about car culture in Australia as well, so I showed him some of our most pristine local works, like the AU Falcon, VL SS 'Walky' and HSV GTS Maloo ute. He was very amused. "These cars would not be popular in Korea" he mused.
I couldn't help but ask why. Trying to hold back laughter, he said, "They are very ugly."
Things changed slightly when I showed him a YouTube video of an XR6 turbo pushing 746kW. "This car looks much better" he laughed, before admitting he was jealous of the states of tune these cars were in. "In Korea we mostly have smaller engines, nothing as powerful as this".
Either way it was an amazing exchange, and at the end of our day, we thanked Tony profusely for showing us a snippet of a fledgling domestic tuning culture.
Should cops give out smaller fines? Are AU Falcons ugly as? Do you think KDM will ever be popular around the world? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.