May 27, 2023

It’s Okay to Finish Your Project Car

Some enthusiasts can’t help but keep a build going indefinitely. Sometimes, it makes sense to call it quits.

Modifying our cars to better suit taste or performance goals is a part of being an automotive enthusiast. Whether it's an NA Miata or a new Lamborghini, folks can’t help but tweak things. While you can push a build as far as your wallet allows, It’s time more of us learn when to call a project finished. And while my brother may disagree with me, Elliott’s current project is a shining example of when to call time on a build.

When my younger brother Elliott got his first car, my parents came to me for some advice. They wanted to indulge Elliott’s interest in cars, though they weren’t interested in another bout of early morning tows that came with my teenage Porsche 944 experience. Like the midwestern boy that he is, Elliott’s search for his first car began with OBS Chevy trucks and 7.3-liter Super Dutys. These suggestions were quickly vetoed by my mother, who felt he should instead consider something from the same century he was born.

After some serious deliberation, the car I ultimately suggested was an R53 Mini Cooper S. I had some personal experience with them, and I knew what a blast they were to drive. The Mini is also quite a bit safer than something like my 944, which even this car-loving big brother couldn’t ignore. And while Elliott wasn’t a traditional fan of hot hatches, I knew the supercharged 1.6-liter engine would provide a unique experience to tempt him. If he could find a nice one, I felt confident in my matchmaker abilities.

After a few weeks of scouring the internet, Elliott would eventually find a very clean R53 not far from home. The car is a 2004 model, and like many Minis seem to be, it was previously owned by an elderly woman who didn’t drive it much. The red hatch had only done 55,000 miles since new, and remains the cleanest example I’ve encountered in Michigan. With no negotiation, my brother happily forked over the $5,500 the seller was asking.

As soon as the acquisition took place, our conflict would begin.

Let me be clear: this is not a story of brotherly contempt. It’s been a tremendously heartwarming experience to watch my brother’s passion for these machines grow over the past few years. That said, Elliott’s Mini ownership highlighted some major differences in our thought processes as enthusiasts. Like many owners, Elliott dove head first into the aftermarket world. His R53 now features some bolt-ons like a Cravenspeed 15 percent supercharger reduction pulley, as well as an intercooler diverter and cold-air intake from DDMWorks, both nicely dialed in by the team at Detroit Tuned. The suspension was refreshed with some upgraded components, including Koni Special Active shocks, H&R sport springs, and beefier Hotchkis control arms. That’s topped off with Firehawk Indy 500 rubber wrapped around upsized 17x7.5 Enkei NTO3+M wheels.

The parts package has certainly resulted in a more aggressive R53. The tweaked engine might not make a tremendous amount more power, but the character is far more aggressive. The primal scream from the livelier supercharger is worth the price of admission alone. While Michigan’s pockmarked roads scared Elliott away from coil-overs, the Koni setup is a major step up in overall damping and control. Elliott will be the first to admit the larger wheels might have been a step in the wrong direction, but they do look rad. Every time I’ve driven the car in its current setup, I’ve walked away with a stupid grin. I’m thoroughly impressed with how fun the Mini has become. I always look forward to a cruise in the R53.

However, Elliott has never been entirely satisfied with the experience. In fact, an ATI Super Damper, a Borla exhaust and an upgraded AirTech intercooler are all on order. From there, Elliott is considering a JCW brake upgrade, as well as a new differential for the front end. And a fuel system upgrade. And maybe a ported blower. You know, just to be safe.

There is no doubt that these parts will improve the R53’s performance. That said, I struggle to understand his desire to continue going that route with his commuter vehicle. The Mini won’t be headed to the track; Elliott has my NB Miata available for those duties. The Mini already has more power and grip than he knows what to do with, though he is looking to invest in some driver training in the future. When pressed about why he wants to continue throwing cash at upgraded parts, his response is always reminiscent of “everybody’s doing it”.

Having owned a Porsche 944 for nearly a decade, I’ve come to cherish the value of availability. There is nothing worse than wanting to go for a drive only to have your car out of commission for one reason or another. I tend to believe that is the entire reason I ended up with a Mustang and a Miata. The Mini has admittedly been reliable thus far, but that can become a question mark whenever you start seriously modifying a vehicle. As Elliott continues to funnel cash into upgrading components, the new parts are starting to need more supporting mods. Without an end goal already in mind, I’m convinced this build is rapidly approaching the brink of disaster.

What I mean by that is simple: Elliott is about to start adversely impacting his ownership experience by chasing mods simply for the sake of it. I am in total support of building project cars of all varieties, especially if that process brings the owner some joy. That said, I don’t think every vehicle an enthusiast owns needs to become the basis for an all-out, never ending, build. Elliott’s original goals for the Mini aimed to enhance its character, which he accomplished. That doesn’t mean he needs to push until he's changed over every factory component. Builds simply don’t need to feature that sort of moving goalpost. If the car won’t provide the experience he wants on the street without a few thousand more dollars in parts, I’d argue it's simply time for him to move on from the platform.

“I certainly could have sold the Mini and bought something more capable, but the investment I have in parts has already gone past the value of the car,” Elliott told me. “Besides, where the hell is the fun in that?”

At least I’m more certain than ever that he’s my baby brother.

Born and raised in Metro Detroit, associate editor Lucas Bell has spent his entire life surrounded by the automotive industry. He may daily drive an aging Mustang, but his Porsche 944 and NB Miata both take up most of his free time.

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