What Makes A Car Build?


Prior to Motorama 2019 a friend posed the question “What Makes a Build?”. When he asked this question it wasn’t to criticize or provoke, he simply wanted to start a discussion.

I read through the answers, and was inspired to respond, but by the time I saw the status everyone had moved on.

Despite being late to the conversation I couldn’t shake the conversation from my head while wandering the halls of Motorama 2019.

What makes a build. It’s a seemingly simple question, but is also a question rarely given the consideration it deserves. Nine times out of ten the immediate shotgun answer is “Well it’s more than just wheels and a drop!”.

Once that statement is made everyone feels satisfied they’ve put the aggressive fitment crowd in their place and moves on.

Even someone like myself, who’s written, at length about several cars where wheels and a drop are two of maybe six modifications in total, can admit that at first blush that answer makes a lot of sense.

A simple bolt on ride height adjustment, and the right set of wheels can absolutely be all that’s needed to make a cool car –stance is everything after all– but coils and wheels don’t make a built car, by anyone’s definition.

And, that’s totally fine, not every car needs to be a overbuilt to be enjoyed. The enjoyment to build level ratio is a very interesting topic, but one worth discussion in a post of its own.

So to the point, in most cases wheels and a drop do not a build make, but those two items are an extremely fuzzy metric on which to measure a build.

I’ve seen hours, upon hours, of fabrication sunk into a car that, from the outside looking in, seems to only have the controversial “wheels and a drop”.

Depending on the platform wheels and a drop can snowball something fierce. Suspension pick up points need to be moved, and working angles corrected long before the four holes at each corner of the car, transmission tunnel, and firewall get addressed.

Calling a project like that anything less than a build wouldn’t be just because custom fabrication is the most common bar used to categorize build from non.

Once more, at a high level, using fabrication as the defining factor for a build makes the utmost sense. If you whip up something unique for your project then certainly your “build badge” is safe.

Those who create functional custom components will always be deserving of respect. Especially when those custom components are exceptionally well-built.

But does that mean that those who don’t build their own parts can’t be considered builders?

In garage’s around the globe there are weekend warriors who’ve spent five, ten, fifteen years restoring their high school sweethearts back to prom night condition.

All of the parts for said restoration may have come from a catalog, but the effort put in has to be worth of some level or appreciation, no?

It’s 2019, and there’s arguably more aftermarket parts available than ever before.

The number of engine mounts, angle kits, swap kits, and chassis options available at the end of a few key strokes means it’s possible to assemble an absolutely mind-blowing car without owning much more than a basic set of hand tools.

If some puts together a competitive race car, using off the shelf parts is that not a build?

Those of you reading this who feel the need to answer no, I challenge you to go tell someone who has done exactly that their car can’t be considered a build.

That would be a direct insult to the amount of time they’ve put in both behind the wheel, and behind a desk analyzing data, making their car into the perfect performing machine for their needs.

While you’re at it, go tell someone who’s hired out a significant portion of their car that it isn’t a build. I touched on the built not bought debate previous, and my opinion remains the same:

Get there however you feel is the safest way to get there.

But this article isn’t completely one-sided. I understand why people feel the need to try to protect the definition of a build. Often it’s in reaction to a car they don’t like receiving some sort of accolades.

Be it exposure, or an award, typically the prime motivators for stripping the label of “build” from another individual is some level of jealousy or frustration.

Saying “yeah well that isn’t even a build” or “he just paid a shop to build that car” is a quick way to feel better about hidden insecurities.

Sure it’s nice to be rewarded by others for your hard work, but if that’s your end goal then I’ve got another article you should read as your priorities are quite off base.

If your concern is the number of “non builds” getting exposure then I’d suggest changing where you’re getting your automotive media.

With so many corporate and self published media sources in existence today there’s simply no reason to pigeon-hole your self to one and put up a stink when they post content you don’t enjoy.

So then to wrap, what is a build? Well I can say, I’m about 800 words deep at this point and I don’t exactly have a definitive answer.

But if I were to try, I would define a build by any of the following metrics.

Did it bust your knuckles and leave you wondering why you started? If yes, then it’s probably a build.

Did a smile linger on your face a week after first start-up? If yes, then likely you’ve got something built.

Does researching it occupy your every spare thought and claim every last bit of pocket change? Then yeah, you’ve probably got a build in your garage no matter what someone else says.

And finally in a field of cars, does yours have something that makes it stand out as wholly and uniquely yours? If so, then not only have you got a build.

You’ve got something worth keeping regardless of label.


  1. I get the sentiment, but I can’t say I entirely agree.

    To someone who’s just picked up a set of wrenches for the first time, whether still in high-school or later in life, installing a set of coil overs and new wheels while still having a functional car is a monumental achievement. Definitely a build in their eyes. Defining “build” is a bit like deciding when a car is “finished” or if the overall style is “correct.” It’s all in the eyes of the owner.

    Maybe we should not look down on the simpler efforts as “not a build” to help encourage people to try something more involved. I’d offer you up as an example of this progression Dave; the fairly simple Mazda on coils, then the more complex Mazda on air, then the wholesale jump into a full hot rod truck project.

    But after all that, I’m going to quote you on what I think really defines a build… “Did it bust your knuckles and leave you wondering why you started? If yes, then it’s probably a build.” Amen, brother.

    • You know that’s fair, I didn’t think of my progression. Thinking back to my first suspension swap it was certainly a challenge and I was happy at the end.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing the knowledge on what makes a car build effective. It was really helpful and enlightening to read that article. Keep up the good work. Thank You.

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