The Max Power Generation or…Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads?

Cars Culture

ex Max Power staffer Gary Inman on the rise and fall of a vibrant UK Car Cult...

To those not embedded within the Max Power culture, its passing would hardly raise a ‘meh’, but this was a multi-million pound business with a dozen or more magazines feeding it, the largest of which was selling a quarter of a million copies per month.

Hundreds of companies serviced the desires of rabid consumers. The culture was lampooned on mainstream TV by Sacha Baron Cohen’s career-launching Streatham Lad. And now it isn’t, and it’s not easy to pinpoint why it has vanished into a puff exhaust smoke.

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For a couple of years, as features editor of Max Power, I was in the middle of it. This was a time when a £3500 donor hatchback could easily have £20,000 spent on it. Corsas, Novas, AXs, Saxos, Renault 5 Turbos, Golfs, 205s, 306s, Polos, Escorts, Fiestas. The mundane obsessively, sometimes unsuccessfully, turned into speedbump-avoiding expressions of their young owner’s peacockery.

This was also a time before the world went retro and became a homogenised melted vanilla mush lit by the unblinking glow of an iPhone. The Max lads were a national tribe, instantly recognisable, not by their JD Sports attire, but by what they chose to acquire mountains of debt to drive. And they supplied their own soundtrack: the thudding bass of Ministry of Sound collections, the wastegate whistle and dump valve shoosh, the backfire pop of a 1.6-litre French hatch being foie gras force-fed more fuel than an F-14 Tomcat guzzles.

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The defining ingredients of this oft-maligned car sub(woofer)-culture are exactly the same as 1950s Californian hot rodding, but played out in post-Thatcher urban Britain and viewed down the nose of most non-participants.

In post-war California optimism, rabid expansion and a consumer-led manufacturing boom, coupled with the trickle down of a massive boom in car sales fuelled the original car culture. In the mid-late 1990s Britain, credit was readily available, car insurance not astronomical, new car-based technology affordable. As a nation we were giddily enjoying the highs of an all-too-brief boom time.

There were other similarities. Both cultures, though split by more than 40 years and 8000 miles, was street level, not driven by corporations (though they’d latch on). It was working and middle-class men doing what they chose to solely to impress peers. If the cars helped drivers draw potential partners (and if I weren’t so damn brow-beaten into being politically correct I’d just say women, because Max culture was ravenously heterosexual) to empty trading estate car parks for nothing more than the promise of a McFlurry and countless leering up and down looks, then all the better. But that wasn’t the main reason. Individuality – the kind of mass individuality that regular lads want – was what it was all about.

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While the hot rodders used any and all available technology to make their cars faster, the Max crowd embraced technology too, rather than waiting to be fed it by car manufacturers. The main magazines, Fast Car and Max Power, employed ICE editors, In-Car Entertainment specialists, to keep abreast of the endless releases of new tech. £5000 ‘installs’ were so common place they wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. An Astra could end up with more TV screens than a bookies, routinely showing the modifiers favourite film, The Matrix. Fit a PlayStation, like so many did, and there was one less reason to go back to your parent’s house.

Max Power continued to grow long after I left. The cruise culture, where a region’s modified car owners would occupy a car park and hang out, do a few burn-outs, and double the local McDonald’s monthly takings in a night, grew and grew. So, what happened? Young men didn’t go off cars, that’s for damn sure.

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An obvious answer would be fashion. This overtly ostentatious representation – loud paint, loud exhaust, loud bass, was inextricably linked with the kind of lads people were now calling chavs. This is not the place to launch into a treatise on the demonisation of the working classes, but no one wants to proudly debut their car down their local High Street only to hear calls of, Oi, Ali G, nice car!, followed by a soul-destroying forced laugh. When even Max Power painted a Vauxhall saloon in Burberry’s house check and renamed it the Chavalier, it seemed that the bible was even mocking the faithful. Perhaps no one thinks of themselves of a chav, but these lads weren’t stupid.

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Others, who were there in the modified car heyday, mention the current youth’s obsession with gaining a body like Cristiano Ronaldo’s as a new outlet for their hormonal overload. And no one is going to compare you to Ali G with one of those.

There are still stalwarts modifying cars, but it’s far more fragmented, tiny in comparison, an older scene and not more restrained, but certainly more tasteful. And whatever the reasons, I’m not losing sleep over the extinction of the Max Power lad, but I’m sad that no motor culture seems to have filled the void.

British roads are so much less interesting without a fossil-burning cult pushing the boundaries of taste and legality.

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