How will the world of car modifying adapt to electrification? Pretty well if Unplugged Performance is anything to go by. It’s run by Ben Schaffer, who’s also in charge Bulletproof Automotive, a company with thousand horsepower GT-Rs and Max Power cover cars in its history.
A history which covers almost every surface in the shared HQ between Unplugged and Bulletproof. Bookshelves are lined with tuning guides to every Japanese performance car you can name, while Schaffer’s office includes sketches of NSX racing cars, WRC Impreza mobile phone charms and a water bottle from the set of the original The Fast and the Furious, on which he was an extra.
Tuning Teslas came about by happy accident, when Schaffer moved Bulletproof’s HQ to the same industry park as Elon Musk’s Californian HQ in Hawthorne, Los Angeles. He got chatting with his new neighbours and before he knew it, Unplugged was born.
“The car has always been and continues to be a blank canvas for people to customise and I don’t think that that ever ends,” says Schaffer. “I don’t think that there’s anything unique about EVs that ends that journey.
“Things that don’t translate are quite obvious. We can’t make a bolt-on exhaust system and a turbo kit, or increase the displacement of the motor. Certain old technologies cannot co-exist in the EV world. But via suspension, brakes, weight reduction and custom interiors and exteriors, you can modify a car and make it into something that is more special, more exotic, more personal, and arguably, that can perform better for the use of it you have for.”
Beneath the JDM shrine in Schaffer’s office lie two very special mementos. One is a small mould of a Tesla Model S, signed by Elon Musk. The other, an intricate scale model of a Pagani Huayra, its plinth bearing Horacio Pagani’s autograph. He cites them as Unplugged Performance’s two biggest influences.
“Despite thinking very big, which Musk does, I love the idea of thinking very small and precise, which Pagani does, where every bolt matters, where every detail matters, where the specialness of object as art comes down to the smallest details,” says Schaffer.
“These two viewpoints on manufacturing are not necessarily compatible because for Elon to change the world, he can’t be concerned about beautification of every nut and bolt on the car, they have to serve a function and be made quickly. But the smallest details make something great, not the biggest ones.
“So we like doing those things that Tesla shouldn’t be doing because it slows down their speed of delivering Model 3s. We fill that category of adding that kind of custom bespoke feeling that doesn’t mesh with large scale manufacturing.”
He summarises his thinking by saying in an ideal world, every car Tesla makes is identical, and every car Unplugged tunes is unique. His offerings range from adding some sharper suspension and lighter wheels to a Model 3 to fully bespoke, one-off creations that top $250,000 thanks to exotic materials and colour-matched paint schemes.
“At this stage in our business, we’re quite flexible with custom cars. We have some custom cars that are a quarter of a million dollars, but there’s no threshold to that. It’s really up to what our customers want. So as a result, the complexity of the build is really driven by the taste and the budget of each person. When you order a Tesla, you go on a website and you choose options, and at a certain point you order what’s considered a fully loaded car that has every option; our business starts where that process ends.”
The day we visit, we drive a couple of Model 3s that have between $2,000 and $20,000 of upgrades, but also take a peek in Schaffer’s workshop where a bespoke, matt purple car is being made for a member of a middle eastern royal family, almost all of its interior and exterior flourishes being painstakingly replaced with fresh, carbon facsimiles. A pair of Schaffer’s classic Nissan Skylines sit ominously in the background, his tuning past seemingly overlooking its future.
Despite thinking very big, which Musk does, I love the idea of thinking very small and precise, which Pagani does, where every detail matters.
What Unplugged won’t currently tune is a Tesla’s powertrain. Partially because of the disapproving messages the car in question would likely send back to Musk’s mothership, but also because – when a company already makes 0-97kph in the mid twos its big PR point – extra speed is pretty low on the priority list.
“Performance tuning to me means what makes a car faster around the race track, not what makes a car faster in a quarter mile,” says Schaffer. “Our belief is that performance tuning is not defined by horsepower and I think that’s proven in every form of motorsport, that you can make a car go faster by manipulating other variables besides power.
“I don’t think Tesla would be too happy about us doing it, but people do. The challenge is you’re playing with a company that really controls your car. So it’s good to keep that company happy. It’s a very simple question to answer: are we adding value to Tesla’s mission? Present time, we think it wouldn’t. It’s not a matter of fear, it’s just a matter of our purpose is to add value to their mission; it would introduce risk that’s not necessary and we don’t think that the benefits make sense.”
He hasn’t ruled out doing something really special that’s track-only, though. “The ‘adding value to the Tesla mission’ changes when the environment changes to the point where you’re not looking at a car as someone’s daily driver. You’re looking at a car as a racing machine that’s on a track. And if we redefine it as that, and if we create or find a market where people want that, then that can be quite fun.”
His ideas are big, then. Schaffer may have started tuning Teslas by circumstance, but Unplugged is now 90 per cent of his business. It bodes well for the car modding scene having a future when everything’s plug-in, we suggest.
“This is one of the key things that inspired me to kind of get involved with Tesla. A) the car’s great, and B) there’s a question that has to be answered of ‘what does the future of tuning look like?’
“Right now it feels like Tesla is inspiring young people, so why not make Tesla even more exciting? We’re trying to make it the next chapter of tuning and we’ve got a little bit of traction, so we’re gonna keep going. I reject the idea that this is the end. There has to be a next chapter.”