The go-to guy for custom cars and motorsports racing
In the outskirts of Saigon, down Nguyen Xien in District 9, a stone’s throw from the province of Dong Nai, is a large nondescript building that contains SVK Customs operated by Kristian Somogyi. Kristian began his career as an aerospace engineer working on fighter jets in Sweden, but he always loved motorsports and eventually gravitated toward pursuing a career involving cars over planes. That passion for cars, specifically in motorsports, led him to settle here in Vietnam. As Kristian explains, “Basically, I want to develop motorsports here, that’s my final goal, so everything I do up to that is to get me to my goal.”
When asked what type of motorsports specifically, Kristian mentioned track and circuit racing, as currently there are no motorsports in Vietnam. So then, why choose Vietnam? “Because my childhood friend was born here. Growing up in Sweden, I grew up neighbors with a Chinese-Vietnamese family and they inspired me to come asked if he had raced there he continues, “I’ve done track days, but there’s no racing as of yet. Subaru hired me to do a safety-driving event with their customers and the press on one of the smaller tracks, which was quite good. I probably did 300 laps that day just taking everyone around, doing things like obstacle avoidance maneuvers and stuff like that.”
What about the Vietnamese public in general? If there aren’t races here, will they be receptive to it? Kristian thinks so. “Sure. The car culture is growing here. As the middle class gets richer they’re starting to look to upgrade their vehicles, so I think in a couple of years they’ll be ready for a racing series. It’s really just starting to emerge.”
But what type of racing does he envision being done here? Would it be like the Formula 1 racing that is popular in Europe, or more like the NASCAR racing that is known in the US? The answer is neither, at least not yet. To start a racing scene in Vietnam the option will need to be much more cost efficient than those types of cars for an initial investment, and Kristian has a plan for that as well. “What I want to do here for a racing series is to make a cheap hybrid car; something that looks really nice, but uses a small motorcycle engine and a couple of electric motors. We will build it here to establish it for a racing series. It will be low cost.”
Until he is able to establish motorsports in Vietnam, Kristian is content rebuilding and customizing cars from his shop in District 9. How did he wind up at this location? Kristian expounded on how this happened, saying, “I met the guy who owns the factory next door and this building and we started talking. Then we came up with the idea that we were going to build the hybrid car for racing and he gave me this space to have my workshop here. I used to live in Danang before, for three or four years, then I decided to move down here because the car culture is growing a lot more here in Saigon, and to startup with racing, here is a lot more feasible.”
He works alongside one of his close friends and a Vietnamese trainee as they remodel and customize cars, often older, classic models. However, there aren’t many classic cars on the roads, so where do they come from? Turns out, they have been here for quite some time. “With old cars, like the 1972 Ford Mustang I have here in the shop, it’s been here since the war. The Americans brought it and then they left it. There are also many old French cars from the colonial days. So, if the cars are from the 1950s, they’re French. If they’re from the 1960s or 1970s, they’re American, from the war. And then a lot of Japanese cars came in after the war as well,” says Kristian.
The 1972 Ford Mustang that he mentioned, which is stripped down to the frame and suspended in the air on a car lift, serves as an example of how one of these classic cars that have been in the country for decades winds up in his shop. Kristian explains: “The owner of this car is a Singaporean guy who’s had it for 25 years. When he bought it he fixed it up, but the way the Vietnamese fix things, they just kind of cover it over so it looks nice, but they use really soft sheet metal that you can bend in your hands, so actually it’s a death trap. It’s really dangerous because the welds are really bad and some parts aren’t even welded together so, for example, the whole floor wasn’t welded to the frame and this is a unibody car so the floor connects to the front and rear sub- frames, so when we lifted the car the car bent like three centimeters. Had they part. All of the body repairs here, none of it goes up to the proper manufacturer’s standards. All of the modern cars are repaired in the same way.”
It’s scary to think that these piecemeal repairs could lead to tragic results in the event of an accident, and this is a key component of what sets SVK Customs apart. They don’t just make the cars look nice; they make sure the cars are safe. “Here at SVK, we use stronger sheet metal and tig weld everything so it will be better welded than from the factory. I don’t let anything out of my shop unless I feel it’s better than it was from the factory,” he adds.
Sometimes finding comforts from back home isn’t easy in Vietnam, so is it the same for automotive parts, especially for rebuilding or customizing vintage cars? “It’s a lot of work, but we strip the cars down to the base layer of metal to be sure there is no rust and then we build it up from there. With the parts we’re going to keep we treat them with phosphoric acid to remove rust and corrosives. Some parts I may have to have imported, but most I make next door at the factory, where we have twenty CNC machines (computer numerical control machines used in fabrication). We manufacture any parts we can’t buy or can make ourselves.”
Kristian does not disclose the price of restoring or customizing a car because every car is different. In fact, he can’t even give a time estimate for how long it takes on average, because there isn’t one. It all depends on the make and model, and how much work it needs to be restored. However, he admits, it’s not cheap and it’s not quick, but the work he does is top quality, higher than the manufacturer’s standards, making sure the cars are as safe as possible. And for people with the time and money to invest in this, that seems to be just fine.
Images by Vy Lam