Britain is on the edge of meltdown with no hope of economic redemption.
You'll have your own view on the accuracy of that statement, and you will find no shortage of chat on the PH Forums to help you refine your thoughts. But if you want to fast-track to a sunnier outlook on Britain's design and manufacturing prospects, just trot along to Forge Motorsport on the outskirts of Gloucester.
Admittedly, one swallow doesn't make a summer, but if ingenuity, energy and enterprise float your boat, you'll enjoy a visit to Forge. This is a family-run engineering company that's been going since the mid-1980s. They were originally engineering sub-contractors to much bigger firms, until 1996 when they realised they could do their own thing by becoming Forge Motorsport.
Now, according to sales manager Alex Harry, Forge is 'a precision engineering company that manufactures parts for the aftermarket tuning of cars'. Actually, Alex is being slightly modest there because Forge doesn't just manufacture any old parts. They make a huge range (around 1600 at the last count) of high quality tuning parts, around 95% of them designed, developed and manufactured in-house, and made from British-sourced materials wherever possible.
In this work they have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, so much success. Forge's main HQ is a fizzing hive of industry, and there are now Forge outposts in Orlando and Taiwan, with additional presences in Korea, Japan, Mexico, and beyond.
As a title sponsor for the MINI Challenge race series, Forge makes homologated parts for F56 (3-door) 2-litre MINIs, but pure motorsports is only about 1 percent of Forge's business. Another ten percent or so is the supply of bits that manufacturers should have put on their cars in the first place but didn't: things like Audi B5 RS4 oil coolers. 'The original ones are a steel fitting going into an aluminium housing, so they rust,' says Alex. 'We do a replacement cooler for that. Original BMW boost hoses fail, not just once but time after time. Audi TT hoses become very soft too. So we offer uprated replacements for all these.'
But the vast bulk of Forge's activity centres around aftermarket performance for the man or woman in the street. People like you, dear reader.
Go to a big European event like Bodensee and you might come away with the impression that tuning is still about throwing pots of cash at Mk 1 Golfs, and that the only tuning you can do on modern cars is a remap. Obviously, that's part of the story, but Alex reckons that UK customers are now taking a much wider view on tuning than Euro enthusiasts. 'The level they are taking it to is phenomenal,' he says. 'Modern cars are actually very good and are getting harder to improve on both chassis and engine power, but that isn't putting people off. They're willing to spend a lot of money on upgrades
As you might guess, Volkswagen-Audi Group cars represent the biggest chunk of Forge's tuning business. The modern method of car manufacture, in which a single platform underpins a wide range of different cars aimed at fully satisfying every possible buyer, could have spelt death for many parts of the aftermarket - but savvy tuners like Forge have seen it as an opportunity. 'You can make a part for a 1.5 T-Roc engine that will fit maybe 20 different cars,' says Alex.
A T-Roc, did ye say? Oh yes. You'd be surprised by the type of cars that will be taken to places like Forge. Alex nods. 'Customers will drive cars straight from a showroom to a tuner to have parts fitted.' If they're lease cars, they'll be brought back in at the end of the term to have the gear removed. Intercoolers and high quality intakes, especially those made from carbon fibre, always hold their value.
But why don't folk who are in the market for a T-Roc just buy a more powerful version in the first place? 'Because anybody can do that,' says Alex. 'You see it all the time in this industry. One person has 800hp, somebody else will say I don't want 800, I want 850. Horsepower, quarter miles, track times. It's all about the figures, and talking about them in a pub, on a forum or on Facebook.'
It's not just talk either. 'More and more people are starting to use their performance. Quite a lot of our customers take their vehicles out on track days.' Power is still the main driver. Forge does do chassis parts, including some very sweet caliper kits that are more affordable than Brembos, but as Alex says, 'people will often make their car go faster before they service it'.
Forge does offer remapping, but they'll always check a car over first. It won't just be a diagnostic for ECU errors or a visual check for oil leaks and the like: it will also be a look at the service history and the mileage. Owners have to understand that there may be consequences involved in tuning, especially with older and or higher mileage cars which, post-tuning, they'll almost certainly be driving more quickly, putting them under extra pressure. Forge's safeguarding approach works well for both sides.
They do good business on parts for normally aspirated cars - like those RS4 oil coolers, and intake systems for the Mk 5 R32 sell well - but power gains are much harder to achieve than they are in modern turbocharged cars. 'Fiat Abarth 595s are a massive market for us, but it's the Hyundai i30N that has surprised not just us but a lot of people,' says Alex. 'When Hyundai did the Veloster, that was a fail, but the i30N, that's a nice, really well sorted car.'
We spoke to Paul Hughes, one of Forge's development engineers. Paul has had more performance classics than you or I have had hot dinners. He's a big Renault man, as the immaculate Clio V6 just behind us illustrates, but the little Hyundai forced him to reassess his views. 'Being absolutely honest, when I first worked on one of these i30Ns, I wanted to hate it. I thought all the usual stuff about white goods - you buy it, you throw it away, you buy another one. But it's genuinely a good car.
'I had a Megane RS250, and I'd still argue that's probably the best front-wheel drive car you can buy, but there are bits of the i30N I actually preferred. The Renault is hard core, and really tunable, but the Hyundai is civilised when you want it to be. It's very impressive.
'It's really nice working on the i30N too. They're just like working on an old Toyota. The Kia Stinger we had in a couple of weeks ago was the same. Everything's nut and bolt, everything's very methodical, it all comes apart and goes back together beautifully.
'By comparison we were recently asked to fit a charge cooler and a charge cooler rad to an M4 BMW. That was hard going as it presented quite a few new challenges, but we overcame them and delivered a great product.
'You only have to jump inside an i30 to tell where the money's saved. It's no Golf or Audi in terms of interior quality, but if you're not fussed about that and for you it's solely about driving then you can't go wrong.'
Glad you mentioned the Golf. Let's chat more about the VW market. 'From a tuning point of view the Mk5 Golf was quite big. The Mk6 didn't have such a following but the Mk7 Golf has been phenomenal. When that came out, that's when you saw a big increase in people modifying new cars. The Golf R is a brilliant car, it's a nice place to be and it's easy to get more power out of it. The Up GTI has been popular too. They've kind of taken it back to the old Golf GTI.
'Volkswagen Audi followers are very loyal to the brand. Same goes for Ford actually. People are also spending more on Audi TTs now than they're actually worth.'
We tracked down development head Luke Amon for a natter about the Forge process. Luke joined Forge almost by accident. Coming from the oil industry as a coded welder and later working on steam engines, Luke found himself living across the road from Forge's then development manager back in 2011. 'I kept seeing this bloke coming home in a Forge T-shirt. I was mad keen on cars, so I approached him and said that if he ever needed a fabricator or a welder for a couple of days a week, I'd be up for it.'
To cut a long story short, Luke quickly moved into full-time development work at Forge and took over as head of the department in early 2017. Now he liaises with customers on development vehicles, gives their cars the once-over described earlier, and with the rest of the team comes up with a plan on what parts to develop, based on feedback and enquiries from customers, the Forge Asia and USA offices, the dealers, and the front desk sales staff at Gloucester. Luke will then enlist the help of Forge's social media team on sourcing cars. 'I'll tell them that we need a new BMW M3 or M4, and ask them to put something out on social media with my details, you know, just putting the line out and see if anyone jumps on the end.'
Once they've got a car in for development, Forge will work with collaborating tuners and specialists like Milltek and Powerflex to make them aware of the fact, sharing the owner's contact details (with their permission of course). Depending on the timescale of a given project, owners agreeing to take part in the process may have the option of the Forge courtesy car. 'The first visit is normally two weeks, when we'll look over the vehicle, establish what can be made, how easy it is to make it, do some measurements. If we're doing an intercooler, we'd look at the available space, make a mockup, and select two or three alternative style air cores ready for testing.
'The customer will then get their car back after that first two weeks while we get on with various other aspects of the project, doing the initial prototype work. Then we'll get the vehicle back for another two weeks when we will try out our prototype items and start the testing process - dyno results, logging inlet air temperatures, making sure the product actually works.'
Is there a risk for the owner in letting their car be used for this sort of thing?
'As we have been doing this kind of development for over 20 years we have accrued a vast amount of knowledge and data, so we know what should work very quickly. Intercoolers and the like are actually pretty safe. Dump valves, they're a bit different. Sometimes the ECUs can't control them properly, so the process will be a bit more long-winded. We make sure we have the right diagnostic equipment to put the car right if it does go wrong.
'What we say to the customer is that any item we develop, they'll receive it free of charge, so potentially they could walk away with several thousands of pounds worth of product.' There's no charge for the fitting, and if the customer decides they don't fancy it after all, they're at liberty to sell the products afterwards.
What's the biggest-selling Forge part? 'Just about any turbocharged petrol car we'll make a dump valve for, or blow off valve as they're sometimes called, so it would be that. Expelling the air from the induction system is essential to make sure that your turbo compressor doesn't stall. It's important for the longevity and health of the turbo.
'Some modern cars don't have dump valves. They waste the boost through the exhaust valves via cam overlap. A typical example of that would be the BMW B58 turbo six, as used in the M140, or the new MINI Cooper S or JCW. However, there are still plenty of manufacturers using dump valves. Back in the day Renault 5 Turbos and Escort RS Turbos had no diverter or blowoff valves as standard. Forge was one of the first companies to make a product that the OEM manufacturers followed on and started using themselves.'
Forge can have a product to market within one month of seeing the vehicle, depending on its intricacy and complexity. Dump valves are relatively quick to develop and make. Other parts can take up to a year. There might have to be 3D printing stages before the machining process in order to check for fit, or there might be a need for research on accurate electronic control of certain parts.
The aspiration of Forge is to supply every part immediately off the shelf. 'It's a bit of an unknown when you first develop a product as you don't know how well an item is going to sell, and you don't know how much investment in stock terms to put into it,' says Luke. 'How many pieces of billet do you buy to manufacture a valve? We have been caught out in the past, either by making too many initially and not being able to sell them quickly enough, or by not making enough.
'The Hyundai i30N is a good example. It's a smashing well-built car with good performance gains to be had. We developed a quick shifter for that, and made about fifty of them, just to test the water. Within two days of launch they were all sold. After that you're just playing catch up.
'On the other side, we put in a lot of development time and stock on the Hyundai Veloster and did some really nice parts for it including an intercooler and a lovely intake because we thought the car looked cool and that it might take off, but it didn't. It was an absolute flop, which made us slightly nervous about the i30N, but we needn't have worried.'
Do modern cars respond well to tuning? 'Yes, they do, but it's much harder to develop parts for them,' says Luke. 'There's much less space under the bonnet, and the engines are much more advanced, but some are really tuneable. Take the Audi RS3/TT RS, the latest 2.5 litre five with the aluminium block. We did an intercooler for that on a Stage 1 car. Just by swapping that with the standard one, with a bit of software on it, we made 40hp. That was unheard of. People even now will say that our testing was fudged, the results were lies, but all our testing is carried out on a state of the art independent dyno. We tested and tested and tested. To be sure we brought the best product to market we could.'
Comprehensive fitting guides are supplied with all Forge parts, but sometimes people don't read the instructions. Installation errors often cause problems that will then be negatively aired online. It's a cross that parts supply companies like Forge have to bear.
Are there any easy wins to be had with modern turbocharged cars? 'Manufacturers' airboxes are actually very good now but we're getting good results with turbo adaptors. We take out the resonators between the airbox and the turbocharger. They're almost like plastic silencers. Getting rid of those and opening up the bore from the airbox to the turbo can yield some very good results. We tested the i30N on the Litchfield dyno after increasing the bore by 150% and saw a gain of 10hp. That's a very good result.
'We wouldn't have looked at that sort of thing a few years ago. Now, as our knowledge grows, we've learnt where the modern power gains are.' Are manufacturers building in tuning headroom for future models? 'I think they are,' agrees Luke. 'If you look at the VW Up GTI, which is around 120hp standard, the only difference between that and the standard 90hp Up is software. Bolt on a few more of our products and add some new software and you're looking at 145hp.'
Want sharper throttle response? Younger readers driving standard moderns won't have experienced much of that, but Luke confirms that very worthwhile results can be achieved in this area through judicious tweaks to the ECU and intake system and via the installation of a freer-flowing intercooler. Luke agrees with Alex that headline power figures are still what most customers want, but from a personal perspective he would always take torque over power.
Although Forge will fit parts for local customers and for those who specifically request it, more often than not they'll refer a customer who doesn't want to fit their own parts to one of the dealers in Forge's big UK network, for example AwesomeGTI in Manchester. Tuning parts have traditionally been brightly coloured for extra 'look what I've got' bragging rights, but Forge has been seeing a growing demand for black parts for a stealthier look, especially from European customers who presumably don't want to fall foul of random inspections.
Our Forge experience told us that the UK tuning industry is not only alive but in rude health, which in 2019 is great news, but what about the long-term future of tuning? In terms of IC cars, Luke is excited by the prospects of metal 3D printing. 'What they're doing now is remarkable. F1 and Le Mans teams are already printing cylinder heads and exhaust manifolds in metal. It's still a bit costly for the tuning industry, but we're close to getting some very good, workable parts.'
Will Forge be getting into electric cars? 'That's difficult, because it's quite specialist,' says Alex. 'Everything is security-sealed.' But if Forge did get into it, you get the feeling that it would involve something more considered than a rusty screwdriver and an old pair of rubber boots.
To wind up our visit we asked Forge's development head Luke Amon to tell us what he'd spend his own tuning money on, given three budgets: up to £250, £250-£500, and up to £1000. He went with the VW/Audi MQB platform because that's their biggest market share and it covers a lot of cars, eg Golf Mk7, Audi TT Mk3, Seat Leon Mk3, plus a whole bunch of other stuff.
And as a kind of after-eight mint for those of you with a post-2017 aluminium-block Audi RS3 '8V' or TT RS '8S', Luke has a tempting option...
Up to £250: high flow inlet hose (part no FMINLMK7, £189 inc VAT)
This bolt-on silicone hose on its own will give up to 10hp on VAG 2.0 engines.
£250-£500: add a replacement air filter (part no FMINDMK7, £79 inc VAT)
Comes with either a cotton or foam filter element.
£500-£1000: add an intercooler (part no FMMK7FKIC, £691 inc VAT)
Reduces turbo lag and improves power.
For aluminium-block RS3/TT RS owners:
Luke strongly recommends Forge's FMINT11 intercooler (£1050 inc VAT), then working backwards to add a big-bore airbox to turbo hard pipe (FNINLH8, £170 inc VAT), then a high-flow turbo 'elbow' (FNINLH9, £190 inc VAT). With the appropriate software that little lot will net you close to 500hp.