Drifting is one of the most exciting, rewarding and challenging things you can do behind the wheel of a car. It also happens to be one of the more affordable motorsports to get into, although it’s no longer as cheap as it once was. The most popular drift cars have shot up in price in recent years, making it more important than ever to choose the right one and modify it correctly.
If you don’t, you run the risk of struggling out on track in a car that’s unwieldy and difficult to handle (having thrown plenty of your hard-earned cash away in the process).
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about choosing and modifying your first drift car, covering all of the most popular modifications to help you make the most of every second of seat time. Let’s get started!
Finding The Right Car
First thing’s first, you’ve got to pick a good base car. Experienced fabricators and mechanics can transform virtually any vehicle into a competent drift car with enough resource, but beginners should stick to cars that need as few modifications as possible.
Your choice of car will ultimately depend on how much you’ve got to spend, but even with just £2,000 saved up, you should have options. Above all, your chosen car should be front-engined and rear-wheel drive, have a manual gearbox, be as lightweight as possible and easy to work on. Before you head over to your local used car dealer for a browse, here are some popular – and relatively affordable – options to keep an eye out for:
- BMW E36 and E46 3-Series models
- BMW E34 and E39 5 Series models
- Mazda MX-5 (NA and NB)
- Lexus IS200 (GXE10)
- Nissan 350Z
If you have a little more money to spend, you may be able to get your hands on one of the following models:
- Nissan 200SX, 180SX and Silvia (S13, S14 and S15)
- Nissan Skyline GT-ST or GT-T (R32, R33 and R34)
- Toyota Chaser, Mark II or Cresta (JZX90, JZX100 and JZX110)
- Mazda RX-7 (FC or FD)
- Toyota Corolla/Sprinter Levin or Trueno (AE86)
These iconic chassis helped put drifting on the map in the 1990s, and are now hard to find in good condition. This makes them more expensive to buy and maintain, so we’d recommend avoiding them if you’re just starting out.
Preparing The Interior
This might come as a surprise, but the interior is one of the best places to start when creating a drift-ready car. The g-forces at play in drifting will be too much for most standard seats to cope with, so we’d highly recommend investing in a good-quality bucket seat (complete with an aftermarket sliding seat rail).
Most standard steering wheels are a little large and bulky for on-track action, too, so it’s a good idea to pick up an aftermarket steering wheel and hub kit. 340-350mm steering wheels work well on most cars, and make sideways manoeuvres that much easier to pull off.
While you’re inside, you might want to do a little weight reduction too. If you don’t plan on using the car on the road, removing the rear seats, carpets, door trims and sound deadening can save a decent amount of weight – and every little helps as your driving progresses. We certainly wouldn’t recommend doing this to your daily driver, though… unless you enjoy having a headache!
Modifying The Suspension And Steering Angle
Here’s where it gets exciting. No matter which car you’ve picked, you should set some money aside for decent height-adjustable coilovers. They’ll stiffen the car up noticeably, making it much more predictable – an essential characteristic when you’re learning to drift.
Initially, that’s all we’d recommend doing. Some companies might try to sell you steering lock upgrades (like modified knuckles or steering rack spacers), but when you’re starting out, there’s no real need for these. Wait until you can drift consistently before investing in them.
Once your coilovers are on, make sure you get your car’s alignment adjusted by an experienced garage with access to the necessary equipment. You can stick to the factory alignment spec for now, just to keep things simple.
Swapping Out Or Welding The Differential
Unless you’re lucky enough to have purchased a pre-modified car with an upgraded 2-way limited slip differential (LSD) – or one with a standard-fit helical/torsen item – you’ll have to upgrade the unit in your car.
Drifting with an open differential or a viscous LSD is certainly possible, but it takes skill and determination; with these types of differentials, the inside rear wheel begins to spin faster than the outside one when cornering, making it virtually impossible to keep the car sideways.
If you can’t afford a 2-way LSD, your best bet is to take the backplate off your open or viscous diff and get it welded by a specialist garage. You’ll want to have this done by someone that knows and understands drift cars – the last thing you want is for them to weld the wrong parts together.
Upgrading The Handbrake
Depending on the car you’ve chosen, you might want to spend a little extra cash on a hydraulic handbrake setup. BMW E36 and E46 chassis have notoriously weak handbrakes as standard, so most owners invest in aftermarket handbrakes to make initiating and extending slides that much easier.
On the flip side, cars like the Lexus IS200 and Nissan 350Z have surprisingly effective handbrakes from the factory. When adjusted correctly, they should be able to lock up the rear tyres with ease. In this case, we’d advise picking up a ‘drift button’ for your standard handbrake instead.
Choosing The Right Tyres (And Setting The Pressure)
Tyres matter just as much when you’re starting out as they do when you have years of experience behind you. Without the right tyres, your car will be inconsistent and unpredictable, making learning to drift that much more challenging. Up front, we’d advise fitting some decent mid-range summer tyres, with the pressure set to the manufacturer recommended level.
At the rear, you can go for budget tyres – but buying new is preferable to buying part-worn. New tyres last much longer and are more consistent, so if you want to progress rapidly, they’re the way forward.
Start with 50 PSI in the rears and go from there; if you’re spinning out too easily, reduce the pressure by 5 or 10 PSI, or pump more air into them if the car refuses to break loose.
This one depends entirely on the car you’ve chosen. Some, like the Nissan 200SX and Skyline, respond well even to minor engine upgrades, allowing you to boost the power of your engine without breaking the bank. It’s not so simple on non-turbo vehicles (like the Lexus IS200, Mazda MX-5 and BMW 3 Series) though; short of adding an aftermarket turbo kit or swapping the engine, there’s not much you can do to add power.
You shouldn’t really need to, though; if you’re struggling to break the rear tyres loose, you can inflate them to 60 PSI or beyond, reducing grip levels and making the car much easier to slide.
Putting It To The Test!
With your car ready to go, all that’s left to do is to put it to the test. When you begin to feel that the car is holding you back more than your driving abilities are, you can consider upgrading it – but don’t jump the gun and spend money unnecessarily. And above all, have fun!