Ben Schaffer: Car Tuning of the Future
By Themistoklis Alexis
Over the past two-plus decades, Bulletproof Automotive and Unplugged Performance headman Ben Schaffer went from a teenage car-enthusiast, (illegally) street racing in his native Massachusetts to a veritable captain of the tuning industry. In a recent conversation with DTK Men, the bigwig revealed how a gig as a racing extra on 2001’s The Fast & The Furious turned a marketing major into an entrepreneur and what prompted an unfathomable foray into modifying electric cars.
What made you decide to turn this interest in car tuning into your life’s work?
I took two weeks off of Arizona State University, and while I was an extra for filming [The Fast & The Furious], I saw a lot of people in [the] tuning industry that, for me, was just a hobby.
During the course of those two weeks, being immersed with [other] extras and people in the industry who were there having a good time and filming, it occurred to me that I had always done things as an entrepreneur. At that point, I’d already started Bulletproof (in March 2000), but I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur.
After two weeks of filming, I couldn’t go back to my classes. I was hooked on this idea that I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, better myself as a business operator, and not pursue this idea of working for a corporation. I ended up taking the rest of the semester off, transferred into the entrepreneur program at USC, and moved to California the next semester. From that point forward, [in] everything I did, I pursued the best I could at mastering entrepreneurship as a whole.
What was it about Teslas that made you want to start modifying them?
When we started Unplugged Performance in 2013, no one was modifying Teslas. In the car tuning world, we always see a feedback loop in which great cars create inspiration that gets copied, reformulated, and turned into something new and then that cycle repeats itself, feeding a gradual evolution. That evolution needs a starting point, and what was interesting was that for EV tuning, I found myself, for the first time in my career, with no specific starting point for how to approach it. There was no safe play, and in some respects, there would be almost nothing that would be accepted at face value to car enthusiasts at that time. The excitement was having a blank sheet of paper, and deciding to take the risk to bet my reputation on becoming the first to tune Teslas. Bulletproof had millions of followers on Facebook, and of course, I knew we were going to get ridiculed posting photos of any electric car no matter how great it was, because from a hardcore car enthusiast’s standpoint at that time, an electric car was inherently uncool. So we took a chance and bet our reputation on the fact that Teslas can be amazing, and we set out to try to prove that fact to petrolheads.
Of course, I knew when we brought the only Tesla to the SEMA trade show in 2014 most people at that time were going to not accept it, and they would say, “That’s just a glorified Prius, it’s really lame, there’s no exhaust, [and] it doesn’t make any sound; how is that car tuning?” - all this negativity that I knew was going to come, but the truth of it was, I didn’t care because I believed in the mission. I’d bought a Tesla Model S, and I drove it, and it was so ridiculously good I couldn’t look past it. The car was so good at all the things that I thought a car enthusiast would like, [so] it seemed to me that to ignore what was right in front of me would be one of the biggest mistakes of my life. So, we went ahead, and over the years we’ve convinced a lot of people to sell their gasoline-powered sports cars and move over to a Tesla. Every year since then, we’ve brought a Tesla to SEMA. We’ve seen excitement building amongst car enthusiasts, and the early risks we took betting on what we believed in don’t seem so risky anymore.
What’s been the focus of your efforts as of late?
About ten years ago I started transitioning from purely finding and distributing great products in Japan to investing in creating great products in Japan with those same brands. That kind of led to this gradual tipping point of going from first waiting for something cool and distributing it, to then working together to create things that are cool with the brands in Japan that I distribute for. And then gradually, that transitioned to where I can’t expect these companies [to] make all the things I’d like them to make as fast as I’d like it to happen, so I better start making them myself. At [that] point, we got more involved in making our own parts across multiple brands. This gives us the creative freedom to create cars and products more freely when we feel inspired.
That results in a pretty diverse variety of cars, ranging from daily-driven Teslas to very extreme one-off builds. We did this one BMW Z4 where we cut the windshield and roof off and turned it into something simply nobody expected…a kind of a rolling, batmobile-looking race car with an exhaust out the side that shoots flames. We tend to spend most of our time building custom Nissan GT-Rs and Teslas, as well as distributing parts to those communities. [They’re] opposite ends of the spectrum, but, at the end of the day, car tuning never respected boundaries, it follows wherever passion leads it.