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Inside One of the Premier Car Customizing Shops in the Country


Matt Figliola’s enthusiasm for engineering and creating dates to childhood, when even at the tender age of eight he could often be found down in his parents’ basement fixing and futzing with radios and speakers. Paid work in the audio field would follow in time, but it was inevitable in a way, given the breadth of his mechanical curiosity, that Figliola would branch out once he’d had more exposure to the industrial arts. While audio technology fascination kept him abreast of the latest in custom audio and in-car communication, he’d begin acquiring machine tools. Soon he’d be hiring designers and craftsmen to help him take the futzing to a higher level across more fronts, an enterprise abetted by growing fluency in computer-assisted design and 3D printing.

Ai Design, in Tuckahoe, New York, is the business Figliola set up in 1992 to follow his muse, and its reputation for executing high-quality, one-off car projects with both non-audio and audio focuses has seen the firm’s work bays and 10 employees become perpetually occupied. This reputation, together with the diversity of assignments it has undertaken, was what led us to visit its premises one recent morning. Abutting the Bronx River that separates it from the Bronx, Tuckahoe is a true border town, a Westchester village with an unmistakable Bronx tinge to it. The cars inside are from everywhere.

Ai’s first jobs were audio-related, and sound remains a core competency whose relevance has not ebbed with time. Indeed, as electronics become ever more complicated and ever more easily prone to obsolescence and issues of compatibility, the integration of complex, mobile telephone-audio-data systems with the complex electronics of the modern automobile offer ever more avenues for custom work, while demanding even more specialized knowledge and depth of experience.

 

One job Ai frequently undertakes, for instance, is an upgrade for mobile-phone reception, with a virtual private network and “bonded” modem installation that constantly searches for the best carrier signal going (the owner, for whom cost is presumably no object, signs up for all of the carriers and the VPN picks the best one at any given moment). The owner of this car, says Figliola pointing to a heavily upgraded Escalade, one of a pair he’s been working on for a single customer—will be able to “download an incredible amount of data,” allowing access to his complete home music library in California, anywhere. Huge tablet screens for rear-seat passengers required the front seat backs be redesigned. Made and upholstered in-house, along with the rest of its heavily reimagined interior, this Escalade cabin looks more like it has been through the bespoke wing of Bentley Motors, rather than gracelessly pimped, as many are, under the elevated train by some fly-by-night butcher in the Bronx.

I’ve got to be honest, and say that ordinarily a business that has a couple of Escalades and a luminescent tweaked G-wagen parked out front isn’t necessarily a first port of call for the likes of me, but as I get to know Figliola and see the other jobs Ai has in its shop, the more impressed I grow. A stainless-steel CJ-3A Jeep body imported from the Philippines is being assembled for an owner who’s recently called to specify an-all electric powertrain. (“Cars are going electric, we know that,” Figliola, a student of the industry, opines, allowing that the prospect excites him.) In other bays, a shiny resto-mod midyear Vette was bought at auction and brought in for evaluation by its new owner; deemed virtually undrivable, it stuck around for a complete suspension rethink, with an eye toward real-world driving fun, safety, and comfort, as well as some custom dash work. An Aston Martin Vantage Volante from the ’80s is in for a custom audio installation that involves (reversibly) installing speakers in air-conditioning ducts with 3D-printed speaker plates, covered in leather, and a discreet re-trunking of the A/C outlets. A superb early Porsche 928 is in for an upgrade to its OEM radio, as is a Bentley Continental. “We’re going to put a new volume control in the OEM radio to be the volume control of what will effectively be just a Bluetooth audio system. So there is no radio, it’s just your phone. But it will look like the old Bentley wireless set.”

“I like this little trend that’s happening, that I think is going to continue for us, where we sympathetically install an audio system into a classic car without defiling it in any way, shape, or form. That sort of a challenge, where that’s the mandate, is very interesting to me. Not necessarily sophisticated or huge or giant, just one that works, is functional, sounds good, but does not damage the car, and is completely reversible and if you wanted to bring it back to its original state.”

Showcasing Ai’s ease with diverse materials is a handsome example of the fondly remembered ’70s GMC Motorhome, the futuristic one with the fiberglass body, king-sized Oldsmobile Toronado V-8 and front-wheel drive. Undergoing a complete rebuild and interior redesign, it is being executed to address the needs of a prominent concert promoter who plans to use it as an on-site party palace for big music festivals. Nearby, a Ferrari F488 is getting an aftermarket widebody kit installed, an act of owner-sanctioned malfeasance that Ai’s proprietor won’t be drawn into either defending or publicly mocking. Conversely, a turn of the century Mercury Marauder, with hidden rear door handles and a tasteful interior previously subject to heavy customization by Ai, is back for another nip and tuck, and we all agree this supercharged sleeper is nothing but cool. Figliola’s own 1940 Ford pickup, a flathead, recently restored by the shop in black, is a stunner.

Figliola acknowledges that many of his customers are of the money-is-no-object variety, but hastens to add that his company has “some mortals that we do work for, too.” Does he find them different to deal with, the mortals and the hyperwealthy?

“Yeah, there’s definitely a difference. The projects tend to be different, they’re more involved. There’s more interest and excitement, almost,” he says, among the hyperwealthy. “They have more time, more dough. Also, I would say that the fact for many wealthy people is just that they custom-make their whole life. They customize their house, their office, their boat, their whatever. Some of them I find, they’re really into a specific aspect of [their car], but it’s not like they’re students of all cars, or the history of cars. Often, they’re very specifically knowledgeable about one thing, but surprisingly, sometimes, unknowledgeable about other things.”

Before we leave, Figliola shows us his tools, and these seem to animate him most, which we take as a good sign. He shows us the 3D printer Ai increasingly relies on, and some of the custom pieces they’ve fabricated, as well as the lathes and presses that are stocks in the machinist’s trade. But today he’s particularly excited by a massive old Fortuna leather splitter they’ve acquired, which can split leather to the point where it’s paper thin – ideal for covering items whose contours you wish to be seen. “It’s really for finer things. I mean you wouldn’t wrap a whole dashboard with this. But, you could wrap the stalk on a 911 turn signal. Small parts. Parts where there’s some sculptural detail that’s got to come through.” A Fortuna skiver bevels edges for fine joining work.

Is this your favorite tool, Matt? “I don’t know. I like all my tools. They were all curated and chosen very carefully.” Of this we have no doubt. Matt Figliola has the tools and he knows how to use them.



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