How AI Design reimagines classic cars for the modern era
What would you do with your dream classic if money were no object? Plenty of people would let well enough alone and keep it original, but let’s say you want to enjoy good music and more comfortable seats while you drive, all without ruining the old-school aesthetic that makes your car special. You certainly wouldn’t want to cut up the dash to install an aftermarket Kenwood stereo, and the cushy, power-adjustable seats out of a ’99 Chevy Suburban just wouldn’t do. So you’d have to find someone who could make modifications without ruining the original design. Remember, you’re imagining that you have money to burn—plenty to pay for precision custom work, which isn’t remotely cheap.
That’s the sort of thing Matt Figliola, founder of Ai Design in Tuckahoe, New York, has been doing for decades, at the behest of clients who can actually pay. But where many customization shops hone in on one or two aspects of a car, Figliola says he considers each car holistically, with the end configuration looking like it was supposed to be that way all along.
New vibrations, old vibes
Recently, a customer came into Ai Design with a very valuable Bentley—the sort of car most collectors would take pains to keep original. But the customer wanted a state-of-the-art sound system installed. The car’s original radio still lived in the dash, behind a piece of wood veneer, so Figliola and his crew removed the original radio veneer panel and glove box and built a version that would house an array of midrange speakers and subwoofers. The speakers were covered with guitar amp cloth stained to match the veneer, and the subs occupied the old glove box cubby hole. For the tweeters, they designed and 3D-printed custom pods that were painted the same gloss black as the steering wheel. Wires were covered in the same sheathing used on factory wires, and there is no stereo face plate—a WiFi receiver is hidden behind the dash and the whole system is controlled with a smartphone.
“Yes, the speakers stood out as modern elements, but it all looked proper,” Figliola said. “And it sounded incredibly rich and powerful.”
The original dash and interior parts were crated up for storage, just in case some future owner decided to restore the car to its original configuration.
Customization with a touch of classic
Figliola—who says he was always mechanically inclined—got his start in high school, when a friend asked him to help install an aftermarket stereo in his car. That was in 1980, and he never stopped, getting really wrapped up in the “How can I make this work?” mentality. He didn’t enter automotive customization through racing, like a lot of people, but through electronics.
“I came at this from a different angle, so it has given me a more unique skillset,” he said. “As cars have gotten more complex electronics, I’ve gotten happier.”
Asked if he ever faced backlash from classic car purists, Figliola said he thinks of cars differently than someone who might consider them from the perspective of provenance and value. Many of the vehicles Ai Design works on are newer—a record company executive’s multiple-modem-equipped Suburban, Alex Roy’s cross-country record-setting 2000 BMW M5, to name a couple—but they get a few classics, too, including restomod projects on a ’69 Camaro and a ’70s GMC Motorhome, both of which got full high-tech modern makeovers.
“If they’re coming to me, I think what they have in common is that they like their cars enough that they want to customize them,” he said. “They can conceive that modifications can be made sympathetic to the cars—that they’re not ruining anything.”
Sometimes the modification will be something small, as it was on a Lancia Integrale in which the customer wanted a better sound system. Figliola said he looked at the car, which had a small, spartan interior, and had to figure out where to put a subwoofer. There wasn’t a lot of space, and that called for creativity. He and his team decided to put the sub inside the trunk-mounted spare tire, using every square inch of volume in the wheel’s center void for the enclosure. To build it, they made a mold of the inside of the wheel, then used it to craft a fiberglass enclosure. The grille was made from criss-crossed nylon straps that were part of the tire cover.
“It all fit within the aesthetic of a homologated rally car,” Figliola said.
The Lancia project is a good insight into how Ai Design’s process works. While the 3-D printer and CNC router are useful tools, a lot of the panels that end up in customers’ vehicles are custom-fabricated from fiberglass, leather, and other materials. Figliola and his team are detail-oriented and precise. They use strong magnets to hold panels in place so that they can be removed to access hidden wiring and modules. Elements that have been added in or reimagined—like a set of more robust seats they installed in a first-generation Camaro—look like they have always belonged.
“We have this great desire to build everything with massive integrity and not rush little details,” he said. “You can mount a part quickly with simple brackets and screws, or you can take more time and make a proper bracket that’s stronger. That makes a huge difference in how long things are going to last.”
No harm, no foul
What it all comes down to is preserving the look that makes older cars special—and, as in the case of the Bentley, making sure the work is as reversible as possible. Adding in updated technology, such as installing improved lighting and brakes, more comfortable seats, and cutting edge audio and networking systems, makes vehicles more usable in the modern context. It’s along the lines of what Jonathan Ward does with Land Cruisers and midcentury sedans on the other side of the country at Icon. But Figliola says his approach is heavier on tech and more bespoke. Each vehicle is custom-tailored to the client.
In 2007, Ai Design was responsible for installing the array of gadgets that put Alex Roy’s record-setting BMW M5 on par with cars running smartphone GPS apps like Waze and Google Maps today. Back then, that stuff wasn’t common. They have also built in-vehicle entertainment systems that incorporate multiple high-speed modems capable of providing redundant internet service from multiple providers in order to provide interruption-free audio and video streaming service. Figliola says he loves a challenge, and absurdly large data transfer requirements are certainly a wall to be climbed.
He has trouble comparing Ai Design to other outfits in the U.S. but says what he’s doing is basically a much smaller-scale version of what Brabus does in Germany.
“That’s where my affinity lies, because in Germany, they’re looking at every aspect of the car; they aren’t focusing on one or two things and minimizing the rest,” he said. “That’s what gets me going.”
Figliola says he relishes having complicated problems to solve, but once he has finished a project, he doesn’t like to rest on his laurels. There’s little time to reflect on completed projects, anyway. Once one is finished, it’s on to the next puzzle.
“The honeymoon is over pretty quick for me in all the work that I do,” he said. “I think that’s a healthy way of going about it. I can’t be fixated on what I did before. I need to be fixated on what I’m doing right now and taking what I learned before and applying it to what I’m doing today.”
As much as he loves hurdling the obstacles that present themselves during the planning and execution of a project, Figliola says he likes to get back to basics from time to time. To do that, he climbs behind the wheel of his 80-year-old pickup truck. There’s nothing fancy about it—there are no digital electronics living behind its steel dash, and the drivetrain was last considered cutting edge before World War II. But it requires attention to operate, so he grabs the wheel, pushes the pedals, and drives it just for the joy of it.
Sometimes, a low-tech solution is the antidote for a high-tech life. With AI’s projects, the hope is that you’ll be able to enjoy a bit of both, all in one.