Full Service Shop: Ai Design thrives by refusing to specialize
We’re delighted and confused by the automotive cornucopia that fills the brick-and-glass shop called Ai Design. As we stroll through the 10,000-square-foot, sun-lit space, located just north of New York City, we spy a 1961 Cadillac Eldorado, a 1985 Audi Quattro Sport rally car, a Porsche 959, a partially disassembled Maserati race car that’s resting on jack stands next to a military-grade Hummer H1, and a pristine 1970s Ford Bronco. They all have four wheels, but the similarities end there. What is this place?
“I freely admit that I can’t describe it in one sentence,” says owner and founder Matt Figliola. The services offered include not only repairing, modifying, or restoring any car, but also locating examples of rare vehicles—indeed, this outfit helped us find the cars we drove profiled in last month’s rally car story. (Click here to read it.)
Figliola, 56, got his start in the mid-’80s, upgrading the sound system and electronics of a Plymouth Horizon.
The craftsmanship and ingenuity of the modifications persuaded a custom-car shop in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to hire the self-taught electronics whiz. In those days, the wolves of Wall Street wanted hi-fi car stereos, radar detectors, and body kits installed in such a way that they looked like they came from the factory. That meant hours of costly detail work. Money, however, flowed in the greed decade, and Figliola learned the importance of cultivating the clients who were willing to pay for the details he wanted to craft. “I’ve always been fastidious,” he says.
In 1992, Figliola left Manhattan and opened his own shop in Yonkers; six years later, he moved to his current location in Tuckahoe, a town 20 miles north of the Empire State Building.
Few shops that work on cars are so neat. The floor is polished daily, and even the ductwork shines. Metal sculptures and wall-hanging decorations accompany the expected tool chests, welding stations, and metal-working jigs, lending an art gallery feel. The space itself attracts what Figliola admits is an eclectic clientele, as evidenced by the varied machines inside. “We help them find the personal touches they want in their cars,” he says.
On the day we visited, the shop was hustling to finish a Maserati MC12 that was due to leave in a week so the owner could drive it in the GoldRush Rally. One technician shuttled between the car and the fabrication room, which was sealed from the shop’s main space by a pair of automatic sliding doors. The owner wanted air conditioning, which meant building a new set of carbon-fiber ducts to house condensers in the nose. Another worker retrofitted a new wiring harness in order to power front and rear video cameras and assorted other electronics.
The H1 Hummer nearby had received every survival gadget imaginable, including joystick-controlled spotlights, power-opening sides with tool storage, exterior cameras, Wi-Fi, and infrared lights for… we’re not sure. The recently finished Bronco, which Ai Design built from scratch and upgraded with modern mechanicals, waited for the owner to pick it up.
Future restorations, according to Figliola, will require different skills than that Bronco required. Cars built after 1980 are more electronically complicated and often have plastic-based materials that degrade over time. “I see a firestorm coming,” says Figliola. Engine computers were built on boards that develop hair-line cracks. The capacitors are vulnerable to leaking. “We are well situated to tackle these problems because we’re experienced with electronics, and we’ve been scanning and 3D printing parts for years,” he adds. Ai is also ready and willing to convert your classic to an EV, if you so desire. Indeed, we first encountered the shop two years ago when we reviewed a Willys-Jeep it had electrified.
These days, it’s definitely trendy to question the long-term future of our automotive obsession, especially in places like New York City. (Around the time of our visit, The New Yorker magazine published a piece with the headline, “How to Quit Cars.”) Shops like this give us hope that said future will be wonderfully weird.
Ai Design (Tuckahoe, New York)
- Open since: 1992
- Cars serviced yearly: 175–200
- Crew size: 12 full-timers
- Sweet spot: Custom anything and electronics
- Shop vibe: Art museum meets elbow grease