Classic Car Capital
Red sports car with vertical doors raised in Ai Design shop

The Unique Vision of AI Design

All photos by Sean Smith & Ai Design.

Matt Figliola’s dad was much more creative than your average bear. He impressed upon his son the importance of attention to detail. Dad started Matt and his brother on a long list of hobbies: model plane building, RC planes, RC cars, and simple carpentry. If Matt built a model plane, it looked like the picture on the box when it was finished. It wasn’t just releasing the required piece from the armature it came on; it was sanding the edges to make it perfect.

It was that subtlety and nuance that Matt was aware of—even at eight years old. He learned it was all in the details. Matt was also big into electronics; at ten years old, Matt felt his clock radio’s sound was a bit anemic. He scrounged his neighbor’s trash for old HiFi equipment and started making auxiliary speakers for his clock radio. After a few visits to Radio Shack for parts, he was rocking.

Matt’s buddy John was the first in the crew to get a car, a Pontiac Sunbird. John enlisted Matt, and off they went to Crazy Eddies—with John’s hard-earned cash—and picked up some better speakers for his ride. This was how Matt was introduced to car audio.

Matt continued to modify the sounds in his buddy’s cars and then his own. His next step was finding part-time work in car audio shops around his home. He cut his teeth in the install bay and gained a ton of knowledge in a short period of time.

Matt’s parents were putting pressure on him to go to college, but after one semester at Pace University, he headed for the door. His parents were not pleased. “You have to go to school!” They settled on DeVry Technical Institute, where Matt started in the electronics program.

During the slog of a daily commute, he realized he didn’t want to be an electronics engineer. So Matt said goodbye to DeVry and made a plan to work for the top audio shops in New York. Matt finally landed at the pinnacle of car audio: UltraSmith in Manhattan.

UltraSmith was the go-to boutique shop for high-end audio for your high-end ride. The clients were well-heeled, so they could be given the best of everything. From the outside, this was Matt’s idea of the perfect shop.

The only imperfection was the owner—who was not a good person—so Matt was gone after five months. He soon found a great guy with a good shop in a bad part of town—the South Bronx. With his skills, Matt became the top guy doing all the custom installations. The customer base was different than the previous shop, but they had plenty of cash.

It was just as the Hip-Hop craze was landing, so major sound systems were going into cars. Hip-Hop also influenced the style of cars, and the shop got heavily involved in that. Matt feels there would never have been the 20-inch wheel without Hip-Hop.

Interior of Ai Design custom shop

After a 4th of July weekend, Matt showed up at the shop and was greeted by a sea of NYPD, DEA, ATF, and drug-sniffing dogs. He was interviewed on the spot. The authorities were sure the owner was involved with drugs. In the end, while the owner was clean and soon vindicated, it was guilt by association, destroying the business and leaving Matt out of work.

The Foundation of Audio Intellect

It was time to do something for himself. In the summer of 1991, Matt partnered with two brothers and started working out of their garage in what would soon become Audio Intellect. The trio found a dirt cheap space in a terrible part of Yonkers, NY, and inherited many of the clients from the now-defunct Bronx location.

Unfortunately, things got dangerous—the “perfect storm” type of dangerous. The shop was near the railroad tracks and was partially underground. If a gun went off, no one would hear it.

Tools in Ai Design customs shop

The shop had a particular client (a Harlem Kingpin) who was becoming increasingly erratic and making unreasonable demands. Matt was trying to ease the client out of the shop, but that was not well received. One day the client arrived with his muscle, pulled out the shop phones, beat the employees, and brandished guns. Not your standard day in the car audio world.

Two weeks later, an ATF agent, a district attorney, and a federal prosecutor walked in. Within days Matt was on the stand as a federal witness, and his client was put away for life. It was time to find a new and safer location ASAP.

The partners found an old gas station in Eastchester, NY, and set up shop. Just when the place was up and running, the brothers decided to go in other directions, so Matt continued on his own. Concurrently, Matt heard about a new trend coming out of the West Coast.

Companies were taking Tahoes and Suburbans and doing a full lux number on them—upgrading suspension, wheels, audio, and seating, adding every creature comfort possible. They were creating a non-limo limo, making the new creation as non-truck as possible while turning it into an elegant driving experience.

Cars with hoods raised in Ai Design customs shop

Hatchback with front hood raised in Ai Design custom shop

This would be a natural progression for Matt. Bruce Canepa was turning out these uber trucks and selling them to East Coast clients. In 1995 Tommy Mottola, the CEO of Sony Music, got wind of Matt and wanted him to take a look at his Canepa-built Suburban and Tahoe. This gave Matt a chance to see up close and personal how these machines were put together. The vehicles had serious quality, and he knew he could do this all day long and do it even better.

At this point, someone new came into his life: Todd Brown. Todd would turn out to be a key component in Matt’s new business growth, as he had connections to the type of customers who could afford the type of work Matt was doing and, more importantly, weren’t packing heat.

New Yorkers learned they didn’t have to go across the country for their custom rides, as the man they needed was right in their backyard. By 1997, Ai Design was well established as the place to go for your custom truck needs. They quickly outgrew the gas station and went in search of a new location.

Growing Ai Design Into a Full-Service Custom Shop

In 1998, Ai moved to its new industrial facility in Tuckahoe, NY. With the extra space, the shop could grow in other directions and deliver a wide range of custom work. With that came more equipment and more staff.

Ai Design custom shop with red Ferrari parked outside

Over the years, new and different projects started rolling in.

Engine and drivetrain of Chevrolet Camaro in Ai Design custom shop

A client brought in a 1969 Chevy Camaro pace car. All he wanted was a new engine and drivetrain, but after realizing the capability and creativity of the shop, he gave them free rein to create a one-of-a-kind restomod.

The firewall was shaved with all the wiring hidden. A modern interpretation of the interior was created from scratch. The console, dash (integrating modern audio and GPS,) door panels, and seats (modified Cadillac CTS chairs) were covered using the same colors and style of fabrics as in the original. Under the hood went a beast of a motor that put out 650 hp to keep the car on the road; a whole new front suspension was added with coil-overs. In the back, the Camaro was mini-tubbed to handle extra-wide rubber.

There was more to follow: updated lighting, automatic windows, intermittent wipers, great handling, and a killer audio system. All the things you would expect in a modern luxury car wrapped in the muscular lines of a classic Camaro.

1969 Chevy Camaro after work by Ai Design customs shop

Another client wanted to go even more old school and build a 32 Highboy roadster from the ground up.

32 Highboy roadster built by Ai Design custom shop

A 32 body was ordered from Brookville Roadster, and work began. It was to be an open-wheel design with the stripped-down, clean look of a period hot rod but with modern power from a big block Roush 427R.

This was a hot rodder’s dream, but with the convenience and safety of power steering and power brakes. The interior is as plush as any Bentley with Wilton carpeting and beautifully stitched leather, and an engine-turned dash. The result is a refined rod that still has plenty of attitude.

Finished Highboy roadster by Ai Design custom shop

Ai Design is in business to solve problems. A good client wanted a rare bird indeed—a B5 RS 4 Avant—to add to his growing collection.

The team got a hold of one, but the previous owner had slammed it to the ground and was running a set of 19s on it. Ai Design Sales Manager Ryan Offenhartz knew the client well, and together they decided to go in the opposite direction with the car, getting rid of the boy racer stuff and turning it into a safari-style all-weather capable hot-estate.

B5 RS4 Avant modified by Ai Design customs shop

Ai installed a modified suspension system containing shocks with elongated bottom tubes. The firmer valving and revised spring rates now deliver proper dampening and road feel while eliminating excess body roll. This allowed the Audi to retain its handling while navigating nasty New England roads.

They reduced the wheel diameter to a more realistic 17-inch OZ  wheel. Ai built up two sets and mounted them with  Falken WildPeak A/T tires and UHP-rated Vredestein Wintrac Pros. For good measure, they added cross-drilled Brembo brakes.

The Über off-roader is wrapped in NATO matte green vinyl, withVisionX lights to cut through the darkest night. The front light bar is a work of art—designed in-house, first mocked up in 3D-printed plastic, and finally CNC-milled from a single huge hunk of aluminum.

B5 RS4 Avant driving through mid and snow after being modified by Ai Design

After all that attention, the Audi will take on anything mother nature throws at it—and will do it with badass style.

The Ai Design Experience

When a client enters Ai Design, they are like a kid in a candy store. If they can dream it, Matt and his team of craftsmen can make that dream come true.

Cars in shop at Ai Design

They might be working on a Lamborghini Countach getting a backup camera so the driver doesn’t have to attempt a full Balboni when they put the car in reverse, or maybe a Ponton Mercedes cabriolet owned by a prominent NY collector getting something it never had before—air-conditioning. And it will be totally invisible.

Cars in shop at Ai Design

Invisible, reversible upgrades to rare and valuable cars are an Ai Design specialty. A client may wish to add a modern audio system but not do irreversible damage. Matt and his team will recreate existing parts and carefully box up the originals to be reinstalled if a future owner desires.

A 1954 Bentley R-Type Mulliner Fastback Coupe received painstakingly hand-crafted new dash panels to perfectly match the gorgeous original wood. A period-correct mesh panel was made to hide a bank of small speakers, tuned to create a remarkable sound. For an original 427 Cobra, Ai created a one-off Bluetooth-operated audio system that pressure fits under the dash and, while fully integrated, is also completely removable.

On one side of the shop, you’ll find an FJ60 Land Cruiser being treated to a new drivetrain and suspension while an early Hammer Mercedes awaits a new sound system and Bluetooth integration to the period-correct car phone. Meanwhile, a modified Subaru Crosstrek is getting electronic add-ons for a father-son one-lap tour of New England.

Rare and vintage cars in Ai Design custom shop

Modified Subaru Crosstrek in Ai Design custom shop

On the other side, Porsches, Ferraris, and Lancias await the special touch that only Ai Design can provide.

Matt Figliola in Ai Design custom shop

Matt Figliola: the Man Behind Ai Design

An interesting fact about Matt Figliola is he doesn’t consider himself a car guy. He is first and foremost an artist. This gives his and Ai’s approach to their work a different direction from other shops. They come with a broader perspective—not just car-centric—resulting in a different outcome than other builders.

Each project is a clean sheet of paper, with no repetition of ideas or design. There is a progression from the initial conversation with the client; Matt gets to know them and understand their motivation and desires, allowing Matt to design for his client, not himself.

From there, the process moves on to sketches and cardboard mock-ups, then 3-D modeling and 3D printed prototypes before the final product is decided upon. It’s all in the service of creating that one-of-a-kind solution to the client’s dreams. In all cases, the quality is uncompromising.

There is a saying. A man who works with his hands is a laborer, a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, his brain, and his heart is an artist. Matt Figliola is an artist. A very methodical artist whose mission each day is to push the standard of excellence to new heights.

Matt has created an environment that allows each of his artisans to excel at their craft. A level of quality is maintained with no shortcuts or cutting corners in the pursuit of perfection. Each employee is selected with great care so they reflect Matt’s standards and can make Matt’s vision a reality.

Close-up of Ferrari bumper in Ai Design custom shop

He is also a conductor—each build is like a symphony, not a solo piece. Each creation is broken down into specific components and assigned to the individual who will take the greatest interest in that task and then do their best and most exciting work. With this approach, Matt gets the most out of his team.

Ai Design can’t be described by just one aspect of what they do. Their palate is quite broad. They are not just audio, restoration, fabrication, or custom vehicles; there are a wide variety of options when you arrive at Ai. What they do is deliver very specific work from unique requests.

Whether fully restoring a rare supercar, modifying a classic in a stealthy manner, adding horsepower to an exotic, or electrifying a vintage Jeep, every type of machine is welcome at Ai—that is, when you are ready to take a vehicle’s cool factor to the next level.

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