In 2003, Peter Mullin acquired one of the three Type 64 chassis created by Ettore Bugatti’s son, Jean, who died at age 30 before he could complete bodywork for the last of those Type 64 chassis. Mullin, the consummate car collector, made it a mission to complete what Jean Bugatti had begun. So he commissioned Stewart Reed, long-time head of vehicle design at the Art Center College in Pasadena, California, to render drawings of a car befitting Jean Bugatti’s spirit.
Mullin then turned to Mike Kleeves to bring Reed’s drawings to life in a three-dimensional work of automotive art.
Kleeves and his team of three other metal crafters and two painters work out of shop in the small community of Kimball, near the eastern knuckle of the “Thumb” section of Michigan’s mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula. Earlier this year at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Kleeves received the inaugural Phil Hill Trophy for his research and restoration of a 1960 Aston Martin DB4 GTZ owned by the Helena Collection of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Hill Trophy, presented to Kleeves by Phil Hill’s widow and son, took the form of a stunning trophy and was accompanied by the Craftsman Tools Award, a huge rolling cabinet with Hill’s image on its drawer faces.
“Typically, trophies go to car owners,” Amelia Island concours founder Bill Warner said in presenting the award. “We want to recognize and reward the restoration specialists whose work and passion represent the spirit and contributions of Phil Hill and the excellence of his life’s work.”
Hill may be best-known as the only American-born driver to win the Grand Prix (World Driving) championship, and as a three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But he also had a huge influence on the collector car world when, in 1955, he entered a LeBaron-bodied 1931 Pierce Arrow town car convertible that he restored at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The car was awarded Best of Show, the first for a so-called classic in what had been a show dominated by contemporary sports cars. Since then, classics have dominated concours’ honors and also have multiplied in value at auctions and in private sales.
Warner noted that the new award was designed to honor Hill and those who, like him, “did the hard, exacting work and the meticulous research.” He also said the awarding of the first Hill Trophy to Kleeves was by unanimous decision of the judges.
Kleeves was around 10 years old when his grandfather taught him how to sand a car body to its bare metal. At 15, Kleeves went to work in a collision shop. His next stop was a company that converted coupes into convertibles. Not long after his 21st birthday, he opened his own restoration shop, Automobile Metal Shaping.
He credits his mentors for his company’s success. Early on, he met two veteran British craftsmen — Harry and John — who worked at General Motors’ technical center and would travel there weekly to work with them. Later, he spent as much time as possible visiting Red Tweit, a veteran of the historic California Metal Shaping, a company with a long and proud heritage in car-body construction. He still talks regularly with Tweit, who is 95 years old, and visits him as often as possible.
Kleeves believes in using ancient skills but in combining them with modern technology. Everyone on the team can shape metal with hammers over wooden bucks (which AMS also makes) or sandbag forms, with English wheels or with the shop’s huge power hammers.
The past is very much a part of the present at the shop. Kleeves said one of the adventures of doing a restoration is seeing the techniques used to build the car in the first place. And his team tries to restore a vehicle using the same skills originally used to build it. Kleeves calls it “remaining true to the car” and its creators.
Automobile Metal Shaping has built concept cars for Detroit automakers, restored cars not only for Mullin’s museum and other collectors but for the Porsche museum and Collier Collection/Revs Institute, and recently copied in metal the dilapidating fiberglass figures that are part of the marque above the entrance to Detroit’s famed Fox Theater.
And such work has come by word of mouth. Automobile Metal Shaping doesn’t have a website, but it has a constant flow of work. When we visited, it was restoring a 1951 Porsche 356, an Aston Martin DB5, a 1957 Zagato-bodied Ferrari, a 1934 Packard, a 1935 Rolls-Royce and a short-wheelbase 1962 Ferrari 250 GT coupe. Since my visit, the shop also has begun work on a complete set of fenders for a 540K Mercedes-Benz.
Kleeves is reluctant to the point of modesty when it might come to bragging about the work done in his shop, but he does open the facility to local car clubs and school groups to inspire and educated, much as he was by his mentors.
As we talked, Kleeves was laying out the pattern for an Alfa Romeo hood on a sheet of aluminum. He said women who visit the shop and who sew often immediately grasp the concepts of turning flat sheets of metal into stunning sculptural shapes that clothe a coupe or convertible. When possible, he said, sewing and metal-shaping begin with a pattern; it’s just that one uses sheets of cloth and the other sheets of metal. Precision is vital to both, whether using needle and thread or hammers and tongs.
What Kleeves has learned and what he is teaching others is the necessity and value of both the artist’s eye and the craftsman’s hands. You should take advantage of the latest technologies, he believes, but to work in his shop, “You have to know how to do it by hand.”
And Kleeves noted that before any work begins, “We can ‘see’ the car already done, but we can’t tell you all the things we’re going to have to do to get there.”