RISE OF THE PHOENIX

World’s Most Beautiful Custom. Wow what a title! In the world of competitive car building it’s also an extremely big call to make if you can’t back it up. Fortunately, customiser Justin Hills possesses both the talent and the tinware to prove it. After just 12 months of embarking on this extraordinary journey, Justin unveiled his latest creation at the much revered Grand National Roadster Show in California to a welcomed reception, taking home top honours in ‘Radical Hardtop.’ With his nerves settled it was onto the Sacremento Autorama, where customs are king and dreams are either made or destroyed. Rubbing shoulders with the who’s who amongst custom royalty, this pint sized Pommy from Australia beat the big boys at their own game. Through brilliant imagination, shear guts and determination Justin took an ordinary 1960 Dodge Phoenix and created not only a stunning custom, but history.

PLANTING THE SEED

Over the last few years Justin Hills has carved out his own niche in the restoration and modified automotive industry. His gorgeous black 1949 Buick Sedanette ‘Artdco’ catapulted Justin and his business, Hills and Co Customs onto the world stage. Winning ‘Australia’s Most Beautiful Custom’ in 2009 really wet his appetite for a chance of international success. Ironically, it was when he and his car accompanied fellow customiser Mario Colalillo and his ground breaking ‘Wildcad’ to tour the United States the seed for this project would be planted.

“I was at Marios waiting to get our cars ready to load onto the ship and I had a chance to get a really good look at Andy’s (Mario’s son) new car, the Dodge. Killing time I started to imagine how cool this car could look with the right amount of modifications,” Justin reveals. “With a little poking about the doors opened and once I was inside the concept of creating a space inspired custom evolved.”

The success of the two Aussie cars during that period has been well documented by all facets of media and I don’t need to retrace any well-worn footsteps here, but it was that trip that became the catalyst for this project to exist. Witnessing the achievement accomplished by ‘Wildcad’ and the response to his own Buick, Justin silently vowed to return and compete with a new car. Back on home soil his dormant virtual images of the Dodge were replayed in his mind after Andy posted photos of it on social media, he knew then and there he needed that car. With admirable spirit Andy released the Phoenix into his friend’s hands and the artist now had his blank canvas.

THE PLAN

The strategy from the beginning was to create a vehicle to be unveiled in the birthplace of Customs, America. To be a part of the scene that Justin so much admires while the forefathers of this genre still walk the earth. He specifically chose a car that was both unusual (for customising) and yet familiar at the same time, to Americans that is. Although the finished product is essentially close to a stock 1960 Dodge Phoenix there’s a multitude of magical refinements and bold arrangements that really set this one apart from all existing factory equivalents.

THE BUILD

Reflecting upon those early mental renderings Justin knew exactly how he desired the car to look. The major aesthetic alteration would emanate from performing a perfect chop. Now this car is not small by any means and unless you get this part right, game over. Googling for inspiration for all things ’60 Dodge Justin stumbled on a sister model with a smaller rear window. Extremely excited by his discovery a phone call to a glass company in New York confirmed the availability of three diminutive versions of his current rear screen. An order was promptly placed and within less than a week the new glass arrived on his doorstep! This would become the foundation for the entire roof transformation and a huge part of the cars personality. Unfortunately after placing his new translucent prize onto a trestle at days end he was greeted by an avalanche of glass cubes upon arrival the next day. “I walked into the workshop and thought ‘hmm someone’s broken some glass’ then it hit me ‘that was my rear screen’ and my heart fell out my arse!”

Justin couldn’t get onto the computer quick enough to secure a second unit and freight it back to Oz. All told, just that component alone tacked on $2k to the final bill. With the second screen in house work could commence on lowering the profile of this big yank tank by only four inches. Anymore Justin feels would have looked silly and border on a cartoonish appearance. “Most people think that the fins have been extended” he says, but it’s the chop that deceives the eye into a false misconception. Justin wheeled 14 inches of new metal to flow seamlessly forward of the shorter rear screen to create the new roofline. At the other end metal scavenged from the deleted front quarter window was sectioned and reconfigured to fatten up the A pillar. Moving downward, the re-contoured sill panels were extended into the rear wheel arch creating drama and a point of difference, affectionately known as ‘the hook’. The factory side trim is exactly that, factory; position and all.

Justin embraced a huge gamble by attacking the trunk lid and spliced in a section from a same year Thunderbird which extends all the way into the lavish interior. Many labour intensive hours were endured to make that section of the sheet metal comply with the existing body, as does the factory rear bumper that was sectioned, narrowed and finessed to fit better than brand new. The front bumper is another Hills triumph executed by adding a 1960 Cadillac hulk which was diced into nine pieces and reconfigured to flow in unison with the stock headlights while retaining correct licence plate dimensions. Accentuating the peek on the guard crest, results in providing an unbroken line from the bottom of the park lights through to the top of the guard. The Caddy’s grille was devoid of any existing bullets and now proudly wears two 1958 Oldsmobile door mouldings like a proverbial Chinese mo, likening it to the upper crust Chrysler Imperials. “I thought about using a ’59 Caddy bumper but felt that they were too recognisable and everyone would know what it was, so I went for the ’60 instead,” Justin explains. “I really needed something to break up the Caddy look and I was lying in bed one night and thought of those ’58 Olds trim pieces I had in the shed. BANG it hit me! I couldn’t get outta bed quick enough and shot down to the shop to see if they would work. They were the F’n kitty!” They may have been the kitty but they still required six hours of massaging per side to make them fit.

Apart from the major mods, old school custom tricks abound on the Dodge like rounding corners of the doors and shaving the handles, paying homage to time honoured traditions that’s not lost on this young metal master. While real customs are presented with hood, trunk and doors closed for preferred display purposes no shortcuts were taken in the engine department. The 318 Polly Head motor and box were meticulously rebuilt and detailed accordingly.

No true custom is complete without a conceptualised interior, as is the case with Atom. Good friend and confidant Brian Kirkpatrick has been instrumental throughout the creation of this car and is credited for more than just the trim job. Partially working from a hot rod inspired cockpit the pair nutted out an appropriate stitch job like two naughty kids squirrelled away from their parents supervision. “Brian and I sat in the car drawing on the door panels for hours taking cues from the rear panel and just worked it out,” he says with a laugh. In agreement with the design both boys went their separate ways to advance on the job at hand.

Justin continues, “I knew exactly the colour I wanted and just couldn’t find it anywhere, including samples imported from the states and it just didn’t happen. I was getting desperate and checked out Spotlight one day and there it was looking at me. That was it. The carpet came from Arthur Matts who had some NOS ‘62 Dodge carpet and after some research it quite possibly could have been the original carpet if it was ordered in green trim. I actually had the carpet a long time before any of the other trim and it became the deciding factor for the colour palette used throughout the car. Arthur was here on my open day and he asked me what colour I was going to do the car and I told him I wanted to do it silver with green trim but no one could see it and he said ‘awesome do it!’ I said you’re the first person that agreed and then he told me he had some green carpet, ‘I’m not sure if it’s the green you’re thinking of but I’ll send up a sample’. When I got it I nearly shit myself! F@#$ off that’s exactly what I was thinking!”

The silver component of the interior was an Ebay special located by Brian whom Justin believes is high altitude weather balloon material and is a perfect match for the stark exterior. Great for outta space cruising as well I guess.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

“The concept was already in my head from the first moment when I looked at the car, ‘I want to build a space vehicle’, like the space race inspired concept cars from the past, in silvers and greys. I was going to two tone it but I really wanted that starkness and if I added another colour it would take that away from it and it would become another car. The concept would have been lost. As much as everybody wanted me to do it they couldn’t see what I could visualise, I just needed it to be left alone and clean.”

“We were bouncing names around for a while in that vein and then Brian text me about 2am in the morning and said, ‘look what I found you… Atom licence plates.’ He was mucking about on the RTA website and found that a used car dealership called Atom originally had Atom 1 and Atom 2 plates but recently let them go, making them available. I bought them that night.” Unfortunately when Justin went to pick up said number plates from the RTA it was just outside of their holding time of a month and they had been reclaimed. He could reapply and cough up another $260 but considering the tight time constraints it just wasn’t worth the worry to only have them for photographs.

THE BLACKOUT

With the ambitious deadline upon him Justin and the Hills & Co team made a mad thrash during the final week before Atom needed to be on the ship bound for stardom. This was our second attempt to photograph the car as there were just too many pieces missing at the time of our first scheduled appointment. On the final day before shipment items were still unfinished but we had to photograph the car knowing it was to be our last chance on Aussie soil. As the transporter was due to pick up the Dodge at 2am the next morning we gave Justin and his crew as much time as possible to meet their deadline. We started shooting at 6pm and finished at 11, leaving Justin only 3 hours for last minute amendments. Done and dusted he shot home for a quick shower before loading his beloved creation onto the transporter and escorted it four hours to Sydney. Running on almost adrenalin alone the uneventful trip ended when he slipped Atom effortlessly into a waiting container. The feeling of relief to have finally made it was soon overcome by an unexpected bolt from the blue.

“I’d had about two or three hours sleep in the last four days and really wasn’t eating much but I was feeling fine just running on the high. As soon as it was in the container I felt woozy and said to my friends helping me strap the car down, ‘I think I better sit down’, and then it was lights out,” he recalls. When Justin came to about five minutes later he didn’t know what day it was or what car he was loading. His prearranged appointments in Sydney would have to wait and after he and his car hitched a ride back home with the transporter he slept for two days straight.

THE SHOW

As no one had ever seen the car before Justin had no idea how it was going to be received during the unveiling at the Grand National Roadster Show. “I was so nervous because something was going to happen, either people would like it or you were going to get knocked down. I put everything into this car and it really meant a great deal. Even setting up that first day with other builders walking around, I was kinda wanting to hide it. We were still installing pieces and the steering wheel right up until the last minute. Then you get to stand back and look at it and all your imperfections just stand out at you and you become paranoid. Then you look at the other cars and see they have their demons as well and then you come back with a bit more of an open mind and start to enjoy it a bit more.It was kinda cool to hear people talk about those Aussie guys, they know we are here now and hanging out with John (D’Agostino) certainly helps as his positive energy creates a great atmosphere to be around.”

“The Sacramento show really had some stunning cars and the detail was incredible. John won King of Customs and when they walked up to me with this eight foot trophy and a gold cup the first word that came out of my mouth were ‘F@#$ Off’, I was blown away. I didn’t really know what I had won until I read it on the trophy, World’s Most Beautiful… and I thought no… you’ve made a mistake! Looking around at the other cars the Dodge really stood out, different amongst your more traditional customs and maybe they thought it was like a breath of fresh air. Andy Colalillo was with me when I was awarded the trophy and he was really pleased with the result. He’s a great guy and it was really great to have him be a part of it.”

Justin reveals a rather funny altercation with the famous George Barris. “I had a disagreement with George about the grille, which I really took as a compliment. He said he really loved my car but the grille looked like it came like that from the factory. And I said but that’s what I was trying to achieve, a concept car from the factory! Not trying to build a custom for a custom sake, but he couldn’t see it. It’s nice that George acknowledged my existence and it may have cost me the Barris award, but I’m really happy with my decision,” he says with a chuckle.

THE JOURNEY

“The main reason for taking the Buick over there in the first place was to be a part of the scene while the legends like Barris, Winfield and D’Agostino are still doing it. The same guys I have admired and read about for years. It was awesome not to just be there but to become part of it.”

“It was an amazing, amazing journey. I’ve done things that people never achieve and never do. If you just get off your arse and just do it, it can happen. Unfortunately you can break a few things along the way. It’s a bit like a drug induced trip where the high of actually getting the car there and then winning the prize was so incredible coming back to day to day reality was a huge deflation,” Justin reflects.

The juggle of home life, the workshop and two little kids can take its toll on all involved and by Justin’s own admission, “you can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs, and I definitely broke a few last year.” Life’s a challenge any way you look at it. How you correct your errors builds strength and character in any relationship, be it business or personal. Temporarily blinded by his own obsession, Justins clarity for lifes most important things is his current focus. He would also like to take this opportunity to personally thank everyone who helped make this epic journey a reality, especially the Hills & Co team who kept customer cars on course and put in the hard yards on Atom during the final push.

“The boys really kept the shop running on all eight slugs during the build and while I was overseas and they deserve full credit. To Andy, Brian and the efforts by Shayne Penfold during show set up I am immensely thankful. To Sam, Monet and Milli, I’m back!”

To say that Justin is already looking for his next canvas should come as no surprise; it will be how he attacks this next project that will make the difference. With his name now well cemented as a true contender in the custom car world his need to return to the competition is less dire allowing time to be less prohibitive. A plan to create his next custom over a two year duration should become a more sustainable juggling act. Investing just over 12 months to win World’s Most Beautiful Custom title, just imagine what he can do with double the time!

Justin heads back to Sacramento in February 2014 to become inducted into the Legends Hall Of Fame which I’m sure will refuel the fire burning in his belly to continue on with living the dream.

FEATURED CRUZIN #151, WORDS BY DALE HABERFIELD, PHOTOS MILLBROOK STUDIO.

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