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Going Downtown With PPG

Whether it’s a muscle car, street machine or hot rod, the epic builds from Down Town Kustoms feature hi-tech solutions that go hand-in-hand with bespoke craftsmanship.

Picture a traditional custom shop and it can conjure up images of old-school craftspeople slowly and methodically beavering away with time-honoured tools, such as hammer and dolly, English wheel, swages and bucks, to painstakingly fashion bespoke parts.

In contrast, Down Town Kustoms actually thinks of itself as very much a 21st century interpretation, although it has the age-old coachbuilding capabilities, too. At its disposal, Graeme Brewer and his team has a smorgasbord of tech driven tools and processes, including CAD (Computer Aided Design), 3-D modelling and 3-D printing, all aimed at maximising efficiency, along with the quality of the end result. According to Graeme, coming from outside the industry, as an air-conditioning mechanic, actually turned out to be an advantage when starting Down Town Kustoms in December 2007. Without a reference point, he and first employee, Damien Parker, set about establishing the workshop in Taree, on the mid-north coast of NSW, with high tech foundations.

“Because neither of us had worked in a custom workshop, we were paranoid about doing things right and it ended up being crazy good. We thought everyone was building cars the way we did but, it turns out, there are just a select few and the proof-is-in-the-pudding.” Graeme also brought along an obsession with chassis and suspension which he had picked up after getting into the ‘mini truck’ scene at about 17 years old.

“When I started Down Town Kustoms I specialised in air bag suspension. A lot of slammed cars are pretty terrible to drive but I figured out a way to keep them low but to drive well at the same time. It has been a massive focus for me and I even took it upon myself to study suspension and chassis design. Today, we design and manufacture all the chassis and suspension components in-house. Creating them in complete assemblies, using CAD, means there is no guesswork involved. On the computer, I can run the suspension through its travel, check there are no clearance issues and check full lock on the steering in either direction. There is even a program that does a driving simulation!” Bringing all these technologies together, along with a skilled crew to utilise them, didn’t happen overnight. The steady build up was capped off by a 2017 workshop renovation which debuted Down Town Kustoms’ new paint department, as well as a partnership with PPG.

“We decided it was time to add our own booth and paint area. When it came to a paint system, I did the research and everyone was adamant that PPG is the best. I’m really glad we went with PPG – the products are great and the support we get, particularly from Joal Butcher (PPG Territory Manager) is fantastic. We use PPG’s Deltron basecoat system, as well as different special finishes from the Vibrance® Collection range when  required, and then finish it off with VCC580 Custom Clear. When you see what our painter is able to do using PPG products, the results speak for themselves. I’m also adamant that we are a custom shop – always was and always will be – which means we only build custom cars or selected classics – no random things like gates, fences or fab work. The paint shop is there just for our builds. It might be a bit of a luxury but I’m stubborn – I refuse to paint random things or smash repair work.”

According to Graeme, the fact that Down Town Kustoms chooses to do just custom work and nothing else is one more element that sets it apart from many other custom shops. Nowadays, there is a team of eight, including fabricators, bodyworkers, a painter, an auto electrician and an assembler, who tackle a wide variety of different custom work but majoring on muscle cars and the occasional pickup truck. As the team grew, it has freed up Graeme to dedicate more time to computer designing, as well as working on the business. “When a new job comes in, we don’t perform a single cut on that car until it’s fully built on screen. First, we work with the customer to learn about their dreams and if that fits their budget. If it doesn’t, we look at their priorities – big brakes, wheels, engine, etc – to make sure they have those items and look at where we can keep costs down elsewhere. The whole idea of introducing all the technology is to be efficient at everything we do so we can offer a very reasonable hourly rate. It’s also about using the latest techniques.

For example, we don’t do bodywork in the normal smash shop sort of way. I reached out to a good friend, Peter Lamb from Melomotive, who taught me all about surfacing in a more industrial design kind of way – it’s faster and more accurate. We trained all the guys and now our bodywork area is set up more like a design studio with proper lighting and tools.

People talk about ‘street’ cars and ‘show’ cars but we basically build all our cars the same way. What separates them is the extra physical time it takes for things like ultra-precise body gapping and bodywork alignment.” Rather than the old trial and error method, Graeme says, advanced ‘top-down’ modelling is used which sees every single part built on computer so there is no guesswork involved. The result is a smooth, easy build process where there is minimal stress for him and the team. “A really good example is a HT Monaro we did recently. The theme was for it to look like a classic HT Monaro but to change every aspect so it worked like a modern car. This was really the first car where we were able to apply every technique we had learnt. Everything was 3-D modelled and there was lots of 3-D printing of prototype parts for testing. For instance, instead of refurbishing the worn-out door hinges, I drew them on CAD and 3-D printed a prototype hinge assembly. After bolting it to the car, we could swing the door to make sure we were totally happy before going ahead and CNC machining them out of a solid block of aluminium. At the same time, we improved the design.

Instead of just a pin rolling on cast aluminium, it now rolls on self-lubricating bronze bushes. Afterwards, we did the same thing for the bonnet and boot hinges.” “When it came to the interior, we didn’t want to use the costly and timeconsuming traditional method. Instead, we 3-D scanned the car, I drew the entire interior layout in CAD and then we CNC routed the door cards out of solid foam, before wrapping them in leather – it was so much quicker and easier. The Monaro is a monocoque body so I designed a three-quarter chassis that actually cups into the floor and slots in very easily, while also fitting around the front k-frame. It’s stronger, it drives better, it puts the power to the ground better – everything is better! Best of all, that design work is fully transferrable to the next HT Holden which comes in the door – I just click on the file, send it to the laser-cutter and it’s done.”

While he thoroughly enjoys working with his tightknit crew, Graeme says he particularly relishes the opportunities he gets to design in the computer world where it becomes a totally immersive experience. “Where it can take days designing a part the traditional paper way, with CAD you can design a complex part in just minutes. When you are on a roll, it can actually be a real adrenaline rush. As soon as the thought enters your brain, it flows down your fingers into the mouse and keyboard and it appears on screen – it’s that fast! There is a lot of time spent on computer but it’s way quicker than designing part manually. What it does is cut out massive amounts of labour time which frees up money in the budget to spend more on the priorities with the car.”

Look at the accompanying images and you could be forgiven for thinking the workshop has been cleaned up especially for a photo shoot but it’s actually how you will find it on any given day.

“First thing on the agenda every Monday morning is a thorough clean. We are aiming for that high-end dealership type experience where it’s immaculate all the time. If a customer is going to spend up to $500,000 on a car, you want them to walk in and feel totally comfortable with giving us their pride and joy to look after. The boys love it, too. It’s a very, very comfortable place to work.”

Despite being located around 3.5 hours north of Sydney, Graeme says he has generally been able to find skilled staff, with most of his team moving to Taree from other parts of the state or Queensland. Although team members have their individual roles, they work together for the ultimate goal. “I would say that we are all perfectionists and it’s hard to know when to stop sometimes. But when you finish a car and hand it over to the customer who has a huge smile – nothing beats that. We hand the car over as a team so everyone is involved. If we go somewhere to show a car, I take all the guys. If we win an award, we all get up on stage to accept it.

Our success really does come from the team, as a whole – I can’t stress that enough. We are like a family who just want to build really nice cars and I’m so grateful for the boys and all they do for the cause.”