Customs by Kilkeary, Building Hot Rods and a Reputation
If you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. Tim Kilkeary learned that lesson the hard way about six years ago, when a disastrous build experience at a local hot rod shop led him to realize that he wanted to open a custom shop that delivered quality work and made good on its promises. As a result, Customs by Kilkeary was born in 2012 in sleepy Eighty Four, Pennsylvania.
Kilkeary had been in the business of fixing up cars for years, running a mechanical company as well as a body shop that services nine local new car dealerships. Making the jump into the custom world was not something Kilkeary had planned to do, but he knew that he could offer the quality and creativity that he—and other car lovers—wanted in a car build.
“I started the custom shop somewhat on a shoestring budget,” Kilkeary said. “I bought equipment and put it in a section of the body shop. I hired one guy, EJ Talik, and slowly transitioned from one guy [working here] to five guys.”
After a few years, the dedicated space in Kilkeary’s body shop was too small for the amount of custom work the shop had, so he built a new hot rod shop and officially separated his businesses.
“Our reputation in the area is really good,” Kilkeary said. “I’m born and raised here, and the local people know us and the hot rodders know us. Our body shop has a good, honest reputation and I think that’s helped us with the custom shop. People know we’re not the cheapest, but we’re certainly going to give the level of quality and attention to detail the hot rodders are looking for.”
It All Started With a Woodie
Kilkeary got his start working in his father’s body shop as a teenager, and both father and son are lifelong hot rod nuts. In 2011, Kilkeary was working on a 1949 Tin Woodie for himself, and decided to have it finished at another hot rod shop in the area that was, at the time, a big name in the industry. Kilkeary’s father was building a 1940 Ford coupe, so Kilkeary took both cars to the shop in hopes that they would complete the builds.
“It was a horrible experience,” Kilkeary said. “I got a good sense early on that things were going south. I realized that, at the rate the shop was [working on our cars], they were never going to get done.”
Discouraged, Kilkeary pulled both cars out of the shop. The bad situation turned good, though when Kilkeary came up with a game plan that would ensure that he, and other local hot rodders, would never get the run around by a hot rod shop again.
“I was so mad!” he said. “I said, ‘If that guy can be that successful and run his company so poorly, I’m gonna knock him down and take his lunch money! And that’s just what I did.”
The fact that Kilkeary and his father already owned a successful body shop helped them quickly establish a place to do the custom work. Still, Kilkeary needed skilled workers—and he had a good idea of where to find them.
“Eventually, that other hot rod shop went out of business,” he said. “Turns out the guy had a lot of super-talented people working for him, so I sought some of them out. I had the resources to put the facility together and get the right people here.
“From my perspective, the demise of the other shop created a bit of a vacuum,” Kilkeary said. “There was now a market in the area for this kind of work, and people trusted us because they knew about our body shop. I kind of just knew that the custom shop was going to work. We’ve had a lot of people who were involved with that other shop bring their vehicles to us to finish.”
Kilkeary’s first order of business once his custom shop was up and running was to finish his Tin Woodie and his father’s ’40 Ford coupe. With his talented team working alongside him, Kilkeary completed both cars, and got the Tin Woodie finished how he wanted it.
“I had a vision of what I wanted that car to be, and it came out exactly how I had hoped,” he said. “It was a piece of crap when I bought it, but it was an unrestored, completely original car. I really wanted to keep it from looking over-the-top.”
The car, which went on to be named a finalist for Goodguys 2013 Vintage Air Custom Rod of the Year, is a good example of the work done at Customs by Kilkeary.
“I think ‘understated’ is a good word to describe that Tin Woodie, and the work we do in general,” Kilkeary said. “Our stuff is not over-the-top with loud exhausts, or stripes and graphics. We usually try to keep our stuff looking classy and high-end.”
Beyond the Camaro
Kilkeary admits that when he first revealed his plan to build a Tin Woodie, he got a lot of strange looks.
“People thought I was crazy to want to hot rod that car,” he said. “But that’s the kind of stuff I love to do. I’m a first-gen Camaro nut, and that’s my favorite car, but it’s not my favorite to work on because they’re just so common.”
Kilkeary instead likes to take on cars that other builders may view as challenging.
“We’ve built some weird stuff,” Kilkeary said. “We hotrodded a ’57 Buick Caballero station wagon. We are working on a ’56 Pontiac Star Chief right now. That’s just an odd car in general, and definitely not something you would usually see as a hot rod. A lot of the cars we build are a bit off the radar, and I think our customers appreciate that. They know that they won’t have the same car as everyone else at the car show.”
It’s usually Kilkeary’s customers that come to him with unique ideas for hot rods, but Kilkeary and his team are more than happy to jump on a project that’s outside the box.
“I love Camaros and Mustangs but they’re belly button cars—everybody has one,” he said. “How do you build something that hasn’t been built already?”
That’s not to say that Kilkeary won’t work on those cars, though. In fact, the shop recently completed a’68 Ford Mustang for former Pittsburgh Steeler Ike Taylor. Kilkeary admits that he wasn’t thrilled when he took on the project, though.
“I honestly wasn’t that excited about doing it, because it was going to be another Pro-Touring Mustang,” he said. “It’s hard to make it look different from the nine million other ones out there. But Ike was different because he didn’t just want a cool car, he wanted his car. He could have bought a completed car at an auction or whatever, but he didn’t want that. He wanted a car that was built just for him.
Taylor didn’t give Kilkeary and his team a lot of direction for the car. He just wanted it to look “sinister” and be really, really fast.
“He wanted it fast—1,100 horsepower!—but I told him that he didn’t need it that fast,” Kilkeary said. “He wanted it low so we took the ball and ran with it.”
Kilkeary’s first rendering attempt—a black car with gold details as a nod to Taylor’s Pittsburgh Steelers past—was quickly rejected by Taylor.
“He absolutely hated it!” Kilkeary said. “He told us that he didn’t want a black car, so we went with a really dark gray. It’s so dark that most of the time people think it’s black until you get right up on it, which is what he wanted. When it was finished, he was thrilled with it.”
He wasn’t the only one; the car was a huge hit with the car show crowds, and was named a finalist for Goodguys 2016 PPG Street Machine of the Year last summer in Columbus.
“I was surprised! I never expected it to do so well, because the other cars it was competing against were so amazing,” Kilkeary said. “But people love Mustangs.”
No matter what Kilkeary’s building—whether it be a celebrity’s car or an off-the-wall oddball hot rod—he maintains strict build standards.
“If there’s anything I absolutely insist on it’s that we finish something that’s absolutely detailed to the max, down to the smallest details,” he said. “That’s what sets a lot of the good shops apart from the rest. We’re known for our fit and finish. That’s been our trademark and I am a nut for details. Even the parts [on the car] you don’t see are handled as if they are the focal point of the car. My guys do that with all the wiring, engineering, paint; everything has to be on the money.”
Kilkeary says he’s assembled a fantastic five-person team for his custom shop that has no trouble meeting his high standards—and his thirst for hot rod oddities. Roddities if you will!
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the people I employ,” he said. “My hot rod guys are rock-solid. I’ve never replaced any of them, just added to them. There really isn’t much that I would look at and think that my guys couldn’t handle it. I know we’re capable of doing just about anything, and that really opens things up for our customers.”
When a customer came to him with an idea to hot rod a 1956 Pontiac Star Chief convertible, Kilkeary didn’t hesitate to take on the task.
“My guys are really excited about this car,” he said. “The owner has the resources to allow us to get something completed at the level we want to do it. You can only do the quality level that a customer can afford, and I have really high hopes for this particular car. The owner wanted to make a hot rod out of it, and I know my guys can pull it off and that we can make it into something super bad-ass.”
Kilkeary is hoping that the build will further solidify his shop’s place in the industry.
“We’re a fairly new shop, compared to some of the other guys out there,” he said. “I think we’re still searching for that car that will put us on the map, and this Pontiac may be the one.”
The build is well underway at the shop, and should be ready to make its debut at the 2017 SEMA Show. Although Kilkeary and his team are really excited about the job, not everyone is thrilled that Kilkeary is attempting to hot rod a ’56 Pontiac Star Chief convertible.
“I’m not going to lie; there are some people on the Internet that are really pissed off that we’re cutting up this ’56,” Kilkeary admitted. “It’s a rare car, so a lot of people feel that it should not be cut up. But in my personal opinion, we’re making it a better car than it was. I think we are going to turn it into something that’s really great, because the passion and creativity is there.” Kilkeary’s Facebook page has some updated build pictures of the Star Chief construction.
Currently, all of the shop’s work is done in-house, except for engine building and upholstery work. In the fall of 2016, Kilkeary hired full-time body man John Harrison for the custom shop, which allowed him to stop subletting the body work to his mainstream body shop.
“The body shop is where we do mostly collision work, so it was becoming a problem,” Kilkeary said. “I’m so lucky because my hot rod guys are really good, and they basically manage themselves. They stay busy, keep the shop clean and are very efficient.”
Kilkeary still finds himself spending more time in the body shop than the custom shop, but hopes to eventually be able to devote more of his time to the custom builds.
“Eventually I’d love to be able to spend more time in the hot rod business, but I’m growing that shop a little bit at a time,” he said.
Currently, the shop only takes on three or four full builds at a time in the custom shop, and Kilkeary prefers it that way.
“Getting the stuff finished and getting it out to the customer [on time] is really important to me,” he said. “I know what it’s like to get burned by a shop and not know if your car is ever going to be finished.