Flashback: Chopped custom 1960 Dodge Dart – ATOM

If Justin Hills was a fashion designer, he'd be king of the catwalks. Instead, he's built the world's most beautiful custom

Photographers: Tim Sutton

This article on Justin’s Dodge was originally published in issue 11 of Street Machine’s Hot Rod magazine, 2013

IF YOU asked Justin Hills whether this car – recently judged as the world’s most beautiful custom – was actually a custom, he’d hesitate. Yeah, it’s got a chopped roof, shaved handles, custom grille and bumpers, and dropped sills. But, it’s still got the stock headlights and taillights, all of the chrome and trim is still there and in its original location, and the colour is a mild but classy straight-up silver. No scallops, no pinstriping, no fade job. So, what is it?

Well, the best explanation Justin could come up with was, it’s a concept custom, and this is how he explains it: “If you look at some of the early GM and early Ford, even Dodge and Chrysler advertising, they’re chopped, they’re lowered, they’ve got no handles, they’ve got one-piece windows… These are the drawings they wanted to produce, but once it goes through the process of engineering and bean counting – it’s got to have this and that, it’s got to be tall enough for six-foot people – all the styling gets lost and they produce these cars that are still great looking, but not as great looking as the artist’s impression.

“So that’s what I’m trying to do, create these artist’s impressions of how they should have looked. I don’t know if they’re a custom or not? I don’t know where my cars fit into.”

Justin sticks to a pretty simple formula, and so far it’s been working out just fine: “You’ve got to keep all the great bits, and there’s a lot of them on these cars, get rid of all the crap and don’t add too much. I try to keep them clean and simple and understated. I know the Dodge is more radical than the Buick, but it’s still along the same lines.”

Taree-based Justin has made a name for himself in a relatively short space of time. After wowing the Yanks with his ’49 Buick Sedanette, which he took to the US with Mario Colalillo in 2011, he completely brained them with this car, impressing the judges at the Grand National Roadster Show enough to take home Top Radical Custom, and being awarded the H.A. Bagdasarian Award for World’s Most Beautiful Custom at Sacramento Autorama. “Max Grundy told me that people have been trying all their lives to win that award and I’ve gone and done it within two cars,” says Justin.

So how does one build a top-shelf custom – one good enough to beat the Yanks at their own game – in less than 12 months? Well, first you gotta find a car. Luckily for Justin there was one practically under his nose, he just didn’t realise it at first.

A ’60 Caddy bumper that’s been sliced and diced. It’s been cleaned up with the removal of the ‘door knobs’, with trim pieces from a ’58 Olds used as eyebrows

Previously the Dodge belonged to Andy Colalillo, who was doing bits and pieces to it at his dad’s workshop. It was parked outside the shop when Justin went to load up the Buick to take to the US. “I was waiting for Mario and Andy to turn up – they were stuck in traffic and I was waiting for about an hour,” he recalls. “I was just sitting in my car and then I thought I’d get out and have a look at the Dodge. I noticed the doors were unlocked, so I opened it up and peered inside and had a real good look around and thought, this is a good thing. I sort of started seeing little visions of what I could do to it there and then.”

Then reality kicked back in and Justin was off on a few trips to the US showing off the Buick. He didn’t really think much about the old Dodge until he returned. “It was in the back of my mind but I didn’t really think too much about it. But when we got back from the trip, Andy started posting pictures of the Dodge on Facebook. I think he put some whitewalls on it and wound down the torsion bars, it sort of reignited the flame. I thought to myself, I’ve got to have this thing. So I phoned up Andy and said: ‘Dude, you’re going to have to sell me this car. Don’t go any further with it because I’m going to have to buy it.’ So we struck up a deal and that was it. I really wanted to cut it up, I could just see little spaceship images in my mind.”

The 318 Dodge Poly four-barrel engine has been rebuilt to bog-stock specifications and runs like a clock. A giant, two-tonne clock on wheels, that is

The car got delivered to Justin’s place just after MotorEx 2011, but he didn’t really get to work until December. If your maths is any good and you know the GNRS is held early in the year, you’ll realise Justin had the car built in around 12 months.

“I felt the Buick put me in a good position over there and a lot of people liked it,” he says. “I knew I needed to get something else out quick before that thought of me dropped away.

“Once I got into this thing, I couldn’t control it. I was having such a good time building it, there was nothing I could do to stop it. Probably a quarter of the way into the build I set myself the deadline of the Grand National Roadster Show.”

One benefit of building a custom is that you can usually get away with a pretty basic undercarriage. Most in the US are all fancy paint and interiors, but pop the bonnet and it’ll often be pretty much as it was found. That’s not the case with this car. Everything is new, the engine has been completely rebuilt, and the suspension has copped some fairly major mods.

The simple trim job in the boot hides the airbag system, an amp and battery. The Thunderbird-style boot treatment is a highlight of the body mods

Being a torsion bar front end and leaf spring rear, it took a bit of stuffing around to get the airbags in. Apologies to all you torsion bar-loving Moparphiles out there, but that shit had to go.

Once the foundations of the car were in place, it was time to concentrate on the body. Unsurprisingly, the first thing to get the chop was the roof. Ordinarily the process would involve cutting around the rear window and leaning it forward until the desired profile was achieved, but Dodge hardtops require something a little different. “The stock back window on these cars was huge, with the glass finishing above the heads of the back-seat occupants, but you couldn’t chop the car with that glass in it because it would be too much of a fish bowl,” explains Justin.

As it turns out, you could also order the hardtops with a shorter rear window — 11 inches shorter, in fact — which proved to be something a little more manageable for Justin, but it still took a massive amount of work to get it all right. “I don’t have the benefit of what the Americans have where they can just go to a yard and cut one out of another car,” he laments. “But I had to modify the frame and the stainless trim around the glass.”

Though appearances might suggest the car is pretty heavily hammered, it only measures up at four inches. “I pushed it to the limit,” claims Justin. “Any more and it would have been too silly; any less and it wouldn’t have been as radical. I wanted something a bit harder hitting — people need to be shocked every now and then.”

Another key feature is the grille and front bumper. It looks like it came that way from the factory — and that was the plan — but, according to Justin, it’s far from it. “It’s got a ’60 Cadillac bumper on the front. I didn’t want to use a ’59; it’s too familiar. The spears on the grille are from a ’58 Oldsmobile door that I cut down and modified, which gives it the Chrysler look back. Some people like it and some don’t. I don’t mind it; it looks almost back to stock.”

It even got a reaction from the famed George Barris, who said he didn’t like the grille because it looked too stock. “He was probably meaning it as a dig. That was what I was trying to achieve, so it looked like it came out like that. I told him, ‘This is a concept, not a custom as you’ve always seen things.’ But it was good for him to even acknowledge it.”

With a dashboard this crazy from the factory, why would you change it? It’s basically been pulled apart, cleaned up and put back together

Without doubt, the most memorable custom touch on the car, and the one that it will be remembered for, is the boot treatment, which was once part of a ’60 Thunderbird. “It was a big move,” Justin admits. “Do I cut up this perfectly good boot lid into pieces? The outside wasn’t too hard, it was all the inner frame that took the time. I used parts of the Thunderbird and parts of the original car, matched it all together and spliced and diced.”

Bryan Kilpatrick and Justin spent hours working out the trim. The pieces on the centre panel of the parcel shelf tie in nicely with the pleats in the seats

If you saw the car at MotorEx 2012, you’ll notice that this paintjob is a little better than the pressure pack Silver Frost that was on it. Justin always likes to have a little bit of British in his cars — being a Pom and all — so he chose Aston Martin Silver, which was applied with the help of Chris Linehan, one of his employees at Hills and Co Customs. “We double-gunned it, which is the first time I’ve ever let anyone near any of my cars. Chris is great; he paints exactly the same as me. He painted half the roof, half the bonnet and half the boot, and you’d never know.”

The idea behind Atom was a simple one – build something that lives up th the catalogue

You might think that to get it done so quickly Justin had his whole team work on the car while he signed cheques and sipped cups of tea. Not even close. For close to a year, he was the only one who touched it. It wasn’t until final assembly that he got the crew involved. Besides, they were busy working on customer cars.

With his rep now firmly established in the custom scene, Justin can afford to take things a little slower. He plans to debut his next car at GNRS 2015, or maybe even 2016? We can barely imagine how cool that’ll be with so much time up his sleeve!

Justin Hills


Paint: Glasurit Aston Martin Silver

Type: Dodge 318 Poly
Carb: Four-barrel
Exhaust: Twin system

Box: TorqueFlite
Diff: Stock

Front end: Airbags
Steering: Stock
Brakes: Drums

Rims: 14×5.5 steel rims with ’61 Ford Starliner hubcaps
Rubber: Coker Classic wide whites G78