Phil Hill was the first American-born race car driver to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans (which he did three times) and remains the only one to win the World Driving Championship, awarded to the person who scores the most points in a season on the Formula One or Grand Prix racing circuit.
But Hill’s most far-reaching impact on the American automotive scene may have come in 1955 when he took the LeBaron-bodied 1931 Pierce Arrow town car convertible he’d restored to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and drove away with best-of-show honors.
Until then, such prestigious car shows had given such honors to contemporary cars. Since then, classic cars have dominated such awards while escalating in value to the point that they often sell for eight-figure amounts at collector car auctions.
At the Amelia Island concours earlier this year (generally considered to rate second only to Pebble Beach), show organizers asked judges to select a vehicle restoration specialist worthy of the inaugural Phil Hill Trophy. That was Mike Kleeves, whose Automotive Metal Shaping Co. is based in the Michigan Thumb community of Kimball. AMS had restored a 1960 Aston Martin DB4 GTZ owned and displayed at Amelia Island by the Helena Collection of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The extremely valuable car originally was bodied by the famed Italian coach builder Zagato. The car was judged best in its class at the Amelia concours.
“The Phil Hill Trophy and Craftsman Tools Award honors the person who did the hard, exacting work and the meticulous research,” Amelia Island founder Bill Warner said in presenting the award, which was awarded in a unanimous vote of the judges.
“Typically, trophies go to car owners. We want to recognize and reward the restoration specialists whose work and passion represent the spirit and contributions of Phil Hill and the excellent of his life’s work.”
In addition to a stunning trophy, Kleeves received a large Craftsman Tools rolling cabinet with Hill’s image on the drawer faces.
People such as Kleeves and his six-person AMS team are among the unsung heroes of the classic car world.
“What Bill’s trying to do is to give some credit to the people in the background,” Kleeves said.
We visited Kleeves’ shop recently and saw five classic cars undergoing restoration, a process that typically takes 12-18 months and as many as 7,000 man-hours of labor. Though perhaps something of a secret even to car enthusiasts in Michigan (AMS has no website), Kleeves has a national reputation.
Jean Bugatti created three Type 64 coupe chassis but could put bodywork on only two of them before his death in 1939. When West Coast museum owner and car collector Peter Mullin obtained that never-bodied chassis, he commissioned Stewart Reed, a Michigan native and head of the automotive department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, to design the car and Kleeves and his team to turn Reed’s drawings into three-dimensional sheet metal.
AMS also has done cars that have gone to the Porsche museum in Germany and the Revs Institute/Collier Collection in Florida.
Kleeves’ company also has done prototype builds for Detroit automakers, and while automobiles may be the specialty, AMS also has shaped metal for airplanes and recently was called in to help restore the famed marquee above the entrance to Detroit’s historic Fox Theater.
Kleeves, who grew up in Port Huron, credits various mentors for his success. They range from his grandfather, who had him sanding cars before Kleeves was a teenager, to two veteran British metalworkers who let Kleeves visit them at the GM Tech Center, and especially Red Tweil, who invited Kleeves to the famed California Metal Shaping operation to learn old-school techniques, which Kleeves and his team still use in combination with the latest in technology.
Like Zagato and the other Italian pioneers, AMS staffers can pound metal over wooden forms using hand-held hammers, can manipulate an English wheel, or can operate huge power hammers to turn late sheets of steel or aluminum into sculptural fenders, hoods and complete running vehicles.
And all such tools are needed on restoration projects, Kleeves added.
Even before any work begins, “We can ‘see’ the car already done,” he said, “but I can’t tell you all the things we’re going to have to do to get there.”
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.