Altissimo And The Art Of Custom Car Building

Altissimo’s 1936 Ford, appropriately christened “Venus” Photo: Altissimo Restoration

The custom car scene can be a tumultuous arena with two very delineated camps. The folks that build their cars and the folks that don’t. The story we are about to tell is a about a hard core car guy that happens to build high end custom cars for folks who can afford ’em. Last time we checked, a talented car guy with gasoline in his veins running his own business, is the epitome of the American dream.

Meet automotive impresario Brandon Penserini, owner of Altissimo Restoration located in Napa, California. Altissimo Restoration has been creating rolling works of art for 16 years now, and the shop’s work seemingly gets better with age.

Penserini’s mission statement is telling, “What began as a labor of love has become my sanity,” “I enjoy working with my hands and using an automobile body as a canvas. I learned to see the beauty in the beast and diamond in the rough. It’s become more than a labor of love… it’s a passion that runs in my blood, an appreciation of the past and a devotion to the art.”

We met Brandon in person at the 2016 Sacramento Autorama, while admiring Scott and Holly Roberts and their Altissimo built 1954 Mercury. He’s a big, bear of a guy with a “gentle giant” demeanor, very approachable with an obvious passion for what he’s doing.

One look at Altissimo’s work is self explanatory. Laser straight sheetmetal, acres of foot deep paint and subtle custom touches that add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Altissimo Shop gives a nod to Larry Watson’s old shop. Photo: Altissimo Restoration

We caught up with Penserini again on the phone recently and he told us how he got tangled up with the “indoor” custom car scene. “I’ve always built my own cars. I was doing a build and I didn’t have enough money for a painter, so I did it myself and it turned out better than what I was getting by contracting it out. Paint chemistry was a mystery to me then, but I learned as I went along…”

These days, Penserini has a star studded roster of craftsman surrounding him. Famed metal man and chop artist John Aiello came onboard about four years ago.  Brandon explains, “John is one of my idols and to have him working at Altissimo is unbelievable.  The shop really turned a corner when he came to work with us.”

Most all Altissimo customs feature a bevy of metal tweaks from Penserini and Aiello, including deftly chopped tops, radiused openings and minuscule panel gaps. Chris Plante of Plante Interiors handles most all of Altissimo’s interior work and is one of our favorite shops, carefully blending color, texture, and materials with meticulous stitching. Penserini emcees the builds and finishes them off with his now considerable paint talents.

“Bronze God.” It’s hard to improve on Harley Earl’s brushstrokes, but here you go. Photo: Customikes.com

When we asked Brandon what next from Altissimo, he said “I’ve got twenty cars in the shop. I’m focused more right now on restoration because that’s how a shop makes end meet.  I’ve been doing alot of European cars that will “hit the grass,” aka Pebble Beach,  but still have several customs in the mix.” He hinted at ’59 Cadillac in the works. Stay tuned to the show circuit for a new custom from Altissimo for 2018.

While Penserini and Altissimo Restoration have many killer builds under their belt, including street rods, muscle cars, vintage European sports cars, and motorcycles, some of the work in recent years has truly stopped us in our tracks. Here we’ll take a closer look at three of Altissimo Restoration’s particularly stunning creations.

Venus – 1936 Ford

This is what “Venus” looked like before tranformation Photo: Customikes.com

Penserini acquired an old ’36 Ford and after touring big cheese developer John Mozart’s car museum with his collection of Packards and soaking up all the deco details of those old tear drops sleds–not to mention Chryslers and Cadillacs–he went to work grafting them onto the plebeian ’36 Ford. It started life a Five Window Coupe that was rough and rusty.

The grill and surround is a ’41 Nash, the fender halves were molded to create a one piece nose, like a Duesenburg. The taillight are ’37 Chrysler on Plymouth stanchions. The exterior trunk handle was fashioned by hand. The ribbed bumpers are original DeSoto, re-arched to match the ’36’s contours and custom brackets made to sneak them close to body.

Killer mahogany leather by Chris at Plante Interior

Elongated rear fenders, custom fender skirts, Imperial taillights on Plymouth stanchions, re-arched De Soto bumper.

First off, Altissimo chopped the top off and created a hand made, Packard style custom roadster windshield frame. The cockpit area was created by ending the body at the first style line, which lowered the profile and gave a sleeker silhouette and creating an illusion of a longer body. Essentially, the body line rolls into a bathtub style surround and a beautiful and seamless entry into the interior of the car. There is no channel, seal or glass to disrupt the flow of the body. A second trunk was also added. Photos – Altissimo Restoration

Look closely and you can see the rear fenders were lengthened and both front and rear fender peaks were accentuated. Custom fender skirts were made, as well as Cadillac inspired louvered hood sides. The wheels were finished with custom made baby moon flippers, similar to a 1934 Cadillac V16 roadster.

The spare tire cover has a hinged hubcap that accommodates the fuel filler neck to disrupt any external body lines. The pics, and awards, do all the talking.  Venus has won best paint and finalist for Custom of the Year at recent car shows. It’s also for sale if you’re interested…

Moving to the interior, one instantly notices the pearl wrapped 37 Ford Deluxe steering wheel and dash knobs. The dash’s instrument cluster was inspired by a 36 Mercedes with a pearl insert and utilized a 1934 Plymouth gauge cluster. The dash itself was handmade from Claro black walnut burl. All of the bezels were made in house as well out of brass stock and turned and polished to perfect. Photos- Altissimo Restorations

El Sueno

Owned by Scott & Holly Roberts, bringing this 1954 Mercury Monterey to its current state proved to be a team effort. Originally purchased by Scott so his wife could haul the family pups around in style, it wasn’t long before the Roberts realized the Mercury could use some new life breathed into it. Now dubbed El Sueno, or “The Dream” in Spanish, this Monterey is now anything but a rough and tumble hauler.

The start of the journey brought the Roberts to Matt Noble of Noble Fabrication, where the customization of this low and lean cruiser began. Along with a general road-worthiness refresh to the car’s mechanicals, Noble C-notched the rear end, put together a custom three-link suspension for the rear, and installed two and half inch drop spindles to the front to give the car a more dramatic stance.

To improve drivability, the shop also swapped out the drum brakes for a set of discs, added an air suspension system to allow for ride height adjustment on the fly, and tossed the factory gearbox in favor of a more modern Ford automatic transmission with overdrive.

El Sueno’s menacing stance is provided by two and half inch drop spindles up front and a custom three-link suspension system in the rear. Like the Bronze God build, the intention with this project was to create something that retained the core stylistic traits of the factory design, but with a host of tweaks that result in a presentation not unlike a concept car from that era. Photo:Goodguys.

But the Roberts weren’t done there. Once Noble Fabrication was finished with the car, they enlisted the help of designer Eric Black to do a rendering for the car as a full custom machine. Rendering in hand, they turned to Altissimo Restoration to take the car to the next level.

Penserini and his team set to work restyling the Merc with a traditional custom vibe, rounding off the hood and door corners, ditching the door handles and factory fuel filler door, and cleaning up the look with subtle touches like removing the Mercury emblem and chrome surrounds on the hood, and frenching the headlights into the fenders.

Period-correct aesthetic and color matched elements were the order of the day for the interior and engine bay, both of which show a high level of restyling upon close scrutiny without completely rewriting the playbook of the car's original design. It also remains highly functional, which is important because the Roberts still keep this Mercury cruising down the road under its own power today. Photos: Goodguys.

Penserini also refined the overall presentation of the Merc with his brand of subtle tweaks, like tightening the panel gaps, reworking the tail light design to eliminate the clutter caused by the backup lights, and tweaking the factory body work here and there to accentuate the car’s factory aesthetic. John Aiello would perform the surgery on the top, chopping three inches off to give the car its head-turning proportions before the team applied the Chili Verde paint from Spies Heckler.

Inside, the interior was color matched by Chris Plante of Plante Interior with leather upholstery paired up with metallic fabric inserts, while the dash was smoothed and painted to match the 292-cube Y-block V8 under the hood.

The Roberts and Brandon Penserini (left), seen here taking the award for Goodguys Street Rod Headquarters Custom of the Year at the 2016 event. Photo: Goodguys.

Completed in early 2016, it should come as little surprise that El Sueno has proven to be a show-stopper where ever it goes. The build would go on to win the Goodguys Street Rod Headquarters Custom of the Year award that year, and while the Merc has been elevated beyond dog-hauling status, the Roberts are still happily putting miles on this striking Monterey.

The Bronze God

While this certainly isn’t the first time someone’s restored a 1955 Cadillac Coupe Deville with a custom twist to it, it’s certainly among the most tasteful and detail-oriented projects we’ve ever seen. At first glance the differences can be tricky to immediately identify, but that’s kind of the point – this is about subtly and the sum of those customizations, rather than making a radical departure from Cadillac’s timeless design and flirting with gaudy territory.

Bronze God killed under the lights at Cal Expo Autorama. Photo: Customikes.com

“I’ve been in the restoration and custom paint business for the last decade and a half,” Penserini said in an interview with Custom Rodder. “During this time, we’ve won national titles and have had the privilege of showing and winning some of the highest honors in the industry. I have noticed during this time that the quality of custom cars is improving but the art has never quite reached near a restoration quality. So a few years ago I decided to buy a Cadillac and attempt to rattle the custom world and break its barriers of mediocre build standards.”

Penserini embarked on the Bronze God project, he set out to build a Coupe Deville to a higher standard than both Cadillac's as well as the custom world at large. While he wanted to do fairly extensive tweaks, his intention was also to retain all the incredible styling traits already present on the car. " Cadillac in the 1950's almost got it right," he said. "It was a challenge to improve on a design that was in nearly perfect form." His work takes the car to another level without alienating fans of the car's timeless original shape. Photos: BarrettJackson.

A six month search would eventually lead to a build candidate right in Penserini’s home town. “The car was in fairly good condition, matching numbers, fully documented and belonged to a fellow who collects and restores Cadillacs,” he explained. “We made a deal and I started replacing inferior parts with even better factory parts.”

Photo: Altissimo Restoration

Penserini also purchased a second car that had a cleaner set of trim pieces, as well as a more solid roof to work with. That allowed him to mix and match the best original parts from each vehicle.

Working with builders John Aiello and Raymond Gonzalez, Penserini spent the next year going through the car, meticulously restyling the Caddy in a traditional 50s-style custom flavor while making sure to retain all of the iconic Coupe DeVille design elements.

The benefits of Altissimo’s restyling efforts are seen in the sum of its parts rather than through a few dramatic alterations. Subtle yet deliberate tweaks bring the car to another level while staying in tune with its originality enough to ensure that the Vintique 15-inch wire wheels and BFG whitewalls still jive with the car’s overall look. Photos – BarrettJackson.

The car is painted in Desert Bronze, a 1958 Cadillac factory color from which the car’s Bronze God name originates. It retains an all-steel body using the factory sheetmetal and gets its sinister look from a three-inch chop to the roof.

Custom touches are found throughout, like in the taillights, which have been lowered an inch and half versus the factory location, along with shaved bumpers, nose, rear decklid and doors and quarters that have been lengthened three-quarters of an inch. The team also put great effort into cleaning up what was already there as well, tightening up panel gaps and rounding off corners to give the car a better-than-factory build presentation.

Once again, Plante Interior steals the show. The inserts on the dash and door panels are maple finished and faded in candy, while the trunk is upholstered and finished in wool carpet and leather the matches the cabin. A tastefully integrated sound system is on board as well, and includes a pair of six-inch component speakers in the package tray, 6x9 speakers in the dash, and a Rockford Fosgate amplifier installed in the glove box. Photos: BarrettJackson.

Inside, Italian leather with brocade fabric inserts is paired up with the Italian wool that was used for the headliner and carpeting, and the trunk has been outfitted to match.

On the mechanical front, the car rides on two-inch drop spindles from Fat Man that are paired with adjustable Ride Tech dampers up front, while the rear suspension consists of Ride Tech air suspension with three-inch lowering blocks.

Though the motor itself is mechanically stock, its under-hood presentation goes far beyond anything that rolled out of Cadillac’s factory in 1955. The period-correct aesthetic combined with the brass bronze, cream and black engine elements cleans up the bay while maintaining continuity with the rest of the build. Photo: BarrettJackson.

Turning our attention under the hood, while the 331 cubic-inch Cadillac V8 that was rebuilt by LJ’s Machine Shop is mechanically stock, it’s presentation sees a number of custom touches as well. The restyling efforts here included a shaved firewall, fuel and vacuum lines finished in polished copper, and fastening hardware done up in a yellow zinc hue, while the engine and its accessories were painted black with a clear top coat, and the accents on the valve covers and air cleaner were done up in copper gold leaf.

After completion, the Bronze God would go on to win numerous awards and best-in-show accolades before eventually making its way to Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale, Arizona auction in 2016.

“All of this work was executed to the highest standard, resulting in a Coupe DeVille that Cadillac wishes they had done,” Penserini added.

As for Altissimo Restoration, they continue to offer a range of sheetmetal, bodywork, custom paint and trim restoration services, but it’s builds like these that have really helped define the shop’s level of artisanship over the years. “The greatest reward is the people we serve and seeing these cars back on the road,” Penserini says.

“There is a relationship, an intimacy that we form with each car – so deep that when we see it drive by later in life, it’s like seeing an old friend.”

Photo: Altissimo Restoration

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
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