Mike Martin is customization supervisor at Galpin Auto Sports in Los Angeles. He is also an Air Force veteran. (Courtesy of Mike Martin)
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Walk into Mike Martin's high-end car customization shop at Galpin Auto Sports in Los Angeles and you'll likely see a new Shelby Mustang getting the $70,000 wide-body package popular among the rich and famous in L.A. Another team might be transforming a Ford F-150 into a tailgating super truck.
You might remember Martin as "Mad Mike" from MTV's rolling-wreck makeover show "Pimp My Ride" or, more recently, as a judge on Speed channel's customizing competition show, "Car Warriors."
But long before all that, he was an Air Force radar technician at a remote site in North Dakota in the early 1990s, opening his first customizing shop in the local town. After leaving the military, he moved back home to Compton and put both skill sets to work, specializing in high-end electronics installs.
"If it wasn't for the Air Force, there is no doubt I would not be where I am today," Martin says. In 2009, he helped lead Galpin's creation of two jet-inspired re-imaginations of the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger now used in Air Force recruiting tours.
"We've got them both back in the shop right now getting repainted," says Martin, now Galpin's customization supervisor.
Check out the details Martin's team used in the Air Force cars and get some of Mad Mike's tips for doing your own updates:
Anyone can give his ride a thorough cleaning.
For basic exterior cleaning, Martin typically grabs an all-in-one wash-and-wax he likes the Mothers brand scrubbing the car down with an old lint-free microfiber rag. "Never use a brush it'll scratch up your car." For heavy road grime, Martin uses a clay bar, also called detailing clay, which you can pick up at any auto supply store. "Rubbing a clay bar on there with some soapy liquid dish soap water will remove any kind of build-up without harming the clear coat of the car."
"Be careful of chamois [or should we just spell it "shammy"?] cloths; they will scratch your car, too." Martin uses one to start the drying process but always finishes with a fresh microfiber cloth.
For the interior, he cleans floor mats and upholstery with a mixture of warm water and mild no-chlorine liquid laundry detergent, "because it's much better than dishwashing soap at getting into the fibers." Attack ground-in dirt and other debris with a bristle brush. It's hard to beat the small detail vacuum attachments that marry up with an air compressor for hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.
For windows, avoid standard ammonia-based glass cleaners such as Windex, because they will ruin tinting and overspray can discolor your dash and trim. Instead, try a mild mixture of dishwashing soap with a few drops of vinegar. Clean and dry with newspapers to preserve your tint.
Get your name, initials or even your favorite cartoon character stitched into your headrests. "People love doing their headrests right now," Martin says. You can find vendors who will do them while you wait at swap meets for about $40. "We use a laser-etcher on headrests, almost like burning in a brand, for a similar effect, but you can even etch in pictures of you or your mate or whatever."
Smooth out the look of chrome manufacturer emblems with a fresh coat of paint that matches the rest of your car. You can get a can of spray paint exactly matched to your vehicle at a dealership or most auto supply stores, "or you can go with complementary or contrasting colors and then also do the door handles, mirror caps, and the wheel covers as well, which really makes the car pop," Martin says. "Right now, we're doing a lot of crazy lime green and orange colors for that." He works a 10-pound-test fishing line behind the emblem and car like dental floss for scratch-free removal. Scruff up with fine-grit sandpaper and then prime and paint. It usually takes several coats. Use quick-drying epoxy glue to reattach.
Option 1: Replace your wheel rims for an all-new look. But that can get expensive fast. Machined custom rims can easily run $300 or more apiece.
Option 2: Consider powder-coating your existing rims. A pro shop shouldn't charge you more than about $300 to do all four, Martin says. For more of a budget makeover, you can paint your existing hubcaps yourself. "A regular rattle-can of Krylon spray paint will do, with clear coat on top, if you want."
Tint your windows
"It's trickier than most people think," Martin says, but a careful DIYer can pull it off. First, make sure the windows are completely clean. "The key to tinting windows is a clean window." Next, mix "a couple of drops of dish washer soap in a water bottle I think Palmolive works the best and get windows good and wet just before you lay down your tint." The soap will allow you to fine-tune to the position of the film before you squeegee out the water.
Slightly tinted taillights are all the craze right now, Martin says. And "They're not hard to do yourself at all." All you need is a paint sprayer check your base auto hobby shop or a local rental store.
First, pull out your taillight housing, thoroughly clean it and then scruff up the outer lens with a Scotch Brite scouring pad. "That will help the paint grip," Martin says. Cover the rest of the housing with painter's tape. Add "just a few drops" of black paint to a half-quart of clear coat and spray it on with a light, even coat. Let dry and add a second coat, if necessary, but be careful not to go too dark or you could get a ticket.
Budget version: Use window tint for that smoky effect instead. "You just need a hair dryer and a lot of patience." Cut out a piece of tint slightly larger than you'll need. Soapy water sprayed on the lens will help you position the film. Squeegee out the excess water and air bubbles, working from the middle out to the edges as you use the dryer to soften up the film, which will also make it easier to mold it over the rounded casing, as it bonds to the light. Trim excess film with a utility knife.
If you don't have Bluetooth installed in your car, you can get an adaptor that will plug right into your cigarette lighter and pair with your smartphone, transmitting your calls and music to your car's FM stereo. "Installation is about as easy as it gets." Prices start at about $25.
Pinstripes along the side or up to two full 9-inch racing stripes up the middle of the car are "getting popular again." Martin's shop will put them on for about $400, or you can do it yourself. "You've got to have a steady hand and a good eye to do it well." A carpenter's laser level and painter's tape can help keep your lines straight. You can get the vinyl at auto supply stores, but you can often find better deals at art supply stores. "Look for 60-inch sheets your roof, the longest section of your car, won't be any bigger than that and make sure they're weather proof with UV protection," he says.
"That's a simple upgrade that can be as quick as going to the store and buying some sheepskins for about $50." Or you can get your seat completely reupholstered starting for about $800 at most shops, Martin says.