Words & Photos by Henry Phull
Deciding on which shop to enlist to work on your pride and joy can be a daunting task for any car enthusiast, especially those wanting to build next-level show cars. Depending on whether you’re willing to spend big bucks, or simply opt for something more affordable, the final outcome has still got to be outstanding if you’re spending that hard earned cash. With the show scene now bigger and more popular than ever, the amount of specialists and workshops popping up is continually growing, making it harder and harder to make an informed decision. Bring on our latest series of features, or “Shop Visits”, where we’ll be taking a look behind closed doors of some of the UK’s best car modifiers and suppliers. First up, Studio Incar. A shop I’ve known about for quite some time, and over the past show season you may well be familiar with their Liberty Walk BMW E92 M3, that has been known to appear at car shows and meets blasting out some of the loudest (and of course crispest) music you’ve ever heard. This would be because essentially, Studio Incar have a passion for car audio, which is where the company originated from.
Studio Incar’s head honcho Carl Shakespeare, also known as ‘Shakey’ to most, invited me down for the day and I jumped at the opportunity. I took the short drive along the coast to their secluded countryside location just between Southampton and Portsmouth, for a proper look behind the scenes inside their headquarters.
Having planned my visit about a week before, I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but Shakey assured me to just come on down as they always have interesting stuff going on. On arrival, I was met by a car that has been hugely popular on the scene during the past season due to being static and stupidly low… It was Josh Stokes’ of ‘FourSeasons’ old BMW E36 328 coupe. It took a few moments to remember that Josh actually put the car up for sale a few weeks back, and everything fell into place once Shakey mentioned that his good friend Mark had just purchased the car. After attempting to drive the car around properly for a few days, Mark decided it was impractical for his usage. He wanted the lows, but also the drivability, so opted to go for an air ride package from the guys at Studio Incar, to be installed in just a day. Luckily this meant I could stick around to watch the whole process involved with bagging a car.
Shakey has always had a huge passion for car culture and home Hi-Fi, so car audio seemed like a natural mix for him. He spent a year working for another car audio shop, loving the work involved, but knew that ultimately he wanted to be his own boss, so he tried a gas fitting course but this ended prematurely. At the same time he was already working privately from home and found himself running out of space anyway, so he decided that enough was enough. In 2010 Studio Incar was born, with the intention of being the best in the field. A few years later, and they are a multi-award winning company, known for producing some of the best car audio installs in the country. Recently, they’ve made the jump to air ride installation, which is what interests me the most, seeing as we’re into slammed cars here at Slam Sanctuary, I asked Shakey why they decided to enter the market… It is never something they used to be interested in, Shakey told me, back in the day when everything was manually controlled and the bags were made up with spare parts. With outstanding kits now available, including next-level management options, it’s now a true performance upgrade, which grabbed Shakey’s attention and has grown to be a huge part of what Studio Incar do on a day-to-day basis.
The company take pride in being much more of a personal business than others in the industry. Customers don’t just turn up, drop the car off, then come back, pay and leave… They strive to sit down with everyone and get to know them, talking and spending time on the phone if necessary for a good couple of hours beforehand to get on the exact same page as the client. At the end of the day, the car has to be right for them as, ultimately, it’s their car – which can be a very personal thing. With a small team of just four people, Shakey along with Paul (on sales and fitting), Steve (installations) and Lottie running the office and accounting, it’s easy to talk to them, and I have to say some of the friendliest people I’ve met within the industry. After spending the day with them, I really felt a close nit family atmosphere within the workshop. With numerous late nights, staying on after hours and getting customer’s cars finished within deadline is a top priority. They don’t even seem bothered about not getting home as quickly as they can… like so many people I know hating their day jobs. Clearly they all have a passion for what they do, and when choosing a shop – that’s what you want to see, right?
A walk through to the rear of the workshop, and there is a fully heated and Wi-Fi equipped waiting room, ideal for hanging out, check out some products, or just play PlayStation, whilst the guys work some magic on next door.
Bagging a car can either be a simple process or an extremely complex one, depending on the car. Studio Incar can do it all, no matter how old the car is, they will find a way. They’ve installed air ride on Vauxhalls through to old school BMW’s, including recently an E24 635CSI which included custom fabrication work to allow the universal kit to work with the car. Not forgetting, Nick Sahota’s E30 M3 which was the first one in the world on air, which all had to be custom work before the E30-specific kits became available only recently. Luckily for Mark’s E36, Airlift Performance already offer a specific bolt-on kit for the car, so the guys could complete the whole job in one day, this obviously dramatically cuts the cost of labour for the customer, and makes everything relatively straight forward. I thought, as we usually admire our fair share of bagged cars, it would be interesting to take our readers through the process of installing one of these kits.
Using the Airlift Performance BMW E36 kit, the first step in bagging Mark’s E36 was to raise up the car and remove the front coilovers that were previously fitted. The Airlift kit even comes with direct replacement struts, consisting of a monotube, threaded body, partnered with a double-bellow air spring. There are a few different methods to get everything fitted, but Shakey and the guys prefer to have everything laid out on the work bench so that all the fittings can be made to the new bags with appropriate space, rather than crouching underneath the car.
Although not our main interest, car audio is Studio Incar’s main passion and focus, they’ve done it all from prize winning installations to subtle OEM upgrades, through to complete custom dashboard “symmetry” based SQ systems and even installs for supercars. So whilst Paul and Shakey were busy fitting the air, Steve was busy working his magic on an install for a customer’s Volkswagen Corrado, compromising of a fully digital hi-definition wireless system, so that everything can be run from the customer’s smart device. This would allow him to listen to music but also run a maps function for navigation usage, all in perfect hi-def quality. The install will include fabricating a complete tailored and trimmed boot install, making for an overall beautiful upgrade package.
Steve was busy for the majority of the day carefully planning, measuring, sawing and preparing wood and other materials for the audio install, so that everything would fit in seamlessly with the client’s existing air set up, and ready to be trimmed to match the rest of the interior over the following days. Watching him at work, routing cables, applying sound deadening, and generally making sure every little thing was 100% perfect, was super impressive.
Back to the E36, having sorted all the fitments up on the bench, it was time to mount the front bags onto the car, which fitted perfectly thanks to Airlift’s time and effort spent designing the kit specifically for this particular chassis. In the long run, this is what you are paying for.
The Airlift struts also include brand new adjustable caster/camber plates made from T6061 aluminium, for ultimate adjustability, which fit perfectly onto the original E36 turrets. Plus, the struts themselves have 30 different levels of damping, from a smooth ride to a stiff track day ride just by adjusting the knob. They really are impressive bits of kit, and it’s no surprise that Shakey and the guys believe it is one of the best upgrades you can make to a car.
Next up, Paul and Shakey got started on removing the existing rear setup. Again, the Airlift kit comes with a pair of redesigned threaded body monotube rear shocks, with the 30 levels of damping adjustability just like the front set. The original coil springs are replaced with double-bellow air springs which sit nicely above the struts. Not only are these made incredibly well, the anodised red finish on them makes them look awesome.
After running the air lines under the car, making sure to attach them to safe areas such as near the fuel line mounts, etc, they are connected to the new air bags at all four corners. It was time for the essential remaining items to be added to the car, the air has got to come from somewhere… so the guys produced a boot build for the E36 the previous day, ready to drop straight into the car. This is an example of one of Studio Incar’s “Level 1” prefab builds, a great example of one of their basic installations. It consists of two VIAR 444c Stealth Black compressors, simple hard lines made to match and an AccuAir tank, as they already had this in stock and was finished in black to match the rest of the build. Overall, it’s an impressive ‘mudered-out’ style boot build, which should be perfect for the car to match the black paintwork and black leather interior.
Following on from this, the Advanced Air Lift manifold was installed, hidden out of sight just alongside the fuel filler cap. The main air lines mounted under the car are directed and connected up to this manifold. Furthermore, a drain-off was also installed to remove any vapour in the tank with ease.
Finally, it was a case of dropping in the boot install, modifying the loom, and wiring up all cables tidily to the battery, which is located at the rear of most BMW’s – making the job a little less stressful. Cables are also run to the front of the car to assist for the install of the management package, AutoPilot V2 Digital Management also produced by Airlift. This is one of the most advanced pressure-based air suspension control systems on the market today.
With all the lines tested for leaks, the car was ready to drive. The above photograph shows the car at its newly set driving height, ready for those speed bumps! Plus it could now get out of the workshop without the assistance of ramps. So, time to get the car outside for a quick wash and photo session before the winter darkness arrived.
How good does the car look? Mark definitely made the right choice to go for the air option. Sure, it’s only slightly lower than it was when it was static, but luckily, it IS that little bit lower, and the car can now be driven as BMW intended it to, if not better, and at safe ride height… no more worrying about speed bumps, and destroying more of the underside of the car.
There’s still room for adjustability, the rear can even come down more which is something to experiment with in the future when Mark puts his touch on the car. Of course, the wheels will be changing next and he’s been thinking about de-spoilering the car for a cleaner look.
With 512 colour combinations, the AutoPilot V2 controller looks awesome inside the E36. It also displays individual corner air pressure and tank pressure, with up to 8 different user presets to tailor the ride heights needed. Incredibly, it will even learn the vehicle setup, so as you are driving, the management will monitor the pressures and adjust them in accordance with your presets. A very clever piece of technology.
A few weeks later, we spent the weekend with the Studio Incar guys at Ultimate Stance, the big finale to 2014’s show season. This was a great opportunity to get a closer look at some of the cars Studio Incar have built recently, which all came down to the show to park up on the stand and represent Shakey and the boy’s handiwork. Before they went inside the venue at Telford, I couldn’t resist snapping a few shots of them cleaning the cars!
Naturally, they put on by far one of the classiest looking stands of the show, and situated in one of the coolest areas – the exclusive carpeted hall, a nice way to show off the cars. You’ll notice their demo car, the Liberty Walk kitted BMW E92 M3, that recently had a stunning new wrap and black painted Rotiform TMB’s. A truly menacing car, yet in a way, subtle – just as Shakey intended. The insides are fully kitted out with in-car entertainment, it sounds phenomenal.
In addition, Sam’s E24 635CSI that I mentioned earlier, and Josh’s E92, both bagged recently by Studio Incar.
And the game changer, Nick’s E30 M3 also mentioned earlier. One of the first of it’s kind to go on air ride and custom built by Studio Incar.
It was super cool to hang out with the guys and their friends outside of work and having spent time with them in a professional environment also, it’s clear that they’re all down-to-earth people. Ultimately that’s what makes a great company. They may be a small business, but they are easily approachable and their work is right there at the top, and customer’s obviously choose them for these very reasons. Shakey mentioned that they are nearly always allowed to make their own decisions on each car they have in the workshop, which he says is really quite flattering, considering how personal a modified car can be to the owner. To take things even further, Studio Incar are now even offering complete project management, something very special and unique. They’ll deal with every part of a project car, no matter how big or small so that the client doesn’t have to deal with the stress that can be involved with building a car how you envision it. The idea is you can drive in as a stock car, and leave as a show winner, should that be what is required.
Show season is over for this year, and the workshop is already becoming rammed with new projects for next year. I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves and will be out to spot some of their installs in numerous show cars across the scene next season. Keep up the good work guys, and thanks for taking the time out and showing us your world, it’s been fun.