The joy of owning an original Shelby Cobra may be in tearing down a B-road in it, but tearing up its dashboard to install a modern sound system? Big nope. Using a rare $2 million car as intended is one thing, but even a modest modification could diminish its value to the tune of a split-level ranch in Hackensack.
These days, the prevailing attitude among car collectors is that all cars, even the priciest, are to be well-enjoyed. The only caveat being the highest-value models, now mostly small-batch sports cars from the 1960s, should remain unmolested as much for posterity as to retain their seven-figure-plus valuations.
Of course, you might also think the vicious basso profundo of a Cobra’s 427-cubic-inch side oiler V8 is music enough. But let’s be real. If you drove one regularly, and it happened to have a kickass stereo (that, by the way, could be removed without a trace inside of an hour), wouldn’t you change the ambiance from time to time with a soothing track from, say, Motörhead’s “No Sleep ’til Hammersmith”? I think you would.
Good news, then, that new options exist for do-no-harm modifications. With a smart application of cash and modern tech, the choice between a stock collectable and high-fidelity sound is a false one. Several manufacturers sell MP3- and Bluetooth-ready decks that mimic the look of a stock radio for most mass-produced classics and can be installed without modifying the dashboard. Other companies will claim to convert any existing OEM radio to a digital-capable system. Even automakers are getting in on the act; earlier this year, Porsche rolled out a head unit replacement for some of its classic models that included modern tech like Apple CarPlay (on a 3.5-inch touchscreen), Bluetooth and an integrated amplifier.
But for the rarest, hand-built birds like that Cobra, only a custom solution will do. With digital design and rapid prototyping techniques, paired with miniaturized speakers and amplifiers that provide power in small spaces—along with streaming music and app-based audio controllers—it’s possible to create a cutting-edge system that not only matches a car’s period interior but easily disappears when the time (or desire) comes to revert to stock.
“These are tech-savvy buyers in their 30s and 40s who want solutions that don’t touch the originality of the car, but they’re huge users of their cars,” says Matt Figliola of Ai Design, a shop outside NYC that, among other projects, designs and develops custom audio systems for classic Bentleys, rare Porsche models and at least one Shelby Cobra. “They’re concerned about provenance but are also passionate about driving.”
Traditionally, Ai Design’s builds favor tech-forward modifications of late model vehicles. For example, a pair of Cadillac Escalades done up as audiophile-quality listening-rooms-on-wheels for a tech billionaire and a similar Escalade with a roof-mounted FLIR thermal camera controlled by a helicopter joystick for an outdoor enthusiast.
But responding to new demand from some classic-car owners, the shop is taking on more projects to update collectibles with custom fitments of high-tech gear. It’s a relatively new development in the car world, and with prices upward of $20,000 for a bespoke system, not a cheap one.
Why so pricey? Figliola says it’s not unlike having Bose design a sound system around the quirks of a single, handmade sports car. Instead of amortizing the development cost by selling a million units, as a massive company like Bose might do, a single client pays for all of the design, prototyping and production for one unit. As indulgent as that sounds, iterative prototyping methods using CAD, 3D printing, and CNC machining have put such projects within reach of more buyers.
Ai Design assigns such projects to three categories: major modifications made with an eye toward preserving as much of the original vehicle as they can while integrating new components; semi-permanent changes, where original parts are removed and replaced with new parts that look period-correct, but contain new audio components (the original parts are stored in a custom-built container); and zero permanent changes, where the system looks like it was standard equipment but is removable.