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Detroit company gets auto show and movie cars ready for prime-time

Old Chevy Dashboard From Restored Car

Old Chevy Dashboard From Restored Car

I know you, dear readers, love the glitz and glamour of the North American International Auto Show. We are the Motor City after all. But did you ever wonder who builds some of those great Ford concept vehicles, prototypes and cutouts you ooo and ahh over? It’s Detroit talent.

Did you ever wonder who teamed up with Dreamworks and GM to build the cool vehicles used in the Transformer 2 movie? It’s Detroit talent.

Did you ever wonder who works with the agencies and preps vehicles for some of those cool Ford car ads? It’s Detroit talent.

Did you ever wonder who salvages and disposes of Ford test vehicles? It’s Detroit talent.

Did you ever wonder who gets some of those muscle cars, street rods, custom, collector and special interest vehicles in tip-top shape for the Woodward Dream Cruise?

Again, it’s Detroit talent.

Restoration Modification Mustang New BodyDST Industries, which sits within earshot of the runways at the Detroit airport in Romulus, is responsible.  It’s a full-service, Tier 1 automotive supplier that offers an entire portfolio of services for large automakers, individual auto enthusiasts, the photo and film production industries and more.

Ford is its core customer. DST makes, delivers, preps, stores and recycles many of those Ford auto show concepts and prototypes … not just for the Detroit show but also for others such as the LA Auto Show, which is going on this week. DST will prep, deliver and maintain 60 Ford vehicles for that show and then turn around and get ready for the Detroit show in January. That means working 24/7 … no long holiday breaks for them … and they love it … stress and all.

“This is a reactionary business,” says Don Snell, COO of DST Industries. “We must adjust our time.”

When the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows are behind them the DST team will get those vehicles ready and deliver them to shows in New York and Washington, DC, as well as regional auto shows in places like Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Cleveland and Toledo.

The work is challenging and the DST team must spin in a dime when its customers demand changes or have new ideas. Do you remember working the interactive Ford Touch at the auto show? Well, it was built at DST.  Do you remember Mustang Garage? Also DST.

Many auto show concepts and prototypes as well as test vehicles have a short life span. DST’s vehicle recovery services remove and recycle usable parts from one-off prototypes to high-mileage fleet vehicles and then dispose of the vehicles. Untested and concept parts are scrapped. Reusable parts are sold at auction or used right away. The vehicles are then crushed, melted down and what’s left is recycled.  The process has saved Ford $3 – $4 million annually and is environmentally friendly, Snell says.

DST’s work doesn’t stop with auto shows and scrappage.  It also plays a key role in advertising campaigns … work that is fun, challenging and sometimes very scary.

A few years back DST worked on an ad for the Ford F350 where the truck had to pull a boat through the ice. The ad was shot in Russia. To get the truck where the ad was filmed the team had to rent a Russian fishing trawler. It required moving the vehicle from Norway to Russia as well as filming on the black sand beaches in Iceland.  This was the most complicated ad the DST team has worked on … at least so far, says Snell. Adding polar bears to the mix sure didn’t help.

DST also offers marketing support. Its operation in Palm Springs houses film and video production facilities that include sound and photo stages, private outdoor grounds with a mountain backdrop and other services. That operation also serves as the launch point for getting vehicles ready for the LA Auto Show.

Getting cars ready for the movies, too

That said, fun is essential to the DST team and Snell says working on the Transformer 2 vehicles for Dreamworks and GM was great fun. The team build 20 vehicles that turned into Jolt (Chevy Volt), Bumblebee (Chevy Camaro), Mudflap (Chevy Trax), Slidz (Chevy Beat), Sideswipe (Chevy Stingray), Ratchet (Hummer H2), Swerve (Chevy Aveo) … well you get the idea. Many of these vehicles were just in the concept stage so DST hand built fiberglass bodies that had to withstand trips to filming locations such as the George Washington Bridge, an Air Force base in California and sites in Israel.

The team had three months to deliver the finished vehicles.

“The GM guys didn’t think we could get it done in time,” says Snell. “They were amazed. We have very talented people working for us. We put 50-60 people on it and they worked 24/7.

“The Michigan film credits gave us the opportunity,’’ he says. “We bid on Transformers 3 but it was a no go because the lack of film credits.’’

DST employs 165 people, some of whom have been with the company for more than 40 years.

Restoring cars in Detroit

So what do they do in the offseason? Auto shows are basically early winter, spring and late fall events. A year ago DST added an auto restoration business in Romulus, which keep the summer months full.

It’s a lucrative business. Many baby boomers are still in love with the cars they owned or wanted as teenagers and will often spend more than the vehicle is worth. “It’s an emotional thing,’’ says Bob Milligan, who heads the classic/vehicle restoration business. DST’s most expensive work … a $90,000 bottom-up restoration.

Detroit Unspun checked out some of the vehicles currently in the shop. We saw a redone Autorama-quality ’53 Chevy. There was a ’65 Mustang red convertible a guy from Florida wanted completely redone for the Woodward Dream Cruise. A ’75 Chevy Caprice with new engine paint and top. A ’57 Dodge Panel with a redone engine. We could go on and on.

Restoration isn’t a quick job. It takes an average of five months to get one done, says Milligan.

Still, DST was able to give Kurt Newman’s 1988 Mustang a facelift just in time for the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise, according to a story on WXYZ.  The car was disassembled the car, given a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting. Newman picked it up on Friday just in time for the Cruise.

DST was founded in 1955 and is a woman-owned business. President and CEO Brenda Lewo took over the business when her husband died several years ago and is working to grow the business. Fortunately, that seems to be happening.


Restoration Modification Mustang New Body

New Mustang body dashboard

Showroom Quality Restored Chevy

Restored Chevy Badge

Chevy Fixing Floorboard With New Piece

Rear of car being restored at Detroit DST

Restomod Car Engine


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