OEM Report: Automotive

Working metal

By Lynn Stanley

Fabricator shifts focus to make hand-crafted parts in large quantities

June 2012 - Cliff Cappos’ father grew up on a farm. When something broke, he had to fix it. “That example taught me a lot,” Cappos says. President and owner of Oceanside, Calif.-based Unique Metal Products, Cappos has built a reputation as a custom fabricator and weathered the economic downturn to keep his business thriving with his own product line.

He first began to practice metalworking skills as a kid in the Southern California desert with his father and his brother learning how to build dune buggies. “All I wanted to do was drive race cars professionally, which meant I had to learn how to work on them and build them,” says Cappos. As the race team fabricator for Nissan Performance Technology Inc., Vista, Calif., Cappos had a unique opportunity to work with very talented, old-school craftsmen. “It allowed me to take my metalworking skills to a new level.” When the company shifted gears and laid its racing team personnel off in 1994, Cappos spotted a company for sale a year later and decided to buy it.


Custom work
“Unique Metal Products had a 35-year history as a top metal fabrication shop for custom aluminum race car bodies,” Cappos says. “We continued to take on custom jobs but we also had two additional divisions, one dedicated to production work for other companies and one division focused on developing our own product line.” In addition to running the company, Cappos continued to pursue racing, taking his formula Atlantic car to the Sports Car Club of America national championships five times before work and life put a halt to his racing dreams, he says.

The manufacturer also found the consuming nature of custom work sometimes could interfere with other production jobs. “We’ve worked on everything from custom race cars to floating Hummers, and there’s the flying car,” says Cappos. “We built it for a major manufacturer of large aircraft engines parts. They were exhibiting at the Paris Air Show and wanted the car for their display booth. They wanted it to look like Charles Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP ‘Spirit of St. Louis.’ The car couldn’t actually fly, but they wanted it to be as realistic as possible, so we fabricated it exactly like a real aircraft.”

A Citroen 2CV, a French-made economy car, served as the foundation for what appeared to be an authentic engine mounted to its back. A roll cage built and installed inside the car doubled as infrastructure for Unique Metal Products to attach the car’s wings. The manufacturer made forming tools called bucks to hand-beat the ribs for the wings from aluminum. Turned aluminum panels made up the side sections. Attention to detail included a wicker seat and rudders that moved.

“The vehicle was a hit,” says Cappos. “We used the same techniques employed to build vintage aircraft and to the average observer, the vehicle looked like it could actually take off. The project took four months and three people working full time.”

Unique Metal Products also designed, fabricated and tested a hovercraft Hummer for a customer looking for an expedition vehicle that could take him around the world from New York to London. “That meant he had to cross the frozen Bering Strait 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle,” says Cappos. “We fine-tuned the prototype then built a second vehicle, which we tested in San Diego’s Mission Bay. You could actually take the hovercraft Hummer into the water and fish off of it if you wanted to.”


Perfect welds
In addition to custom work, Unique Metal Products’ reputation for its welding skills and attention to detail continued to attract orders for its own products. “Before you can achieve perfect welds, you have to learn how to make your parts fit together perfectly,” says Cappos. “Today, a lot of metalworkers rely on machine technology to make perfect parts instead of their own skills. It’s an art form that’s being lost.”

According to Cappos, a fabricator that can turn a customer’s vision into a metal form is part engineer, machinist, sheet metal worker, welder and accountant. “Customers want to know costs upfront, but with custom work, that’s sometimes difficult to know,” he says. “Custom work is challenging and interesting, like figuring out how to make a Hummer float. But you are never going to make another floating Hummer. The consuming nature of the work made it difficult to focus on our own products.”

New products
Today, Unique Metal Products still does some custom work, but the company has shifted its focus to producing extreme duty air filters for the off-road industry as well as bolt-on kits for the power sports industry. “We still hand-form, beat and hand-polish our products from aluminum, but we can make 50 at a time and carry our knowledge over from the last job which allows us to move faster and make ongoing improvements. It’s just better business,” says Cappos.

The kits are made from 90 percent aluminum, and each piece is welded with some machining and stamping. The manufacturer also built a machine that can take a piece of aluminum tubing and apply its signature brush finish. The special finish also makes the air filter more durable. “We’re somewhere between hand work and mass production,” says Cappos. “We started with off-road racing and expanded to play car vehicles like UTVs. One comes off the assembly line every four hours versus a race car project, which might come up once a year.”

Unique Metal Products recently introduced a new intake system kit. In addition to applications for vehicles like the newest UTVs, the manufacturer developed an air filter system for the Navy Seals’ two-man UTVs. “They were losing engines frequently,” says Cappos. “Our product is all about making the engine last longer by protecting it from dust. These engines are pretty sophisticated and very expensive to rebuild. Dust is a killer.”

As Cappos continues to build his company’s product line, advanced fabrication skills are a critical ingredient. “I can picture a car part or custom component in my mind and visualize the process needed to build it,” he says. “That skill is essential if you want to produce hand-crafted parts on large-quantity production basis. Here at Unique Metal Products, we want to carry on the tradition of building hand-fabricated parts that look like someone devoted a great deal of time to make. We don’t want to lose that attention to detail.” FFJ


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