The Miami Tuners Responsible for Yoenis Céspedes' Wildest Rides
The thing is, Cespedes isn't even this masterpiece-producing shop's biggest customer. Ever heard of Michael Jordan?
With a $75 million contract from the Mets, anything Yoenis Cespedes wants is attainable—including round waffles. Recently, the wealthy outfielder couldn't be bothered with plebeian squares, so when a craving struck and the only available mold had four sides, Cespedes did what any sensible millionaire would: loaned his Lamborghini Aventador to a Mets staffer so she could fetch a round waffle maker.
Those who don't deign to eat a square breakfast treat don’t typically settle for a standard $400,000 mid-engined Italian masterpiece, either. So, Cespedes sent his Lamborghini Aventador to finishing school at The Auto Firm, a Miami shop that gave it a $75,000 overhaul, including a custom interior, new paint and an exhaust that spits flames. Perhaps that last option is so Cespedes can cook (circular) waffles whenever he pleases?
For discerning celebrities like Cespedes, stock supercars are no longer "super." In those rarified circles, you could be the fourth guy pulling up in a Lamborghini Aventador SV—and no one wants his bull to be the dullest in a powerful herd. “These guys are about standing out,” says Alex Vega, owner of The Auto Firm, of his absurdly loaded clientele. “They all can afford the same base cars, so their pride comes from how they create something unique from something standard.” That’s where Vega and his crew of customizing wizards step in.
Anything a customer imagines can become a reality within the 10,000 square-foot space. On-premises, a CNC mill stands ready to precision cut any logo into a door jamb, or etch a jersey number into a sound system housing. A paint bay harbors a "master mixer" who is adept at matching any sample. Want a Bentley Continental sprayed in Arancio Argos, Lamborghini’s proprietary orange hue? Not a problem. An interior studio where leathers, vinyl, and exotic animal hides become eye-catching seats boasts so many samples on the walls, the edges of the room are starting to creep inwards. This is one of three garages Varga keeps. “We also have a 10,000 square foot shop just for converting Sprinter vans, and another that tackles body kits and engine enhancements,” he says.
In the modest showroom, rims are everywhere. Most bear the mark of Vega’s proprietary line, Avorza (a melding of his initials and “Forza”), and few creations are under 20-inches, though that’s too small for some. “We can do up to 32-inches,” Vegas boasts. On the walls, signed jerseys showcase the roster of pro athletes that help put Vega on the map. Carlos Boozer, Alonzo Mourning, Carlos Santana, Pablo Sandoval, and Alexei Ramirez are represented there, though the most prized memorabilia is reserved for Vega’s office. Autographed cleats, sneaks and more from the likes of Michael Jordan, Cespedes, and Alfonso Soriano overflow the display cases; excess stacks of framed jerseys lie in a corner, awaiting free wall space. All of this resides under four massive Scarfaceposters, Vega’s head Photoshopped in place of Pacino’s. “I had those made because I’m the king of Miami, baby,” Vega smirks, sipping a shot of espresso.
The 41-year-old Cuban’s path to becoming customizing royalty began as a small child at his father’s Firestone shop, where the youngster soaked up all he could from watching technicians work. He later took a job at the same garage, installing tires as a teen and working his way up to salesman. Vega enjoyed the work generally, but his passion lay in one-off builds. The young man's eyes bugged for vehicles like the 1983 GMC Vandura cargo van from The A-Team, the confederate flag-emblazoned ‘69 Charger in The Dukes of Hazard, and KITT, the talking ‘82 Trans Am from Knight Rider. In his twenties, Vega took a leap and opened his own shop, starting with rims. Then, no one was doing three-piece, custom-painted wheels in South Florida.
His wheel work garnered his entrée to baseball's stars. Unbeknownst to Vega, middlemen acting on behalf of athletes were sending cars to The Auto Firm for shoes. Among them was Alfonso Soriano. When the former Yankee scratched a rim on his Hummer H2, a middleman connected Soriano with Vega, who repaired the damaged dub. Soriano sang Vega’s praises to fellow ballers and Andruw Jones soon came calling, interested in heavy mods to a Bentley GT. Vega outfitted Jones with a body kit and a custom leather interior. The car resonated with tuners and fans so robustly, the photo Vega posted on his website went viral. “And this was back before social media,” he adds.
Antoine Walker, then with the Miami Heat, saw the snap and ordered his own bespoke Winged B. “The Heat were playing the Jazz and Walker and Alonzo Mourning met Carlos Boozer and some others for dinner before the game,” Vega recounts. “When Walker pulled up, the rest of the players fell in love. Walker gave them my number. I got four new clients the next day. Parking lots have always been my best form of advertising. Nothing beats that word of mouth recommendation.”
Around the same time, rapper Akon reached out. “His first hit had just dropped but he wasn’t a known artist and had no money,” says Vega. “He wanted a Mercedes CLS to look crazy. Completely alter the body styling. He said he’d pay me after getting his first check.” Vega took the chance, remarking that it was the most demanding build he’d done. Akon held to his word, issuing Vega a sizable payment as soon as he was able. Working on spec wasn’t the largest request Akon made. “He brought in a Range Rover, looking for a body kit, sound system and rims. Then he asked us to ship it to Africa,” Vega chuckles. It took months of paperwork and tens of thousands of dollars, but a gleaming Rover did reach Akon’s home in Ghana.
High-caliber service breeds a loyal customer base, and heaps of repeat business is a testament to Vega’s dedication to going above and beyond. Michael Jordan sent in a Mercedes CLS63 AMG he kept in Miami for a body kit and was so enamored with the results, he immediately ordered a duplicate CLS63 for his home in Chicago. Soon afterward, Jordan delivered an Aston Martin Vantage and a Bentley GT, looking for the same magic. He wasn’t disappointed.
During our chat, Vega’s phone chirps incessantly. Carlos Santana (the Cleveland Indian, not the singer) is inquiring if his Cadillac Escalade and Porsche Panamera will be ready for spring training. “These guys love to one-up each other,” Vega says, adding the competition is good for business. “Spring training is when they all show off their new cars, most of which I’ve done. Then they call a week later looking for something they saw on some other guy's car,” he laughs. Cespedes took six different vehicles in six days to Mets’ training in Florida last week, all from Vega. Among them: twin Avorza Polaris Slingshot three-wheel motorcycles, a Ford F-250, an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, a Jeep Wrangler and that flame-spewing Aventador. Of that custom cat-back exhaust, Vega smiles because “all the guys want louder cars, as if they’re not loud enough from the factory. Cespedes wanted to go one step beyond that, so we added fire. He loved it.”
There’s little Vega will balk at, though topping the short list is suicide doors. “They’re meant for show cars and after a while of real use, they don’t close properly. They’re too problematic,” he says. He also shies away from full restorations for vintage rides, noting the time and expenses required for a single project would strangle the garage, and his clients are far happier when his crew is able to churn quickly. That said, in the parking lot there is a mid-Nineties Ford Lightning awaiting a refresh for Rockies’ pitcher Jason Motte, a ‘72 Chevelle SS in need of an interior upgrade and a sound system for a budding rapper, and a ‘85 Monte Carlo earmarked for a little bit of everything. The last is Vega’s favorite car currently on the lot.
The most commonly tuned car of the moment is far and away the Jeep Wrangler. Six presently sit in the garage in various states of completion. While Vega is talking through an enormous sound system being installed in one Jeep for an NYC barber, up screams a seventh Wrangler, jacked on 24-inch Avorzas. Workers give a thumbs up that a freshly installed Prodigy turbo kit is working smoothly. “She’s lightning now,” one mechanic glows on his way past. While the number of fender flares and external design flourishes available for Wranglers is endless, the interiors are where any Vega Jeep shines. “We did an all white one with clean leather seats for Lady Gaga,” Vega says.
The upholstery guru, a Latvian fellow by the name of Davi Dovi who has been with Vega since day one, thrives on clients' challenges. His toughest came from Floyd Mayweather. After a fire last October destroyed the boxer’s Bentley, two Rolls-Royces and a Wrangler (which was the recipient of $100,000 in mods from Vega), Mayweather fished out his checkbook and ordered another Wrangler. One with crocodile hides woven into the seats.
Dovi sourced skins from Mississippi and shipped them to Italy where a firm named Caporicci dyed them black and red, an homage to the Team Money Team colors. Then, back to Dovi for hand-stitching and assembly. Each seat took at least 50 hours to complete.
The cost for colored croc? Three dollars per square inch. More than 50 square feet were required, meaning Mayweather dropped more than $21,000 on materials alone. “We have imitation skins, but Floyd didn’t want the fake stuff,” Dovi says. It was worth it, Dovi recalls, thumbing through his phone to find the proof, a picture of himself and Mayweather in front of the finished Jeep, broad grins on both faces.
Vega peeks his head around to see Dovi’s screen. “That smile right there,” he surmises, pointing at Mayweather, “that’s why we’re going to be in business a long time.”