When he was in high school, Atoy Llave once got to drive a Mitsubishi Lancer box-type which was all the rage then. Little did he know that years later, he would have the opportunity to drive it again, in its original form, faithful down to the moldings and parts. But now he’s no high-schooler. He’s Atoy Llave of Atoy Customs, renowned as a pioneer in the field of automobile customization in the Philippines.
It all started in 1996. Atoy had a passion for painting cars. He made a business out of it and he quickly moved into body kits as well. Atoy Bodykits was his springboard for this incredible journey. It’s been 22 years. Now he finds himself the head of Atoy Customs, taking on not just car customization jobs but also vans, 4 x 4s, activation trucks, and food trucks.
Still, Atoy takes on each day and each job with the same level of enthusiasm he has always had.
“Until now, I consider my work my hobby. I still feel the excitement everyday. Yung ayaw ko lang sa part ng trabaho is the stress. But the passion and love for the work is still there,” he says.
If There’s A Wheel, There’s A Way
In the field of car customization, Atoy’s imagination is practically unbounded. Atoy shares how when people tell him something isn’t possible, he finds himself motivated to find a way to make it happen. Atoy applies this belief to all of his projects. For him, it starts with the vision and then it becomes a matter of finding the perfect platform.
Once he was asked to craft a comfy jeep with air-conditioning. Instead of modifying the usual PUV jeepney, Atoy turned to the Ford E150 instead which he used as a platform for this vehicle project. Because of its size, smooth ride, and cool airconditioning, Atoy didn’t have to reinvent the jeep, he just made a better one.
“We just need the platform. What’s the nearest to the BMW 570? It’s the Cefiro. Ano kaya pinakamalapit sa Mini Cooper? Civic Hatchback. So things like that hahanapan muna natin ng anong size ang perfect. And wheel art, kung anong pinakamalapit. Tapos yung mga lines ng kotse. For example, a C-class Benz? The nearest is the Toyota Corona and yung mga 96 EX Saloon.”
It’s this same visionary approach that carved Atoy’s place in the automobile industry.
Fame As Means, Not As An Ends
Over the years, Atoy has won many awards for his customization work. He shares how it got to the point that he had two rooms just full of trophies. At first, it was a source of joy for him. However, as the trophies literally began to pile up, he noticed that awards began to take a new meaning for him.
“Di okay maraming trophy kasi ang hirap maglinis,” Atoy jokes. Save for a few special ones, Atoy has since given away his trophies to those who need them more such as sports leagues.
Now, Atoy finds fulfilment not in the awards but in the work itself. However, he is still grateful for the recognition because people go to him to get their cars customized.
“Kumbaga, naging stepping stone yung awards. Na-identify ka ng tao. Parang ‘Oy, kapag Atoy ang gumawa ng kotse mo, maganda yan.’ ‘Uy dati sa car show nakikita kita. Ngayon lang ako nagka-pera. Ngayon lang ako may-chance magpagawa ng family van naman.’ Things like that. That reputation helps me move forward in this business. So if you hear stories like that, matutuwa ka talaga kasi parang nafo-follow ka ng mga tao because of sa ginagawa mo,” he shares.
His works has even earned him recognition in Germany, though not in the way you’d expect. Atoy says he once received a cease order from a prestigious European brand for his work in converting a Nissan Cefiro to look like one of their executive cars. While he admits he was scared at first, Atoy now looks to the story with pride. He says he hopes to someday share the letter and tell them, “One day in your lolo’s life, nabigyan siya ng letter ng isang malaking European car brand dahil sa craftsmanship na ginawa natin.”
Watch our video feature on Atoy Llave and his passion for car customization:
Every Car A Story
For Atoy, every project has been memorable. From a Honda Civic customized to have the first vertical doors in the country to a regular Beetle he made into a James Dean 356, Atoy puts the same level of care and talent in each work.
Out of practicality, Atoy turns to secondhand cars for all of his projects. After all, it’s not practical to buy a brand new car if you’re going to take it apart anyway. This is why sites like OLX have proven helpful to Atoy. In fact, Atoy shares how he’s been using the internet for secondhand cars since OLX’s Sulit days. At first, he shares how there was some reluctance to the new medium since he was into newspapers. However, over time, going on OLX eventually became SOP for them. Thanks to the site, one can see what the cars look like immediately through photos. That way, the selection process becomes so much easier.
The same goes for parts. Atoy even says some owners are surprised by how valuable the things they are selling on OLX are.
“Minsan yung bibilhan mo, wala pang kaalam-alam na yung binibenta niya hard to find o mahal. Ang sarap nung feeling na yun. Everytime you see a part na bihira, that’s gold!.”
Through the countless secondhand cars they’ve bought over the years, many of the owners like to ask what they’ll turn the car into. The output is something they look forward to.
“They normally ask ‘Ah, Atoy ba bibili? Pag natapos na, pwedeng pakita sa amin?’ ‘Yung transformation gusto nila makita din. Ilang client na nangyari sa amin na pagkabili, they want to see the result,” Atoy recalls.
The Road Ahead
With big dreams and high hopes, Atoy says his evolution is far from finished. He still has many projects he dreams of making someday. Among the many projects he has in his head is a car with a modular design where you can change colors on the fly. “All I have to do is change the panels. Plug and play lang,” he says. He also hopes to someday build a People’s Car for the Philippines.
He’s made good on his ambitions so far. In 2015, he came up with the world’s first amphibious tricycle: the Salamander. For Atoy, the vehicle is proof not just of concept, but of the skill and talent of Filipinos. Sadly, the Salamander has yet to see mass production because of a lack of investment. Atoy shares his frustrations in how while the government is willing to purchase units, they first need to have the means of production. Meanwhile, private investors first seek a guarantee that the government will buy the units, putting Atoy in a challenging spot.
It almost materialized. He says a foreign company was interested in buying the Salamander. However, Atoy refused, wanting to keep the product in Filipino hands. As of writing, the Salamander has yet to be rolled out to the public. Still, Atoy remains positive. With a smile, he says “May plano si Lord.”
Atoy shares how he wants to be remembered not just as someone who customized cars, but as someone who did something for the community. He is a man of his word. During times of disaster, he’s assisted in rescue efforts with his trusty “Rescue Boy.”
He still wants to do more for the community. Determined, he says, “Someday kapag binigay ang timing na yun, hindi ko alam kung kailan pero I know it’s going to be big.”