Behind a motorcycle dealership in the mid-coast NSW town of Taree is a very ordinary-looking shed with two roller doors.
There are no signs to tell you what business is conducted inside and the only hint that it might have something to do with cars is a few wrecks and bits and pieces stored in an open shed outside.
This exceedingly ordinary setting totally belies the exceedingly extraordinary work that goes on inside.
The shed is the home of Hills & Co Customs and Auto Restoration, a business started in Taree 12 years ago by British-born Justin Hills.
Justin hails from Basingstoke in Hampshire and he’s always loved cars.
As a teenager he started working on things like VW Beetles and Mini Minors, but wanted to learn how to do things properly. That was in the late 1980s.
“I rang all the panel shops in the Yellow Pages until I finally got an apprenticeship in painting,” Justin said.
Apprenticeship completed, ticket in hand, his life was about to change forever.
A most unlikely car also played a huge role in his future – a heavily chopped and lowered Vauxhall Victor he spotted at a show.
Justin was totally knocked out by the car, so much so that he eventually bought it.
To this day, he still talks to the bloke back in the UK who built the Victor.
Justin came to Australia in 1996 and within a month opened his own shop in Taree. Within weeks he was flat out.
More than a decade later, nothing in the “flat-out” department has changed.
The custom cars and restoration work he and his three offsiders now produce is nothing short of amazing. And that’s by world standards.
While restoration projects are undertaken working closely with clients, the custom cars are all Justin’s and he will not accept custom commissions.
His first major project was a 1949 Buick and it was also his first major roof-chopping project. That was back in 2011.
The result is a car recognised internationally as a thing of beauty and has won the gong for Australia’s most-beautiful custom.
Justin took the car to United States where it won its class at the famous Sacramento Autorama show and was judged one of the top 10 cars at the renowned SEMA show in Las Vegas.
The car was eventually bought by an enthusiast in Atlanta, Georgia.
So outstanding was the car that the buyer paid twice what American custom shops were averaging at the time for their projects.
Then, in 2013, Justin took a 1960 Dodge, totally stripped it, chopped 12.5cm off the roof and blessed the car with various body-styling tweaks and a new interior.
Remarkably, at the same time, the business was increasingly busy on various restoration projects, but Justin took just eight months to complete the car.
As with the Buick, he took the Dodge to America – the traditional home of custom cars – to show it at the 2013 Sacramento Autorama.
So stunning was the car in the eyes of the judges, it won the H A Bagdasarian Award as the world’s most-beautiful custom.
It was eventually sold to a collector in Texas.
Justin was also inducted into the Autorama Hall of Fame and this honour – not to mention the breathtaking Buick and Dodge – have established Justin as one of the world’s finest custom-car designers and builders.
Increasingly, a consulting role has developed in the United States and Justin was flown recently to California to work with an artist/designer and custom-car builder on one of his projects – the chopping of a 1961 Chrysler.
In the Hills & Co shop at the moment there are five very different customer restoration projects underway: a 1965 Lotus Elan, 1973 Buick Riviera, 280 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL and super-rare American 1954 Muntz Jet convertible — plus a hush hush job involving an historically significant British car.
Important projects though they are, however, these vehicles are not currently the stars of the show.
That honour goes to a somewhat secret personal project that is at a pretty advanced stage.
It’s a 1953 Jaguar XK 120 coupe that is getting the full Hills and Co treatment.
Justin calls it the XK 120 LM (as in Le Mans) and he reckons it’s the car Jaguar should have built instead of the D-Type.
It’s currently bedded down inside a pumped-up, clear-plastic car bubble for protection and while you can look, photographs are at this stage verboten until its debut at the Lindsay House Concours d’Elegance in Sydney next March.
The car will, in August, be shipped to the Quail Lodge car show, near Pebble Beach in California.
The roof has been shaved 7.5cm from the car’s roof, adjustable air suspension fitted all round, along with Wilwood disc brakes.
The Jag is already painted gleaming black and after months of deliberation, Justin has decided the leather interior will be finished in a classic Jaguar colour called Suede Green — a soft olive green.
The stand-out feature will, however, be none of that.
It’ll be a totally re-engineered 5.3-litre Jaguar V12 engine out of an XJ-S that Justin has brought back to 5.0 litres. It’s in the car and in fact, he has already been able to drive his new toy.
It’s also been on the dynamometer.
“We saw 460 horsepower (343kW) at 8200rpm, “ Justin explains, “ but I backed off then.”
A tad more than the 160hp (120kW) the car had originally.
The car’s performance is sure to be stunning – weighing in as it will at around 1100kg.
Justin acknowledges that some Jaguar purists might not approve of his project, but interestingly, Jaguar design boss Ian Callum, knows all about the car and is pretty excited.
Also excited is former American Tonight Show host, Jay Leno, who has one of the world’s finest car collections and a new TV show, Jay Leno’s Garage.
So far as the future is concerned, Justin isn’t sure yet what his next project will be.
“I’d quite like to build, not a custom, but a ‘70s Le Mans car like a Lola and make it street legal,” he said.
“I keep looking at late ’50s Bentleys and Rolls-Royces — they’d make a great custom with nice swoopy lines.”
Whatever the next project turns out to be – that is once the Jaguar’s finished – you can put your sheep station on the fact it will be a stunning, world-class vehicle.
Justin doesn’t know any other way.
CHECKOUT: American Graffiti: cars and the stars
CHECKOUT: Ford America’s most beautiful roadster