Cardomain recently got a chance to get a behind the scenes look at Benchmark Motoring�s installation facility in Bellevue, Washington (located in one of the suburbs of Seattle). Benchmark Motoring (http://www.benchmarkmotoring.com) is one of the premier car audio and performance accessories installation facilities on the West Coast if not in the entire US. They have assembled a crack team of client advisors and production technicians with over 100 years of combined experience customizing some of the most exotic and expensive rides available anywhere. On the day I visited, they had a number of Rolls Royces, Bentley, Ferraris, Porsches, and tricked out hot rods as well as a number of SUVs.
On July 11th, 2006 Benchmark Motoring had an open house that drew approximately 400 of its partners, friends and customers. In addition to providing great food, they also had a number of their car audio creations on display. Brian Whitehead was kind enough to show me behind the scenes (I had seen some of the shop at one of their previous open houses, but never the story �behind the music� if you will).
(Picture 1)(Picture 2) (Picture 3)
We started our tour at the sound room. They pride themselves on carrying a limited but high quality selection of brands (like JL Audio, Boston Acoustics, Kenwood Excelon, Focal and Alpine) and the showroom is everything you would expect from a high end shop of their caliber. Brian mentioned that every piece of the showroom was made in house by their in house production technicians. The speaker and head unit displays are made out of stainless steal, molded fiberglass and a wood veneer. Each component is mounted to the wall using brackets that were fabricate on their in house CNC mill (and from what Brian told me, if they could easily recreate their sound room�s display because all the work was created using CAD/CAM drawings). The subwoofer display underneath had a similar amount of thought put into making it sound and look good. Needless to say, while usually the Sound Room is one of the first impressions you get from a business, nowadays it is relatively easy to spend big bucks and have a display company make one for you.
Next, he showed me around the showroom floor (which they like to call the customer lounge). Instead of the usual 4 month old copies of People magazine and old dog eared copies of Road and Track from 2001, they have a few flat screen TVs, some automotive coffee table books and a wi-fi hot spot for waiting customers to keep entertained. The first thing you notice is a Brand new black Porsche Carrera S sitting in the middle of the floor. At first glance, it doesn�t seem like the car has had any work done to it. Upon further inspection, you begin to notice some of the upgrades made. The only components that really would tip off a Porsche diehard that this car isn�t stock is the factory looking Ipod to the left of the stock radio and a custom pod on the top of the dash that has a Parrot Blue Tooth cell phone kit built into it.
(Porsche 1)(Porsche 2)(Porsche 3)
Beside the lounge, they have a tasteful assortment of car care products from Griot�s Garage, wheels by Antera, HRE, Lorinser and AC Schnitzer, styling products by Recaro, Kleeman and Brabus, and mobile video products from KVH and Vizualogic.
Next we went to their production facilities. Having worked at another high end car audio installation shop in the San Diego area as well as toured several manufacturers� installation facilities (MTX, Rockford Fosgate�s RTTI, Phoenix Gold), my expectations were set pretty high, and they were definitely exceeded. There is an old saying in the automotive industry that says if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. Having the right tool for the right job is the most important thing you can do, and they seem to have every tool in the book. One of the first things that jumped out to me was the vehicle lift and wheel balancer. If you are going to do high end wheels, exhausts and styling products, having a lift in the shop is a must. Next I went into their metal shop. They have a welding table, welder, a sand blaster, a drill press, a metal shear, a metal brake, a chop saw and a tube notcher. Basically every tool you would ever want to work with metal is here. One of the things Brian pointed out was that wood by nature is heavy, isn�t very strong, isn�t very light and absorbs water. That is one of the reasons most manufacturers don�t use it in a car and why Benchmark Motoring likes working with lighter and stronger metals. The blue screen is setup around the metal shop to prevent any sort of eye injuries that bright light coming off a welder can cause.
(Lift)(Metal room1)(Metal room 2)
At this point, I was pretty impressed. Most shops I have been to are focused on taking big pieces of wood and cutting them down to size and stuffing them into a car. After the metal room, we went to the dedicated paint booth and wood room. The paint booth was off limits but it�s basically designed to minimize any sort of issue with errant paint as well as providing a safe work environment for anyone painting. The wood room is a dedicated room with its own ventilation system. Wood dust has a habit of getting into everything if you aren�t careful, so you have to be sure that as little of it has a chance of getting out and causing a mess in the rest of your shop. They have the usual table saw, band saw, sander and chop saw. One of the things I was surprised to see was a CNC controlled mill in the back as well as 2 pin routers. Most people who use routers use a bit with a small bearing on it. The problem is that the size of the bearing can cause a corner to be more rounded than you might like it to be. A pin router uses a thin metal pin over the router that allows you to get much more precise cuts. The CNC is cool as well, but I couldn�t help but thinking that getting a guy to draw designs out with CAD software sounded like more work it was worth. But we will get back to that later.
(Wood room)(Wood room 2)
Next, we went into the install bay. Each technician has a set of Lista roll away tool boxes they work form that are owned by Benchmark instead of a wide assortment of Snap On, Mac and Matco tools boxes of every shape and color you might see in another shop. Then Brian showed me some new fangled gadget (BRIAN, PUT THE NAME HERE). This is basically a large tablet like they use in the graphics world. How it works is that you take whatever item you want to turn into a cad drawing, put it on the table and then trace around it. The computer automatically turns it into CAD drawing that can be sent to the mill that is in the wood shop. In the typical shop, you would get a car that comes in and you would make a template for a speaker ring for example. You would probably then write what it is for on it with a sharpie, and hang it up on the wall. The next time someone wants to make a set of speaker rings, you would look through you big pile of templates that are probably hanging on the wall, spend 15 minutes trying to find one, than two side tape a piece of wood to one side and then make a copy using a router. With a drawing, all you do is head over to the PC by the CNC mill, put a piece of table on the wood, find your CAD drawing and cut a new template in less time than it probably would have taken you to find the template among dozens of other templates on the wall. A very cool solution that lets the installation technicians spend more time doing work and less time hunting around for stuff.
Last but not least, I went outside to take a look at the cars. A number of high end cars were in the parking lot, including Mike Lavalle�s Magnum (he is the owner of Killer Paint, who is famous for doing the airbrushed flames), Mercedes Benz G-Wagen, a Mercedes Benz �jeep� (a two door G-Wagen convertible I hadn�t seen before), several Audis, several hot rods, a Porsche, a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, and more.
(All the other pictures)