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Interview with Troy Sumitomo of Five Axis - Engineered Art

How Troy Sumitomo, Owner Of Five Axis, Went From Building Street Cars To Concept Cars For Major Car Manufacturers.

Charles Trieu
Sep 22, 2010
Photographer: Five Axis

People Personalities & Interviews
After our photo shoot of the Five Axis Scion tC in their workshop/office, I couldn't help but wonder what exactly Five Axis does. I sat down with owner and founder Troy Sumitomo to find out what the company offers and how he came into the position he's now in. Talk about a dream job.

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His automobile tinkering started back before Troy could even drive. "I blame my passion for cars on my uncle Darryl. He had an old Corolla that he had fixed up but more than anything he got me into Tamiya models, which basically paved my fabrication and craftsmanship path to where I am today," he tells me. After building and painting small models, Troy eventually started on full size cars. The obsession transformed itself into street racing and modifying street cars. Like most of us, Troy quickly went through several different cars and builds during his youth.

When the time came for a career, it was his mom who found out about Art Center College of Design and helped push him into turning his hobby into a dream job. After attending, Troy graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Transportation Design. Art Center is the place where many of today's automotive designers have graduated from.

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"I remember being at Art Center when Chip Foose was attending and seeing his work. That guy can draw. He's simply an amazing illustrator." Troy enrolled at Art Center with the idea of being a designer and drawing cars. But soon after starting he knew it wasn't exactly for him. "I'll be honest, drawing is not my strong point. I'm more a fabricator and builder. I realized my precision craftsmanship was my strongest point. I'd much rather design in 3D or on the computer than draw on paper." Everything Five Axis has touched has a fit-and-finish second to none. Perfect is the word I'd use, and I never use that word to describe the quality of most modified cars. Taste is objective but quality and finish of parts are not. Five Axis' high level of craftsmanship on cars are not only better than any tuner out there, it's sometimes beyond the level of OEMs as well.

After graduating in 1992, Troy started working as a fabricator and designer. But after just three years of working for someone else, Troy and his business partner started their own company in 1995. Their plan was to make a living by making small-scale car models for automotive designers and firms. This is where the seed was planted for what would later become Five Axis.

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As more design firms came to Troy, the requests also became bigger. Soon they would outgrow their 800 square- foot shop, with requests for builds of full-scale cars. Now known as Five Axis, Troy and his team have a 21,000 square- foot facility with just about everything a car guy could dream of. Car lift? Sure. Paint booth? Yep. Welders? Got a few of those. Drill press? Yes. Lathe? Check. And how about a milling machine? But of course. In fact, Five Axis has two milling machines. One is the standard type, a computerized numerical controlled (CNC) machine for machining aluminum and other materials. This is the type of machine you find in manufacturers of many aftermarket parts. Their other machine is what's known as a five-axis mill, and this is where their name comes from. The five-axis mill can operate on five different axes, not just three (X, Y and Z) like others. Versatility in the cutting head and axes angles allows the machine to make any cut you can dream up. This machine is a monster. It is huge even in their enormous shop. Its main duty is to cut life-size scale models of cars. Two of examples they had lying around are foam front and rear ends of a Lexus IS. Big clients like Toyota will often ask for a full-size model so they can see how life-size proportioning looks before preceding to production. You would think big name manufacturers would have their own in-house departments to make and produce concept cars, but in fact many are out sourced to specialists like Five Axis.

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Five Axis' bread and butter has been taking car manufacture's concept cars and turning them into actual living breathing machines. Materializing a designer's dream is not always an easy task and often Five Axis has to sit down and help design and redesign concept cars so they can be functional and be built. If you think building your street car is hard work, imagine building an entire car strictly from someone's drawing.

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In 2005, Lexus came to Five Axis and asked them to put their own spin on the upcoming IS F, scheduled to release in 2006. Five Axis was to redesign the car post-production in hopes to show people how badass the IS F could be. When the flat black widebody Five Axis Lexus IS F was done, everyone in the tuning world would then know Five Axis' name. This is when they stepped out from behind the garage doors and showed the public the skills they've been holding only for manufacturers.

Since then, Five Axis has come out with Five: AD, their own line of aftermarket parts including aero kits and wheels. Still working with large automotive manufacturers on concept cars, Five Axis has become a brand for both pre-production cars, post-production cars and concept cars that have never even see production.

Troy Sumitomo
Over the hill and coming back up the other side (45)
Founder/Owner of Five Axis
Huntington Beach, CA

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Super Street: What was your first car?
Troy Sumitomo: My first car was a 1980 Toyota Corolla SR5 Sport Coupe. Why they called it a "coupe" is beyond me. Just got done flipping through the August Super Street issue and saw the Corolla Liftback in there. Brought back memories! I had a punched out 2.0 liter 3TC with 44 Mikunis and tons of other legit, old school JDM TRD stuff in it. I did most of the heavy wrenching myself and if I only knew what I do today, the exterior would have been way better!

SS: What type of work does Five Axis do exactly?
TS: Five Axis builds concept, prototypes and showcars for major car companies. Five Axis also designs and creates its own showcars as well as our own line of wheels and automotive accessories called Five:AD (Five Axis Design).

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SS: What do you do at Five Axis?
TS: Answer questionnaires, screen my phone calls and try to actually get work done when not doing these things. Honestly I oversee the operations from a high level and am the main point of contact for our customers. If you ask my guys, they'll probably say I just nit-pick their work and make them change stuff all the time. Basically I'm the final QC guy! I still, from time to time, get dirty in the shop but not usually until it's absolutely necessary.

SS: What is Five Axis capable of producing?
TS: Five Axis is capable of producing practically anything. If we do not have the machine, manpower, or capability here, we have partners that we can call on. At the end of the day we just like to create really unique assets with super-high craftsmanship and strict attention to detail.

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SS: What is Five Axis' most notable build so far?
TS: We have been very fortunate to be a part of so many incredible projects it's impossible to pinpoint just one. How about this, I'll categorize them as follows:
Wildest Concept Car - Toyota FT-HS (You've got to Google this, it's amazing. -CT)
Wildest Five Axis Designed Showcar - Project IS F
Most Unique Showcar - Hot Wheels Deora 2
Most Iconic Five Axis Design Showcar - Scion DJxB (1st gen box).

SS: What (OEM) companies have Five Axis done work with?
TS: We've primarily worked with Toyota and Honda on the grandest scale but have also done projects with Mercedes Benz, Mitsubishi, GM, Chrysler, Nissan and VW/Audi, to name a few.

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SS: What was the most exciting project that you personally have worked on (either at Five Axis or prior)?
TS: The Toyota FT-HS was probably the most exciting in terms of level of detail and design. Fellow ACCD classmates who work for Toyota's design studio, Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, CA, designed the car and Five Axis built it to their spec. This concept car had so many high level details including carbon-fiber wheels, which made it such a challenge to build. In the end it was the nicest and most jaw-dropping vehicle built by Five Axis. Also working with my friends at Calty was a blast.

SS: What was your most exciting experience within Five Axis (not just within the office/shop)?
TS: There have been numerous events that qualify but I think some of the bigger moments include appearances on national TV and working with iconic people in the design and automotive industry. Our first TV show was with Chip Foose on a show called Rides where we built the Hot Wheels Deora 2. We got to debut the car at the Hot Wheels 35th Anniversary party at the Petersen Museum and Jay Leno actually drove it up to the red carpet. That was an interesting night and actually met the legendary Richard Petty in the men's room and got his autograph, after he washed his hands, of course!

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SS: Why are you into designing concept cars? What is it about them?
TS: I have always been about the creative process, solving problems and building things. Cars are one of those universally loved products, by most, and have to be one of the coolest statements one can make about himself. Being able to create and build cars that not only get people's attention but also allow us to make a unique and individual statement is the greatest opportunity one can ask for. Fortunately, I have a kick-ass team that continues to pull it off, one project after another, and the support from great industry partners like Yokohama, Pioneer and of course Toyota.

SS: Does Five Axis ever plan to work on older cars, say like Boyd Coddington or Chip Foose?
TS: We actually have worked on some older domestic classics with Chip in the past. We welcome all kinds of projects here at Five Axis. In fact we just wrapped up a 69 Camaro for the Hot Rod Power Tour with Pioneer Electronics and Hot Rod Magazine. Got the pleasure of enduring Howard Lim for a few weeks... haha. (Howard Lim is my boss' boss -CT). Howard and I actually go way back to the HKS days where we built a Mitsubishi truck for him. Wow that was a long-ass time ago!

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SS: What cars do you have right now?
TS: Well, let's just say I have quite a few but some are strictly for marketing.
Toyota: 2010 Prius (my daily #1), 2008 FJ (my girls, mostly)
Scion: 2008 xB, 2008 xD, 2005 tC (D and C up for sale though)
Nissan/Datsun: 2009 370Z (my daily #2), 1992 300ZX, 1971 240Z (I am a Z car nut!)
Honda: 1996 NSR 250 (not a car but a cool 2-stroke JDM street bike)

SS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your automotive design footsteps?
TS: Run in the other direction? Nah, seriously, it's an awesome field and the opportunities that have come my way are amazing. It's really a small industry and all about connections too, so be nice to everyone! It blows me away that I still get to work with a bunch of guys I used to street race with back in the day. I never dreamed I could make a living working on cars and still find it mind boggling how I ended up here. I guess I owe it to Mom who found out about Art Center for me.

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SS: What can we expect from you and Five Axis in the future?
TS: I just hope we continue to have the opportunities to work on some great programs like we have. We will continue to build concepts for the designs studios, create our own showcars and continue to develop our Five:AD line of products as well. We hope to branch out a little more into more brands and focus on more universal products too. Of course, we cannot forget our roots and the opportunities afforded us by them. So yes, keep an eye on the Scion front for some new Five:AD products as well as our Five:AD wheel line.

In closing, I really want to give props to my Five Axis team for making this all possible. Thank you also to Charles, Super Street and to all of our sponsors, loyal fans and supporters that continue to make this dream a reality.

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Toyota FT-HS (The predecessor of the FT-86)

Project IS F

Custom spec Five Axis tread patterns by Yokohama Japan


Five Axis
Five:AD Wheels
By Charles Trieu
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