Hollywood's go-to Dubai man for vehicle customisation

Tarhan Telli customises cars, motorbikes, boats and helicopters for A-list clients around the world.

Robert Chilton October 30, 2016

Huge photographs of Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Wesley Snipes cover the walls of the TT motor vehicle customisation empire in Dubai.

Standing next to each movie star in these photos is Tarhan Telli. The 37-year-old Turk has rubbed shoulders – and enormous biceps – with these Hollywood tough guys through his work on the blockbuster film The Expendables 3.

Telli, or TT as he is known, customises cars, motorbikes, boats and helicopters for private customers and movies and most recently worked on a series of astonishing vehicles for Mad Max: Fury Road. 

His two-floor showroom opened in Dubai in March, following outlets in Turkey, Miami and Frankfurt. It’s like a motor museum with more than 40 motorcycles and vintage cars on display. Centre stage is an insane jeep from the latest Mad Max film. 

Clad in black jeans, black boots and a black t-shirt, the chatty and charming TT looks like a biker boy with ‘TT’ tattooed on one arm and blinding white teeth. He wouldn’t look out of place in a film next to Sly and the gang.

In Dubai business is booming for TT, a mechanical engineer who studied in Turkey and the United States and later graduated with a qualification in visual art, communication and design. “Soon after we opened in Dubai, in one month we received orders for 21 bikes, 11 cars and one boat. It’s amazing. In comparison we made 85 bikes in a whole year in Turkey."

He adds: "We are trying to sell a lifestyle. It’s not just cars and bikes. These are unique pieces of art. Bottom line, we are trying to make your dream come true.”

But how does he do that exactly? We began by asking him how the process for making his magnificent machines begins. 

What if we had a motorcycle we wanted you to customise. What would be the first step?

We would have an in depth consultation process where I talk to the guy about what he wants. We sit together and talk and we go pretty deep. I don’t care how much money he has – there has to be a connection. 

How do you judge that?

Their designs have to come from inside them – that’s important. It’s a friendship that becomes a brotherhood. It’s normal for me and a client to be texting ideas to each other at 4am, that’s how we create the relationship. 

Does the client come and see their bike or car as you’re customising it?

No way. We don’t show any projects to the customer during the building process – it’s actually in the contract. They need to trust me. Ten years ago I made a mistake when I told the guy to come and see how we were doing on his bike halfway through. Suddenly he wanted this changed and that changed. It was a nightmare. If they don’t like the end result we give them their money back.

Has that ever happened?

It happened once. It was an amazing motorcycle, really sexy, perfect. But the guy’s wife told him ‘You can- not ride this, it is too sexy.’ We gave the guy his $85,000 back.

What happened to the bike?

We sold it to someone else for $125,000 within one hour. 

Do clients request special artwork on their bikes?

Yeah, sure. We hand paint the faces of wives and children on the tank of the motorbike so they’re right there in their eyeline when they’re riding the bike. Otherwise their wives won’t let them have the bike! The wives tell me, ‘Hey TT – don’t forget my picture!’ 

When you finally reveal the bike or car to a client, that must be a special moment?

Oh, for sure. Guys do cry sometimes. I get sent watches, and even diamonds as thank you gifts. One guy said getting his bike made him happier than the day his son was born.

Emotion must play a big part in your work?

All the time. One guy asked me to customise his father’s car after he died. The car was Russian and it had been sitting in a garage for 45 years, it was a mess. He spent $300,000 on it and he was so happy because it reminded him of his childhood. His father bought the car when the son was eight years old, so he grew up with that car. Can you imagine how important that car was to him? He sent me watches and presents because he was so grateful. 

How difficult was it to rebuild the car?

I spent one year on it because we actually had to make the parts ourselves using a book we got from the car manufacturer. 

We’re guessing some of your customers might be quite demanding?

Absolutely. With a boat for example, the customer said I want the helipad in the back and we did it. Then he changed his mind and wanted it in the front, with a Jacuzzi in the back. So we did that too. Then he told me, ‘TT, I want the Jacuzzi to be remote controlled!’

What’s the hardest type of customisation you do?

Helicopters. You can’t do so much with them because they’re so light and thin. I can’t put more paint on it or weld something on the outside because it will make it too heavy. But on the inside I can put leather, change the dashboard, try a logo, install a Bose sound system. Helicopters are difficult, but good projects.

How many requests do you reject?

We decline about 60 per cent of customers. If you come here and act like you are something special, then no thanks. Guys see my work in films and they want to be part of that world, but it doesn’t work like that. 

Would you customise a basic Hyundai car, for example, or a Toyota?

No. The problem is this: it is worth spending the money to customise a car like that? Will you spend AED 100,000 on a Hyundai? It’s a cheap vehicle and I don’t want to spend my time on that. 

Were you fascinated by machines as a kid?

When I was a boy I was always breaking toys that my parents bought me. I took remote controlled cars apart to see how they worked and then I would rebuild them. Sometimes I would take the motor from one toy car and put it into another car to make a four-wheel drive car. I broke TVs and all my mum’s hair dryers. It made me happy and amazingly satisfied.

What did your parents think about your hobby?

I had dyslexia and ADD at 13 and was very bad at school. I couldn’t read or write and my family panicked. They said, ‘Let him do what he wants.’ At university I studied design and came second in my class so I went to work in design after high school and felt comfortable.

Why do you think your business is taking off in Dubai?

It’s the level of customer here. They have the wealth to make their dream lifestyle. I was looking at the top ten list of richest guys in the UAE recently and I realised – four of them are my customers!