The alchemist's art: supercars from scrap

Take one rusty old banger, hand it over to the Bangladeshi metal-basher Leepu, and pick up a unique design sensation
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Leepu is a sort of automotive alchemist. From Bangladesh. His speciality is to turn the base metal of a knackered Ford Capri or Toyota Corolla into the gold of a Ferrari look-alike or an original artwork. Or, in the words he uses to describe his latest creation: "This car is inspired by nature - fish, animals and birds. I take all the lines and all the beauty out of nature, then put all my imagination into the design."

His real name is Nizamuddin Awlia, but that's not so catchy, and you need something a bit more idiosyncratic if you're going to become an international star. This he is now becoming, with commissions from around the world. His most recent project was to build a car for a Discovery Channel programme.

Right now, Leepu is "artist in residence" at the Rich Mix centre in east London. For two months, he has been turning the wreck of a Capri into something more stylish, using only sheet steel, big scissors, some welding kit and his own ingenuity. Called Car, the result is on show until 4 September, with a film on how the vehicle was built. Leepu is charming and unpretentious. He is, plainly, a metal-basher as well as a designer. Watching him at work, it is obvious that he is very much at home with the raw material of his trade.

So how did this boy from Bangladesh end up mixing it with the great Italian coachbuilders? Well, his inspiration actually came when he was a 16-year-old living in Saudi Arabia. There, he visited his first motor show and, this being a Saudi affair, he feasted his eyes on the most exotic and expensive of machinery. He fell in love with the Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and Ferraris he saw. "They made me crazy. I wanted to buy them, but all the price tags were thousands of pounds. My dad said no!" His father bought him a Mazda rather than the sports car of his dreams.

He figured that the only way to get what he wanted was to build it himself. "In Dhaka, it was impossible even to find a car magazine, so I used to watch Magnum PI and Knight Rider just to look at the cars. I'd study the cars on the street."

In 1989, he made the Leemobil, a much more boxy affair than his more recent works. Soon, anyone who wanted a Ferrari look-alike based on a scrap car knew where to come. Typical of his wares was a Daihatsu Charade turned into a much sexier Leepu-mobile for a mere £2,500.

Leepu visited the General Motors Institute in Michigan, but was put off studying there by the volume of technical work. Instead, he opened his own workshop to get some practical experience, did that for three years, and then went back to Bangladesh. He started making cars to order, based on tired old Daihatsus and Toyotas. A couple of years ago, he came to the attention of Intersection magazine, and the international interest began.

Leepu is still forced to compromise because of the scarcity of parts in Bangladesh. For example, on one of his cars, a white Mercedes-ish limousine, he used motorcycle dials and lights to startling effect. His creations cost about £20,000. The black car featured in our main picture was built for £16,000. Although poverty is extensive in Bangladesh, Leepu points out that there are wealthy families and communities there who can afford to buy anything they want.

What is he going to do next? Nothing is finalised. He's working on another Discovery Channel show, and there's the possibility of making a car for the computer games company EA Games. He is clear, though, that he would like to do some more original work "with shapes inspired by birds and animals, such as eagles and panthers, branded as Leepu-mobiles". We look forward to them.

Car runs to 4 September at Rich Mix, London E1 (020-7613 7490; www.richmix.org.uk). Leepu stars in Bangla Bangers, exclusively on the Discovery Channel on 25 September at 10pm

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