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Tarhan Telli now building dreams in Dubai

Turkish automative designer, who’s worked for major Hollywood films, brings his TT Custom to the UAE


“This is where your dreams come true,” says automotive designer Tarhan Telli, proudly sitting next to one of the cars he designed for Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s Oscar-winning film.

“This is not a shop or a dealership, it’s a clubhouse. You come in here, hang out for as long as you like, talk to us and we will build your dream machine for you. From scratch.”

Tarhan Telli with Sylvester Stallone on the set of The Expendables 3. Image Credit: TT Custom Motors

Telli opened his TT Custom Dubai, a 3,000-square-metre, two-floor showcase for his motorbikes, cars, accessories and paintings at Dubai Investment Park this January. Things are moving so fast that a factory is being built close to the showroom to meet the demand. It’s set to open in July. He’s also signed a deal with developer Meraas to open a chain of restaurants called TT Barbecues and will soon begin work on TT Custom Village, a collection of homes each custom-designed to match the owner’s personality “right down to the bedside table”.

Not bad for someone who was branded useless and bullied at school because of his dyslexia.

Telli was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and dyslexia when he was eight. Growing up in his hometown of Istanbul with the disorder was a struggle, he recalls.

“In school, the teachers thought I was being petulant. They thought I didn’t want to read. But I really couldn’t. I’d read the first sentence but everything else would be a blur. I couldn’t do simple math. I had no idea what six times five was,” he says.

So Telli spent a lot of time at home tearing things apart and putting them together again.

Tilli on the Expendables set with Jason Statham. Image Credit: TT Custom Motors

“I’d play with my mother’s hair dryer, open it up and try to build a hovercraft,” he recalls, laughing. “I was always taking things apart and then trying to make something else out of it.”

The first time something really sparked his passion was when he tore open his remote-controlled car.

“Mine had a wire attached to the remote. That meant it would only go a certain distance. So I cut the cable and made it much longer. Then I bought another toy car, took out the engine and put two engines in one. Now my car went faster and further than all my friends’. That was the first thing I customised.”

When it was time to go to university, Telli knew exactly what he wanted to study: automotive engineering.

Tilli on the Expendables set with Wesley Snipes. Image Credit: TT Custom Motors

But it would be a few more years before a real entrepreneurial spirit began to surface.

“After my Masters’ I was still considering what to do with my life. My father told me to open a grocery store but I told him I don’t want to spend my whole life behind a desk. I wanted to build, I wanted to create and I wanted my name on it,” Telli says.

In 2004, Telli decided to open TT Custom Motors, where he would build his own bikes. He rented a space right next to a Harley-Davidson showroom and displayed his first self-branded bike.

“I priced it at three times the price of a Harley. Everyone thought I had gone mad,” he says. “They told me no one would pay for something they have never heard of. But I knew there would be someone who would appreciate what I had built.” Sure enough, a few weeks after opening, Telli’s first customer walked into his shop.

“He was a businessman and he really loved the bike. When I told him the price, he wrote a cheque without any hesitation and I almost lost my mind. I asked him why he loved it so much and he said, ‘I can tell you are very passionate about what you do. You created this with your own hands and there is nothing like this. It’s unique and special’.

“He was telling me exactly what I have been trying to tell others about TT Custom Motors.”


Chance at fame

Soon, demand began to pick up. TT Custom Motors went from making 20 to 50 and then 100 bikes. Today, they’ve sold more than 600 bikes and 100 cars, designed yachts and helicopters from showrooms and factories in Germany, the US, Cyprus and Russia.

Hollywood soon came calling.

“Every year we go for a group bike ride. We were in Monte Carlo and someone came up to me, introduced himself as a film producer and asked me about our bikes. He asked for my contact but I didn’t hear from him for months,” he says.

“Then after six months, we got a call from someone from Los Angeles requesting a meeting. When I landed there, I was told it was for The Expendables 3.”

Telli was on set throughout the filming of the action film and bonded closely with a lot of the film’s cast including Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes.

“They’re the best guys,” is all Telli will say about working with major Hollywood stars.

A project with Mad Max: Fury Road soon followed. The George Miller film starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy went on to win six Oscars, including one for best production design.

Telli is now working on another “big” Hollywood film but is not allowed to speak about it just yet.

He wants to use the Dubai branch, he says, as a gateway to the rest of the Gulf and larger Middle East.

“People here love owning one-of-a-kind things, and that’s just what we do. Yes, you might have money, but it’s the appreciation of something that belongs only to you, that’s made only for you, that’s what we aim at,” Telli says.

“We’ve turned away many customers who tell us money is not an issue and to create copies of things. We will never do that. If you just want something expensive, go to a shop and buy it.”

The first TT Barbecues branch will open in Dubai this October while the TT Custom Village is expected to be ready for occupation by 2020.

“The homes are for people who don’t like to buy ready-made anything. Every item in the apartments will be unique, whether it’s a steam punk theme or minimalist or anything. It’s your personality. Even for the barbecue chain, the concept is that you walk in and you get the food made to your liking. There will be no menu,” he says.

It’s all about passion says Telli, who recently turned 38.

“When I designed the first helicopter in 2011, they brought me a pile of garbage. I spent one year studying aeronautics and really understanding how it worked before even starting to do something with it,” he says. “That’s how we work. And our target are people who will appreciate that passion.”

His success, he says, is only because of the people he works with.

“When we started we were like six people in a small shop. Now we are more than 100 and our family is growing bigger and bigger,” he says. “I believe in brotherhood. My team is like a family because without them, I’m nothing.”


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