Monday, August 15, 2022

Back In Black (Label) – Speedhunters

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The Bump-In

The last few years have been a strange time to be a car enthusiast. No track days. Delays on parts. JDM prices into the stratosphere.

An actual show with thousands of people inside a venue filled with cars? Forget about it.

The one positive theme is that over this time people have been plugging away at their projects in garages across the world, and they are bloody keen to get their polished panels back out into the sunlight.

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Whether it’s late-night meets, touring drives, track days or shows, my calendar has never been so smashed with events. There’s a tangible excitement in the air. It’s a great time to be part of the global car community.

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Covid has hit us all in different ways. Here in Melbourne, Australia we avoided a large spike in cases until mass vaccination had been achieved. That meant the death toll here has been significantly lower than in most parts of the world. The trade off was a lengthy lockdown. In fact, it has been reported as the longest in the world – 277 days of stay at home orders.

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I hate to bring the spicy cough up, but it does set the scene for what made the 2022 Black Label Invitational such a mega event.

Their inaugural event in 2019 (ahh… simpler times) sowed seeds of greatness with a fresh format and a selection of killer cars, but Ray and his team knew it would be the sequel where their hard work could really start to pay off. It’s a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality which requires great faith and an appetite for risk, something that seems to be exceedingly rare these days.

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The Black Label team are some of the gems of our automotive sub-culture. Passion underlies every action or decision.

Their cars are alright, too. It was great to see Ray’s E92 M3 with a fresh set of shoes and looking as clean as ever outside this year’s venue – the 8,000sq/m ‘big-top’ Grand Pavilion at Melbourne Showgrounds.

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As the cars started to roll in, I was reminded of the Port Messe venue in Nagoya, which hosts Wekfest Japan and a range of other events under its lofted dome ceiling.

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This structure is right next to the building that hosted the inaugural Black Label Invitational in 2019. That original building has been claimed for Covid testing for the past two years, but I’m not complaining – the translucent roof structure in the new venue actually provided a naturally diffused light perfect for shooting shiny cars under.

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Each car is placed carefully by the Black Label crew, which does means a longer bump-in period than most car shows.

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Again, no complaints from me this year as there was a fun vibe in the carpark staging area as friends caught up for the first time in ages and checked out the latest tweaks to each other’s rides.

When was the last time you saw a Mitsubishi GTO/3000GT looking this good?

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The BA Ford Falcon is a familiar sight to our Australasian readers, but might not register for the rest of the world. This one has left its humble origins behind for the low life.

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Black Label showcases a fair share of stance-focused builds but by no means is it a stance show. The criteria entrants are selected upon are kept secret, but the theme that comes through strongest is quality. Quality of individual parts and overall execution.

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A standard Subaru Levorg has never caught my eye, but I couldn’t walk past this one slammed on RAYS Volk Racing TE37SLs. What a cool cruiser, and super practical in the wagon body with a storage box on the roof. The family man in me is impressed.

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Fact: it’s impossible to walk past an RWB without doing your best photographer squat and grabbing a picture.

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This extremely handsome Mk1 Golf deserves a closer look later in the article…

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It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a green car. This particular shade is called ‘Midnight Green’ by the owner and has me absolutely weak at the knees. I could barely believe that it’s a vinyl wrap rather than paint, and very closely matched to some of the green-tinted carbon fibre parts adorning the body.

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A perfect example of how a drop and well-chosen wheels can completely transform a car – here is a usually unassuming Mazda 929L (also known as a Luce Legato) looking dead gorgeous. These were available with an inline four or a rotary from factory, although there was no giveaway brap-brap to be heard here.

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Although it’s easy to dismiss some be-winged builds as being simply ‘race inspired’, I know for a fact that these guys push their S2000s hard on the circuit.

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Pulling off the feat of being genuinely quick on the track while still looking at home at a car show has to be one of the biggest achievements for a car enthusiast.

Of course, I made mental notes to check out the NSXs rolling through for a closer look once they were parked up inside.

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Let’s head in, shall we?

The Japanese

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Moving inside the show hall, there’s no better place to start than with the Hondas.

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At Black Label 2019, Project NSX was the only NSX in attendance – there were seven this year! Importing an NSX had been restricted by federal rules in Australia (similar to the Skyline GT-R situation in the US), but once the ‘ban’ lifted many enthusiasts were quick to secure one from Japan.

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The local NSX community is super strong now and it’s great to see owners getting stuck in and customising their cars to their individual tastes. This one belongs to Micky, owner of MK Motorsports, so I knew the wheel choice was going to be on point.

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Amongst the aesthetic mods on Micky’s car, the most unique has to be the Spoon aero mirrors, as developed on Spoon’s Macau GP car.

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It was great to see two new NSX friends attending, Justin’s Formula Red example looking killer on the new Konig Hypergram wheels he’d just fitted up.

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I’d located the other low-slung black NSX inside the show hall and zeroed in on the colour-coordinated big brake kit and reissue Regamaster Evo wheels. 235-wide tyres are slightly beyond the limits of the stock NSX fenders, but the owner has plans to massage the fitment to ensure any rubbing is minimised.

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At the rear, it was the Backyard Special wing that grabbed my attention. It’s certainly a nice alternative to the ubiquitous NA2R replica wings.

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Sitting next to the NSX was this similarly-styled EK Civic which also had an NSX reference hidden in plain sight. Can any Honda nuts spot it?

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This Civic took home one of the judges’ ‘Top 10′ awards so it was definitely worth a closer look.

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I could easily imagine this EK parked up in the pits at Tsukuba Circuit, ready to push for a sub-1-minute lap.

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It might just be possible too, looking at the size of the turbo tucked in front of the B-series block. Just as long as the driver can keep it pointing straight when the boost comes on.

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Us ‘Honda boys’ are still trying to shrug off the reputational damage caused by 20 years of straight-piped D-series Civics, but high quality builds like these go a long way to reestablish respect for these fantastic front-drivers.

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Originality be damned, the JDM front end is infinitely much better looking than the ‘twin beam’ look we were given in Australia.

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Chunky tyres on TE37s are tucked under stock fenders at the rear here, with slightly wider J’s Racing front fenders swallowing the aggressive front fitment.

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Mugen parts are known for being expensive, but you never doubt the original sticker price when you see them up close – an OEM-level of quality applied to performance parts is always the dream. The price they demand on the used market is another thing altogether though…

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I remember this DC5 well from Black Label Invitational 2019. Things have been nicely evolved over the past few years.

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A functional engine bay isn’t hiding any secrets with the high-mount turbo on display.

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The wide fenders look to be customised J’s Racing pieces to me, or perhaps one of you can identify them in the comments.

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Kei cars are still a rare sight on Australian roads, so it’s always a pleasure coming across a Honda Beat in person.

The owner would be staying well fed with this selection of JDM snacks throughout the day.

Rounding out the Hondas is this slammed Accord Euro. Even in stock form I think Honda nailed the brief for a sporty-yet-practical sedan.

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This very original BNR32 was parked up next to Project NSX on the show floor. These two lining up at the lights would have been just about the best drag race you could hope to see in 1991.

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My NSX is comprehensively outgunned by most modern performance cars, but not so for the standard looking GT-R.

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If you see a GT-R wearing Mickey Thompson tyres at all four corners on the street, it’s definitely time to upshift and move into the slow lane.

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This S13 had a subtle overall look but had been comprehensively modified with a selection of quality parts.

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Within the custom car world, there are many sub-cultures. Rare OEM option audio part-hunting is one I can get behind, and there’s few better examples than Nissan’s Addzest Super Woofer, which was sold in extremely limited numbers for the S13 Silvia.

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A timeless combination: BNR32 on Nismo LMGT2s…

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An Active Red R34 GT-R is a rare sight – one with a Z-tune front end even more so. Did RAYS sponsor this event?

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Even relatively new designs like the retro-styled Volk Racing 21C could be spotted. There wasn’t a replica wheel in sight at Black Label.

Another deserving trophy winner was this 2JZ-swapped 180SX built and owned by a local fabricator. A really clean, purposeful execution.

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The new Supra isn’t available in a green from factory, which is a huge shame. Deep Jewel Green Pearl was one of the best colours for the JZA80 Supra, and it is replicated to great effect on this A90 from Street Element.

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new Toybaru twins in Australia, but I never expected that the first one I’d see would be at Black Label, wearing what I’d assumed to be third-party aftermarket parts, fresh out of a container from Japan.

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Well, I was wrong. The parts are all from STI, including this beautiful swan-neck wing.

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The BRZ was parked next to its spiritual predecessor and one of the standouts at the show for me. The judges agreed and a Top 10 trophy was proudly accepted by the Victorian brothers who own and built the car together.

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Under the hood, the 4A-GE is enhanced with the tried and tested combination of equal-length headers and ITBs (breathing through a sealed air box as opposed to gulping in hot engine bay air – extra points for functionality!).

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An iconic shape I never tire of seeing, this stripped-out Levin sported an AE111 4A-GE 20V engine under the lightweight hood.

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Another standout build is V12KLR, which is a bit of an icon in these parts. Many cars will burst onto the show scene and slowly fade away, but this JZA80 has been impressing for more than a decade.

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It’s easy to see why, too. The owner has fused elements of JDM that we know and love with a presentation inspired by Aussie show cars and hot rods that you would find at events like MotorEx or Summernats.

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Shaved engine bays and polished brake boosters aren’t something you’ll see on many other Supras. At a show like Black Label it stands on its own due to the stylistic choices, but take it to a hotrod and custom show and it will be just as unique for the choice of base model and modifications.

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The interior mixes modern function and classic form nicely. A wide-screen digital dash and Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel mixes with confetti Recaro SR3s to great effect.

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Another build crossing typical boundaries is this 86 which – based on that wild fitment – comes across as an exercise in pure stance.

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Features like the side-exit exhaust, cage and winged bucket seat add some race flair to the build. Regardless of your thoughts on stance, there’s a lot to appreciate in a quality execution like this.

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Rounding out the Toyotas is this Crown Majesta lifted straight out of the Osaka VIP scene. This belongs to Mark, or as he’s better known, DJ Penfold. Mark was bringing the house and hip-hop beats to Black Label attendees all day and proved the V8 sled is more than capable of pulling dual duties as both show car and work car.

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The Work Emitz is a tough design to love until you see it perfectly matched to a car, as it is here.

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Heading further down the metaphorical shinkansen track from Toyota-shi to Hiroshima takes us to Mazda. An ’80s sports wedge with five spoke wheels (in this case, OZ Futuras) is a hard combination to beat.

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From the side, this MX-5 looked fairly stock save for the TE37VSL 1920 Limited wheels…

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But a stroll around the front revealed it was far from standard.

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Of a few FD RX-7s in attendance, this white-on-white example was a personal favourite.

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The Autozam AZ-1 belonging to Rupewrecht is a familiar face at events around Melbourne, but one I never tire of seeing. Especially since it always seems to be wearing a different set of delicious retro wheels.

The Europeans

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Although the Japanese contingent dominated in actual numbers, the European imports held their own for quality.

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It’s always a treat to see a previous feature car in the flesh. Luke Ray’s custom 914 drew a crowd all day, proving that the punters can love a Porsche with its engine in the ‘wrong’ place.

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The car I was most excited to see at the show was this ’86 190E built here in Melbourne by a Mercedes-Benz body repair tech. I’ve been following along on Instagram as James chipped away throughout Covid lockdowns, and the end result totally delivered with wow factor.

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James has somehow managed to make a fusion of European touring car and Japanese street car work with perfect balance.

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There’s a great story that goes along with the build, and it’s one I hope to share with you all properly in the near future.

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Taking the chassis in a different direction is Subha’s 190E 2.5-16. The creative director teamed up with local artist Drez to create a modern-day art car.

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Yes, this is a hand-painted car so you won’t find mirror-finished panel work up close. If you’re familiar with BMW’s own art cars from the 1960s onwards, you’ll know that this is absolutely part of their charm. Further, Subha found the car in a fairly sorry state, so no mint 190s were harmed in its creation.

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Charles Santoso always has something interesting cooking up, this time a stunning Targa RWB in that timeless green-on-tan combination.

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The interior is flat-dash 911 perfection. Spend some time to drink in the details.

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There’s nothing crazy under the engine cover – that’s not what this car is about. Seeing a beautifully-restored factory engine like this is just as satisfying as poring over something extremely modified.

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Looking relatively unassuming next to Mirror Finish Detailing’s trader stand was a glistening Alfa Romeo GTV.

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The exterior looked relatively standard to my eyes, but for a few select sporting touches like these California mirrors.

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The two-piece Fifteen52 wheels straddle the retro/modern dichotomy perfectly.

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Isn’t that Giugiaro shape a beauty? Time to peek under the hood…

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The GTV body did come with a V6, but I’d wager the worked 2L Twin Spark sitting in the shaved engine bay would leave a GTV6 for dead.

It’s always refreshing to see a less common chassis getting the attention it deserves amongst existing fan favourites. This is a car I hope to revisit again in closer detail.

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Sticking with the restomod theme is that absolute ray of sunshine in the form of a Mk1 Golf we spotted earlier rolling in to the show hall.

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Bringing the performance into the 21st century is a 1.8L turbocharged motor from the Mk4 generation GTI slotted nicely into the spotless engine bay.

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The interior is an exercise in restraint that we can all learn from. Original dash and door cards are complemented by a ‘Wolfsburg’ option steering wheel and some extra gauges to keep an eye on engine parameters.

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The best bit is that it has been almost completely built by owner Jack Armour in his spare time, and is absolutely intended to be driven now that it is complete. It’s another car that deserves a closer look in the near future.

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I could fill gigabytes of our servers with coverage from Black Label, such was the diversity and quality on display, but I do need to sign off here. The event has filled that gap in the Melbourne modified community’s heart – an event that encourages people to build bigger and better with minimal egos and maximum good vibes.

Blake Jones
Instagram: blaketjones
[email protected]

Cutting Room Floor

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