The Top Five Local Builds of 2020

Back in January 2018 I published a post on what I considered to be the top local builds of the 2017 calendar year. With heavy inspiration from Stickydiljoe’s former Honda countdowns, I altered the idea slightly to look at what had debuted in our local scene over the prior year regardless of make or genre.

I had a lot of fun putting that first edition together as it forced me to dig a lot deeper into what our community had on offer, but it was rather challenging to not only select five vehicles but then rank them as well. I wasn’t sure what would be thought of the entry but very happily it was met with an outstanding response so right away it became clear that a 2018 edition would have to follow it up, and it did. However, there was then no 2019 version.

Trying to compile the list last year, I admittedly was really struggling. There were some incredible builds completed during the season though such as Nick’s redone TCP Magic FD and Jeevs’ restored EK9 CTR, but try as I might I just couldn’t put together a concise five car list and so it just never came to be.

With everything that happened in 2020 it may have been fair to assume that we wouldn’t see any crazy builds debut but some impressive machinery did indeed come together. With many amazing makeovers and new cars coming out, combined with the lack of a list last year, I knew that I had to sit down and try to get my head around picking and ranking five vehicles to bring this back to the site.

Apparently this was a very good idea. As soon as I announced that the Top Five list would be returning, messages started coming in. There seemed to be immediate excitement about the countdown and this was not only real motivation, but also some welcome pressure to make sure that this year’s list was extra solid. As I had noted in the prior lists I like to think I have a decent understanding of building cars and also try to stay up-to-date on the various styles and genres within the larger automotive scene, but equally stress that these lists are never meant as anything definitive or some “final say” regarding the cars in our city. Owners of the past lists’ builds as well as many others have really appreciated and seemed to agree with the final selections and rankings, but if someone is to completely disagree with what’s here, that’s just fine too. This is merely my own opinion and take on what we’ve been presented with so place whatever value on that, that you choose.

As another reiteration from the prior lists, in case you’re unfamiliar with what I consider to be the requirements for a build to be eligible it’s really pretty simple. First and foremost – while it may sound obvious – it has to be one I’m aware of. I do my best each season to see as much of our local community as possible but will never be able to witness, let alone become familiar with, every build that calls Calgary (or the surrounding area) home. There may very well be some that by my own ranking system should place on this list yet are absent; I can’t rank it if I don’t know about it.

Of those vehicles, they next have to be a build that is either new for 2020 or one that has been so heavily revamped from a prior iteration that its 2020 form is distinctive itself. I’m not concerned with how much exposure vehicles saw or when in the year they were even finished. As long as at some point in the 12-month window it was completed, and if it wasn’t a completely new project was at least identifiable as the 2020 version of a pre-existing build, then it was up for consideration.

After that it came down to the overall amount of work and level of quality, but also some intangible aspects such as meaning behind the car/build, or that magical scenario when everything comes together to make a much bigger impact than the mod list would suggest. This year’s main challenge in regards to ranking was the varying focuses of the builds. Within these top five it was the builds that landed at two and three specifically which caused me the most head-scratching and back-and-forth debates. If you divided the cars into two sections – exterior/interior and then engine/brakes/suspension – each one was a nearly full redo in one area while leaving the other basically untouched, thus making it very hard to weigh one as being “better” than the other. In the end though I’m happy with where each wound up, just as I am with the rest of the list.

The final challenge in compiling the list this year was getting all of the required information (as well as photos in one case, you’ll see which) without tipping off the owners of these vehicles. Thanks to builds being chronicled on Instagram, information from mutual friends, and photos sent over from a certain shop, I was able to fill in any blanks and put together what you are about to read now: The Top Five Local Builds of 2020. This took a huge amount of work and I’m very excited to finally have it published, so please read on.

I hope you enjoy.

#5: Levi’s R32 GT-R

Starting the list off this year we have Levi’s R32 GT-R. It makes the Top 5 because as a build – measured in terms of parts, quality, execution – it is truly well done. Make no mistake. However, as established I also place value on what the build in question represents, and to Levi this car is something quite special.

We all have that one car that we idolize, and look up to over everything else. Many of us also have “the one that got away”, a car we sold and realized we wanted back. For Levi the R32 GT-R was both of these things. He had owned some previously but moved on to other projects such as his RB V2 BRZ, S14, a green EK, and of course has even been working on his daily 4Runner, but obviously something was missing. Even after picking up the lowest-mileage S15 I’d ever seen and starting to build it, Levi realized that there was no getting around the fact that he wanted an R32 again.

Enter the car you see here. He picked up this grey example but instead of throwing a plate on it and just leaving it at that, he tore it down and set about not only making it cleaner, but making it his own. This was another chance at owning his dream car and he made it very clear early on that he was not going to cut corners with it, as illustrated by the fact that the grey it wears today is not even the same grey it was originally.

Having the metallic grey R32 completely repainted a different metallic grey, I feel, is a perfect illustration of how he approached this car. I would wager that, to the untrained eye, Levi’s R32 would look the most similar in its “before” and “after” photos as compared to anything else on this list but that’s because this makeover wasn’t so much about visual change but rather a change in the quality and finish of the entire car. You could look at photos of the car when he picked it up versus how it sits today and notice the few aftermarket additions and Nismo bits, but you’d be missing 95 percent of the work that has gone into it. Everything you don’t immediately see – the new seals, trim, and fresh KAD Gunmetal paint as a tip of the hat to the Nismo Omori Factory builds – all come together to create a car that looks far closer to 3 days old – not 3 decades – and the restrained but purposeful modifications create a timeless look. Parts weren’t selected to make a huge visual impact or break the internet, but give him a largely refreshed and tidy example of his dream car that will look good for years to come.

It lands here on the list because there is absolutely a lot of time, effort, and frankly money, into this car but the interior and chassis were largely left as they were when Levi first purchased it (for now). He wasn’t aiming to build the most-modified R32 ever, and I can attest that everything else on the car looks to be in great shape, but the simple fact is that the vast majority of work thus far was focused on restoring the body whereas the other 4 cars typically (with one exception) had their work spread out a bit more among the other areas. Regardless it is a beautiful car and represents something very special and important for Levi, so it is the #5 build this year.

#4. Brandon’s Mk4 GTI

This is probably the odd one out in this year’s list in that there was generally a heavy emphasis on restoration – be it through repaints in the OE colour, piles of new OEM gaskets and seals going on, redone hardware, so forth – with this one being the exception to that theme. Granted it is the newest car on the list by a decent margin (restomodding won’t need to be a real direction for the Mk4 world for a little while yet) but it also saw the most drastic visual transformation in that it’s the only car here to be a completely different colour from when it started.

This car also stands out on the list for me personally, for being such a unique combination of styling choices that work so amazingly (and perhaps unexpectedly?) well together. The perfect OEM+ styling with a Boser hood for added detail, draped in what I believe is one of the most underrated and slept-on OEM colours out there (Lexus Desert Sage), and sitting on top of stunning Japanese wheels (Work VS-XX) in a perfectly-complementing colour scheme. It all just works. So. Very. Well.

The car’s also much more than a fancy exterior with more OEM+ upgrades found inside, hand-picked from multiple models (hilariously the instrument cluster even features Mk3 Focus needles, so bonus point there), air suspension, and a VR6 swapped in under the hood. It’s a complete package that flows so well together with no single piece looking out of place amongst the rest. As I said in the intro, certain builds come together to have a massively bigger impact and presence than their build sheets would suggest and this is one of those without a doubt. Also worth a special mention here is that the full colour change was even done by Brandon himself!

The only reason it didn’t place higher on the list, going back to how I opened, is that with the other cars on the list being older they had more detail in regards to restoration work on top of their modifications. It’s not meant as a negative point against Brandon’s Mk4 at all mind – and I realize that this car still saw some rust repair and other touchups as part of the process – but rather it’s just the reality of trying to take an older vehicle to the same level of quality as a newer one. This is a stunningly beautiful Golf and the second I first saw it it became one of the year’s standouts to me, so it takes the #4 spot.

#3. Shawn’s Integra Type R

Next up on the list is a car that has been around for a few years now and has had a few looks to it, and that would be Shawn’s ITR. What I especially like about its 2020 revisions and wish to highlight is that while Shawn put in a lot of time to overall refine and raise the level of the build, it wasn’t just a case of adding parts or modifying it further. In some cases it actually meant refitting original components or dialing back what had already been done.

Last year the ITR sat as a still very clean, but fairly aggressive, track-inspired build. With a full Gathers livery, GT wing, stripped interior, and enormous splitter, it was instantly recognizable with a ton of high quality parts on it and absolutely looked good, but “restrained” was not a word that’d come to mind first to describe it. He took it in that direction and built it very well as he did, but come 2020 he decided to not only raise its level of finish but also slightly change its overall approach, perhaps emphasizing the street side of the street/track hybrid as opposed to the other way around.

While the livery had been removed, by still sporting a massive J’s wing out back (and more aggressively-sized TEs in two different colours) the car was by no means flying under the radar at this point. However, the livery’s absence was just the tip of the iceberg for the exterior’s overhaul. It may not be immediately apparent via the photos but Shawn actually stripped the car down (glass removal included), sent it off for a full respray, and then reassembled it with numerous brand new OEM parts to remove any signs of age on the outside of the car. OEM optional side skirts as well as fenders, a front lip, and duct from J’s Racing then joined as the new aero additions. To go with the overhauled exterior Shawn also reverted the car back to a full interior, pulling out all of the original pieces which he’d carefully stored away following their removal earlier in the build and refitting them to the car.

With all of the work carried out this season you’d think Shawn would be quite content to take a break from building the car but that’s not the case at all. As you’re reading this the ITR is sitting in his garage with the engine pulled out, but like with the rest of the car’s makeover Shawn has carefully selected when to modify further and when to not. While the K series is the newer, more advanced, “better” alternative, and therefore surely the expected route, I’m very glad to see that Shawn is instead retaining the original B18 thus keeping this ITR a little closer to how Honda had engineered it in the first place and truer to its original spirit.

With the carefully-calculated and detailed overhaul the ITR saw it was a very strong contender for second place and as mentioned I spent a lot of time mentally wrestling to get this one figured out, but in the end I decided second place had to go to the following car because while it shows a similar idea of knowing when to modify and when not to (albeit for a different reason), for as clean and refreshed as Shawn’s ITR is now, this build is in even better condition despite being an older car.

#2. Jeevs’ 1994 Civic CX

It should come as no surprise that Jeevs (Woooster) wound up on this list because turning out stunning builds is just what he does, and this latest EG is no exception. At a glance it looks relatively simple but the detail and bulk of the effort is all hiding underneath. From what I understand he found this car in phenomenal condition and so purposely (and rightfully) chose to preserve the body and interior as they were, instead focusing his efforts on the mechanical side. And boy, did he go to town there.

Under the hood lies the most obvious change – a K20 swap – but he didn’t just plunk the newer mill in the bay and call it a day as the entire engine and transmission were not only blasted to bring them back to a like-new look, but all of the hardware throughout was zinc-coated as well. As it stands the engine isn’t some fully built and turbocharged animal but that’s because he approached it with the same expertise as the rest of the car, and in many cases opted for OEM parts for reliability and streetability instead of just chasing power or some wow-factor.

To match the newer and more powerful heart though he also made sure to fully redo the suspension and brakes. New coilovers, arms, bracing, and more can all be found underneath, while the only obvious clues that there’s more to this Civic than meets the eye (ride height aside) are instantly-recognizable Spoon brakes peeking out behind the pristine TE37s tucked in the arches.

What specifically drew me to this build – beyond the OCD approach to the entire mechanical side of the car – was that restraint and respect shown to the body and interior. The paradox is that we all want the cleanest starting point for a project, but at the same time there are also cars that are just too clean to use as projects. Woooster’s EG is a fine example of trying to respect both sides of that conundrum, balancing modification and preservation by replacing basically everything that can’t be seen (wheels and brakes aside) with newer and better components but keeping the body and interior as they sat after all these years, almost frozen in time. In a sense this could almost be considered a pro-touring approach to building a Honda?

Let’s be frank, I don’t think a numbers-matching ‘94 CX will ever be a highly sought-after example of a Civic, and as potent as the D-series engines can be built up to be, who wouldn’t be tempted by a K-swap as a replacement especially for a car that will – and already has – seen a lot of seat time? As such, the removal of the original heart for the newer and more powerful K isn’t a crime, but cutting up or caging that surviving shell would’ve been. The whole package with its detail, approach, and overall level of execution, also further blurs the line between the traditional labels of “tuner” and “classic” cars. If the emphasis on restoration and restomodding in this year’s list wasn’t apparent enough, it should be now. This is and always has been the future of cars like this, and people like Woooster are showing us how it’s done.

The #1 build of 2020…

This year’s final order is how I truly feel these 5 vehicles all sit in relation to each other but I won’t lie, I’m quite pleased that Woooster’s EG and the following vehicle ended up sitting next to each other because I don’t think you could find a wider disparity in the folks behind them.

What I mean by this is, as I wrote above, turning out amazing builds is just what Woooster does. He picks up a new project and before the first bolt is touched you know it’s going to be good because he’s established a track record with some incredibly detailed, tidy, high-quality cars. In contrast, while the owner of this year’s #1 is undoubtedly a car guy and has owned some cool stuff over the years, he is not a veteran of our show scene nor does he even have a back catalogue of builds. However with his own attention to detail, years of experience with design and fabrication, and working with a friend who could probably best be described as the local source for parts and knowledge regarding this brand, what you see below is the result.

As a final note before the reveal, as soon as I announced that there would be a 2020 list people started messaging me with their own predictions about what cars would make it. And while there was a correct guess or two for the others, this build should come as a surprise to nearly everyone reading this because only a handful would have ever seen it in person, and unless you read the first paint update on my Silvia earlier in the year chances are you’ve never even heard of it in the first place. What it is however, without doing any of the others a disservice, is easily the most polished and in-depth build on this list.

#1. Doug’s 1989 E30

Every car on this list is incredible, I can’t stress that enough, but if I’m being honest this was a strong contender for the top spot right from the beginning. If you are not familiar with Doug, he is actually my neighbour and has had a hand in various cars of ours over the years, helping with fabrication of components here and there or lending out tools…usually following a phone call at some really inappropriate hour.

For the last couple of years this car’s ground-up rebuild had been the big undertaking that he and his friend Ron were overseeing, and this summer it finally came together and could truly be called finished – or as finished as a project car ever really gets. As mentioned it had made a single appearance on the blog earlier in the year, tucked in the background of one of the Silvia’s paint updates while it was still in its own final stages of paintwork, but outside of that it was basically completely unknown to anyone outside of a very small group. Over the following months as Doug and Ron buttoned up the last items I saw it several times more (and even went for a couple of rides in it – it MOVES), but never had the chance to properly shoot it for the site before it went into winter storage. Thankfully Steve had some photos that he was able to send over when I asked so that I could show off the (nearly) finished product today. In the post-reassembly photos it was still missing the body side trim and a couple of other small pieces, but since then everything has been refit. Understandably, one item high up on my 2021 to-do list will be to get this car in front of my camera for some pictures of my own, of the truly finished product!

That finished product comes after a number of hours – that I can’t even begin to comprehend – spent completely redoing this E30 inside and out; and I mean completely. From a full mechanical refresh including an engine and transmission swap (E39 motor with a 5-speed), new convertible top, reupholstered interior, and a complete repaint – followed by a second complete repaint because the first shop’s wasn’t up to par – there’s no denying that nothing else on this list saw as many man hours or as much detail as this car. I don’t think there was a single piece top to bottom or front to back that was not cleaned, modified, or replaced. One of the few people in our circles to see it in person, just as it was about 99.9% complete, was Mario and he was taken aback at just how tidy it was. If you went purely off of its condition you truly would believe it was a brand new car and not one from 1989.

Since completion Doug has taken the E30 out on some cruises and enjoyed it thoroughly but it never made it to any of our events because frankly, chasing trophies was never the intention behind this build. It was never even a consideration. That said, over the course of the year I had been gently prodding him here and there to take the car out to some local meets or shows. He’s heard me say it and I’ll repeat it here: this is an award winner just waiting to happen. It is one of the cleanest cars of its vintage that I’ve ever seen in person and will absolutely turn heads and draw eyes if or when it turns up at a gathering.

Whether or not it makes it to a judged event will remain to be seen, but with or without shows under its belt there’s no doubt that it deserved to land at #1 this year. It is the top build of 2020.

-Bill

Leave a Reply