For ultimate scene points, you need to go your own way – and we’re not just talking about avoiding generic mods. Follow Benny Rees’ example and buy a car that’ll leave people scratching their heads and saying, ‘OK, so, um, what is it?’
The first thing people do is look at the front and clock the GT badge. Then they go round the back, trying to find a manufacturer badge or model name – but there aren’t any on the outside. Everyone thinks it’s a Datsun, or a Skyline, or some people just go ‘Yep, it’s a Mustang’.”
Such is the nature of life outside the mainstream. But if you spot Benny Rees at a show and amble over for a chat (and you should, as he’s a jolly nice fella), he’ll happily explain that the car is actually a 1976 Toyota Celica RA28 GT2000 Liftback. Although that’s a bit of a mouthful. So if you’d prefer to stick with ‘cool car’, he’d be OK with that too.
This wasn’t just a case of happening across a weird old jalopy in the classifieds and thinking ‘I’ll have a piece of that’ either. Benny hand-picked this car from Japan and had it imported over. You see, this guy’s a connoisseur. An aficionado. His personal car history reads like a who’s who of aspirational Japanese metal, from DC2 Integras and Fast Car-featured Del Sols to gen 2 Preludes and EG Civics, and when he fancied something with a pure retro vibe, it was always going to be something from the Land of the Rising Cliches.
“It’s taken me years to finally find my niche interest within modified cars,” he explains. “And once I found the Kyusha scene I’ve been hooked ever since. While I was in Japan, I went to a round of the Japanese Classic Car Association endurance race series at Tsukuba, which was all 1970s and ’80s race cars – it was just mind blowing, really cool.
“Anyway, I wasn’t meant to be coming back home to the UK, but eventually I did. And I had some money left over, so I thought I should get myself a project for when I returned.” Benny’s initial enthusiasm for Kenmeri Skylines quickly burned out when he saw the ridiculous prices they’re commanding these days. These RA28 Celicas, however…
They have the same long-bonnet muscle car style. They’re a little more abundant in Japan, so it’s less hard to find a solid one. And – of course – they’re usually less expensive. So after a bit of hunting about, Benny came across this GT2000, which had already enjoyed an excellent body resto, built by Racing Service HDO in Fukuyama. He handed over the readies, had it loaded onto a boat in Yokohama and, a mere eight weeks later, he was picking it up from Southampton docks. And so the adventure began.
“You can’t beat muscle car looks and Toyota reliability, all packed up neatly in a fun-to-drive chassis,” he laughs. “The car was already in great condition as it had just been restored in Japan – no body rot, and the underside is just incredible – and I’ve been putting my own stamp on it ever since day one.
“I’ve always been into modifying cars and keeping them period correct. Since having it road registered over here, I’ve updated the wheels and tyres from the Watanabe Type As that it came with to Work Equip Spirit 11s up front and re-lipped Riverside R109 rears, wearing sticky Advan A048 semi-slick tyres all round. It sits on Driftworks coilovers, breathes through open trumpets and a full custom stainless-steel exhaust system, has a brand new suede headlining… Other period-correct ’70s modifications include a layer of subtle glitter lacquer on the rear light panel and front headlight panel, and a rear window louvre.”
The genius of Benny’s approach is that the build is all in the details. It helps enormously that so few people know what the car actually is, so they have no way of knowing whether the changes he’s made are factory or aftermarket. But to the true JDM Kyusha nerd, this GT2000 is a riot of fabulous detail.
What’s also interesting to note is that Benny’s keenness for authenticity means the Celica’s retaining a proper old-school drivetrain; he may have a history of track-based VTEC mayhem behind him, but this retro liftback is proudly rocking its 130bhp twin-carb twin-cam, barking raucously through a custom stainless steel exhaust to alert everyone to its presence. It may not be the quickest on track, but that’s not the point of this car. It’s all about classic thrills, the simplicity of logical mechanics, the heady combination of juicy carbs, a manual gearbox, featherweight construct and rear-wheel drive.
“Finding parts can be really tricky,” he says, although it sounds more like he’s relishing the challenge than grumping about the work. “It’s a case of networking with the right people, and even sometimes speaking to the right guy at a show who’s secretly got a garage full of parts. I have a half-rollcage to go in, and a Hippo racing bucket seat with TOM’S harness flying over from Japan at the moment, as well as a set of Riverside R101s to re-lip and go a tad wider in each corner than it currently sits. After that, I just want to enjoy the car and use it as much as I can – just basically keep it alive and make sure I preserve it for many years to come, as they are getting very thin on the ground now!”
Benny’s approach to the car is simple: despite picking it up with very low mileage, he’s not afraid of using it. In fact, he’s keen to use it as much as possible, uprating parts when they fail rather than going all out to transform it. It’s a constant process of evolution – a nip here, a tuck there, all with the aim of keeping it enjoyable.
“I use the car as much as I can. I absolutely love driving it,” Benny enthuses. “I take it to plenty of shows, and even classic shows that I’d never been able to take part in with my previous cars as they were all too new. And people’s reactions are brilliant! It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, it’s a shape that everyone thinks is cool. The best bit is talking to people who owned them in the past. It brings back memories and they share cool stories about when they drove them.”
That, in essence, is the most endearing thing about owning a thing like this. You build it to please yourself rather than gratify the scene (because ultimately the scene will always recognise a good car), but it also allows you to personally connect with like-minded owners. It’s not just a means of transport. It’s a lifestyle.
“As much as I love driving it, sometimes I like to park up and just look at it,” he grins. “I love the fact it looks as though it’s been plucked straight from 1970s Japan, with all my period modifications. And that’s the way I want it to stay.”
Admirable sentiment indeed and we’re fully on board. Can we assume that importing an RA28 from Japan works out more cost-effective than trying to find a decent one in the UK? “I’ve no idea. I didn’t even look,” says Benny. “I just wanted to import my own Celica and have an authentic 1970s car.” The fact so few people know what it is, then, is something of a bonus. Benny’s bought his way into unparalleled retro cool, and you can’t really put a price on that.
TECH SPEC: TOYOTA CELICA
Front and rear spoilers; ‘runaway line’ spoiler stripe; rear window louvre; halogen headlight conversion; glitter lacquered headlight and rear light panels; refurbished badges; uprated Foxau2 bonnet hinges; tsurikawa (subway ring).
18R-G 2.0-litre 8v twin-cam (130bhp); twin carbs; velocity stacks; custom stainless steel exhaust system; 5-speed manual; LSD.
7.5x14in Work Equip Spirit 11 (front) and 8.5x14in Riverside R109 with Pine Engineering lips (rear); RAYS Engineering nuts; 185/55 (f) and 195/60 (r) Yokohama Advan A048 semi-slicks; Driftworks CS2 AE86 coilovers; AE86 front brakes.
Nardi wooden steering wheel; Suichuuka gearknob; Carmate convex rear view mirror.
Thanks to anyone who’s come up and said hello at shows, shared their stories and said nice things about the car; Dave Cox, for the lovely images of the car from the shoot; Auto Finesse, for their brilliant cleaning products; and RAJIKARU.co.uk for the cool stickers.
Words Dan Bevis Photos Dave Cox