Loud, low and louche, this nineties Mercedes-Benz C Class is one badass bippu…
Skyscrapers punch out at the heavens; concrete strakes the scenery, weathered and angry. The morning strikes. Every pavement step, every traffic light tailback burns faster than the last: a greyscale heartbeat thumping against the city limits. Sliding along the tarmac, a lone Mercedes bristles into sight. Splitter centimetres from the ground and rolling on brash, five spoke alloys, this yakuza bruiser makes itself seen.
The scene could be straight from an anime: one where dangerous men and big-eyed women are back dropped by gangland Tokyo, learning to fight or to feel in twenty minute instalments. It isn’t. Instead, it’s just another day in the industrial Midlands and Matthew Hartle is on the way to work in his 1998 Mercedes-Benz C240 Sport. It might be a small saloon but it’s big on VIP style.
As any devoted otaku or wannabe weeaboo knows, VIP Style – or bippu – is big in the Japanese custom community. Some think it developed from mafioso rides, others that it stemmed from the local street racing scene but the reality is no-one can quite be sure. Regardless, the look’s purpose is well understood: VIP is a way to stand out without attracting the wrong kind of attention. This scene is all about big saloons, bigger wheels, slammed chassis and limo-spec interiors. Bosozuku it ain’t.
You’d struggle to tell today but Matt never intended to go this far. Back in July 2016, his freshly purchased W202 was acting as the practical counterpart to his Golf GTi project car and had yet to see a single tweak. Over the next two months, that would begin to change. First the Merc gained orange front indicators, then LED number plate lights, chrome bumper trims, spring pads, a genuine AMG boot spoiler and a set of replica AMG Aerostar alloys. The mods were minor, but they hinted that this build could get big.
Fate forced the next change, when the bolts holding the backbox in place went from lenient to all-out loose. Within the course of a single morning’s commute, the exhaust jutted backwards and burnt a hole through the rear bumper. Ouch.
A replacement was required and leaving it standard would have been a wasted opportunity. Matt shared the situation with his father Stuart, a pro mechanic, and the pair settled on a custom, straight-through system with the backbox deleted. Made from 2.5-inch diameter stainless steel and fed through the original twin rhomboid tips, it brings the noise without disrupting the car’s aristocratic appearance.
A month later, subtlety took a seat. Using a combination of Airtisan UK and Air Ride UK parts, Matt broke out the spanners and made sure it stayed sat. “I’d been looking at coilovers,” he explains, “but they’re not an off-the-shelf solution for a W202 and require a lot of work. When Air Ride UK suggested bags, I just couldn’t turn them down: you don’t see many C Classes on air and I thought it would look kind of cool!” We’re not arguing.
As the shutters went down on 2016, Matt had one debonair daily on his hands. You might even be thinking that this sweet street machine could be considered complete… Don’t be so foolish, baka! Matt needed more and, mere minutes into the new year, he went out to get it. A revised boot build was top of the list. After fitting the air system, you see, Matt had boxed the lines and controllers into a carpeted MDF cabinet which did the job but didn’t draw the eye. Keen to double down on the VIP theme for not much green, he constructed a new false floor from laminate and copper piping, leaving a pair of cut outs for the air canister and controller.
Attention then turned to the interior, Matt taking inspiration from Jack Oliver Smith’s Roll Hard Lexus GS300 VIP project. “I was winging it a bit really,” Matt laughs, “and developed the cabin bit by bit.” AMG carbon fibre badging and AMG pedals provide a bit of upscale class, while a genuine Mercedes mobile phone holder and Nokia 3310 make clear that this project is running in the nineties. “I saw it on eBay, thought ‘that’ll look well good in my car’ and just had to have it!” he smiles.
Online expeditions also led Matt to a selection of big ticket exterior mods: a set of genuine, 18-inch Brabus Monoblock alloys; a US market W202 bootlid; a chrome radiator grille; and an AMG front splitter. Well… the letters A, M and G are embossed into it, at least. “It came from Germany and it’s fibreglass but I honestly don’t know if it’s genuine,” Matt explains, “it does get a lot of attention though.” A full respray in Obsidian Black followed, but Matt still wasn’t happy.
“I just didn’t like how it was sitting,” he explains, “I felt it could – and should – go a little lower.” A set of TA Technic custom struts, complete with hollow centres, would provide the answer: dropping the whole car by an extra 20mm and letting the splitter scrape the floor. It’s a mixed blessing; tarmac touchdowns destroyed the front lip twice last year and the area has been repainted five times to date. Matt isn’t too concerned, though. He’s in love with the jutting jawline and, after adding 10mm MTec front and 20mm Bimecc rear spacers, declared the exterior finished.
Slammed and rammed with rim, the Merc now embodied VIP Style almost entirely but almost isn’t enough for Matt: it had to be perfect. With the 2018 show season fast approaching, the car was booked into Airtisan and a new boot build installed. “I had to create a balance,” Ryan Castleman, owner of Airtisan explains, “Matt wanted practicality and usability while keeping a show worthy boot build.” Key features include polished aluminium hardlines, a stained beechwood floor and a custom Mercedes logo set into a floor-mounted glass plate. “That was the hardest part,” Ryan continues, “we actually had a designer create it virtually, then it was sent off and etched. It’s sandwich mounted and it’s a very tight fit!”
As a final touch, Matt transformed the interior into a class-leading cosplay. Like any VIP build, it’s all in the details. See the steering wheel? That’s the optional item from a W210 generation E Class, complete with genuine carbon fibre. Spotted the window curtains? They’re a bippu essential, mounted on custom runners. How about the quilted leather seats? They were created by Car Covers Direct, using the original Mercedes skins as a guide.
Last but not least, the drinks tables come directly from the Roll Hard Lexus that inspired Matt’s build, adding some subtle scene cred. Drop in a couple of kintsuna – they’re the ropes hanging from the rear mirror – and you’ve got a cabin that’s classy, sassy and distinctively Japanese.
Out on the show scene, Matt’s hard work has been paying off. The C240 was invited inside the Fitment Junkies hall at Modified Nationals this year, it’s twice taken home silverware from Elsecar at the Races and the public adore it.
“It goes down well, yeah. Kids love it, then their parents love it when they notice the cigars and the champagne! It’s a different style, that’s what I really like about it, and it stands out compared to everything around it. Positive or negative, people always have something to say.” And, at the end of the day, isn’t the custom car world all about standing out?
TECH SPEC MERCEDES-BENZ C240 SPORT
Full respray in Obsidian Black, AMG front splitter, genuine AMG boot spoiler, US market Mercedes bootlid, Mercedes chrome bumper and side trim, Mercedes chrome radiator grille, Mercedes chrome door handles, Mercedes smoked rear lights, Mercedes orange indicators and side repeaters.
Standard Mercedes C240 engine and transmission, custom 2.5-inch stainless steel, straight through exhaust system with backbox delete and OEM Mercedes twin exhaust exits.
AirRIDE-System.UK air bags with TA Technic Custom Struts, twin Viair 380cc compressors, Airtisan boot build with stained beechwood floor, polished aluminium hard lines, vertical glass window and floor-mounted glass window, Air Lift Easylift V1 management system, 18×8.5in front and 18x10in rear Brabus Monoblock three-piece alloys with 225/35 front and 225/40 back tyres.
Original Mercedes seats with custom Car Covers Direct UK double quilted grey leather upholstery, front and rear custom perspex, wood and chrome ‘VIP’ drinks tables sourced from Roll Hard Lexus GS300, dual kin tsuna rope charms, custom window curtains on custom rails, original Pioneer stereo with CD changer delete and custom Aux adapter, AMG pedals and carbon fibre badging, Mercedes W210 steering wheel with genuine carbon fibre rim, custom-bored centre and adapter plate, Mercedes mobile phone holder with Nokia 3310.
Words Emma Woodcock Photography Daniel Pullen