Project A Class Update - What a Weeb
While I have been focusing on the cars of my friends, acquaintances, and people I happen to encounter on the odd weekend or in the past, every now and then, it is worthwhile to look at the life revolving around my own car, and provide an update on what's been done to it. Even in a part of the world where car modifications tend to be frowned upon and instant-bait for unwanted attention from traffic inspectors.
Since we have barely broken in the new year, it's perfect timing to do an update on my current project: my ‘17 Mercedes A Class (W176). Since my initial post detailing my replacement for my old faithful Nissan Juke (best college car imo, don’t @me), I have been steadily getting accustomed back to the world of Mercedes, increasing my lust for AMG monoblock wheels in the process.
I’ve been enjoying it every opportunity I have, primarily the weekends since it’s the only free time I have to drive it (plus, who wouldn’t want to deal with the congestion and hunt for parking during the workweek here?). But as with anything, eventually the urge to change things up would come by, and convince me to start looking into what else could I do with this car.
Since the last time we talked about the A-Class, almost immediately, the changes began. Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed a few differences or two between when I first got the car, compared to recently. The first change, probably the most significant on the front: a new grille. As much as I was told the ‘diamond’ grille was unique and I should keep it, the ‘diamond’ effect didn’t grow on me. I’m more of a symmetrical person, and having a bedazzle for a front grille was not really my thing. So out it went, and in came a ‘Panamerica’ style AMG grille, with fully blacked out grille outlines and Benz symbol.
Most Benz owners here tend to go for these grille swaps, but for my Benz, in ‘Elbaite Green’; I could also say I am trying to emulate the younger, unathletic counterpart of its ‘Green Hell’ brother: the AMG GTR. Not that I would try to race one, I know this car only puts out at least 160 hp at the top end.
That ‘mini-AMG GTR’ look was only enhanced with what followed: some more carbon bits. On went some carbon front-corner canards to bring out the aggressive profile of the AMG-style front bumper, along with the rear diffuser hanging off the rear bumper.
The diffuser did take some more effort than we originally thought: and a bit longer when the shop paid to do this installation apparently, was hesitant to cut into the rear bumper. Just weird.
I have been on the fence on whether to slap on a hatch wing to complete the ‘aggressive’ look, but the other half tells me that I shouldn’t try too hard to be a ‘fake A45’, or try to be something this car will never be performance-wise. So for now, its just the top of the hatch outline that has been painted black to complete the look. But maybe in the future, I will look at a wing; at least a subtle carbon lip or something not too ‘boy racer’-ish.
Next, something I had been trying to do pretty much as soon as I got the keys: upgrading the in-car infotainment system. While this late-model W176 facelift is only four years old, the COMAND infotainment system lacks one thing to make it perfect: modern mobile connectivity. Yes, it does come with Bluetooth, and being the facelift, has the most up-to-date COMAND system and software for its generation before 'MBUX' came along. But having had a Pioneer head unit with Android Auto connectivity in my previous car, I wanted that same ‘plug-and-play’ experience that would allow me to connect my smartphone, and quickly access my essential audio and navigation apps while driving; without having to fumble with the phone and potentially cited for ‘distracted driving’. (Disclaimer: Don’t text and drive)
Thankfully, with this version of COMAND (NTG5*1 gen), it can be enabled to run Android Auto/Apple Carplay; through a bit of tinkering to activate its functionality. We managed to find a respected contact, a ‘shi-fu’[master] that assists with ‘unlocking’ CarPlay for all types of vehicles: simply by plugging into the OBD II port and software updates through the USB ports in the center console. However, my original intention to use Android Auto came up to a roadblock. Oddly, Android Auto is strangely difficult, let alone possible to activate in this part of the world at the moment (it even stumps the ‘shi-fu’ contact). Especially for Mercedes Benzes that have the option preloaded, Apple CarPlay has proven to be the easier, and more consistent option to be able to activate.
In the end, the Mercedes won this battle: forcing me to purchase an iPhone SE 2 off the shelf. Not to use as a spare phone, but merely as a high-end ‘iPod Touch’ that would enable me to use CarPlay to more easily access my Spotify tracks, use Waze to keep track of speed-cameras, and listen to some U.S radio stations for the fun of it. At least all that effort to get the CarPlay functionality working, wouldn’t be gone to waste.
And it finally gave me an excuse to invest in some custom ‘InitialP’ JDM phone cases, featuring two of my dream import cars, and custom Japan-spec rear plates as well. I always missed out on these being that I always bought phones that couldn’t fit the cases; so I at least had a way to finally add these to my collection of JDM accessories.
Also threw in some ''valet'-style puddle door lights. Because why not? The simplest DIY mods can make a big difference.
But aesthetic improvements aside, that was nothing in comparison to what I had been brewing up; pretty much as soon as I moved back to Hong Kong, and was still searching for a new car. Even in the midst of a pandemic and a third, to fourth wave of off-and-on restrictions, along with a job hunt, I was set on bringing my vision to real life. I was motivated to make this work, no matter how long it would take to finish, or how much it would cost. All that perseverance and dedication paid off, because in the end, I finally did it. Better yet, it got done, all on the first Wednesday of 2021. Perfect to kick off the new year with a fresh, completely new look for the car.
If you haven’t kept up with my Instagram lately, this: is the new look for the A. ‘Decorated’ in its own special way, as a tribute to a Chinese mobile gacha-game I found myself hooked onto since last year. Also, seeing as not many here would think about giving a Mercedes Benz, primarily seen as an executive or luxury car, the ‘itasha’ treatment, why not be the first in the city? After all, it is not like itasha liveries and Mercedes Benz, aren't unheard of.
For those unaware of ‘itasha’ cars and the culture surrounding it, a little background: ‘Itasha’, also known as “痛車” or ‘painful car’ in Japanese/Chinese, is what you get when you combine a love for cars, and any kind of popular Japanese media otakus (super-geeks/nerds) gush over. These cars are decorated with wraps and stickers, featuring characters from anime, manga, visual novels (especially of the Eroge/Hentai genre), video games and more recently, VTubers (Virtual YouTubers). It’s no surprise this trend first emerged in Japan, but over time the culture has spread to neighboring countries in Asia, along with parts of Europe, and as with anything popular in Asia, the United States too. Aside from the West Coast, some of the biggest itasha crowds can be observed in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and even Korea.
Sure, itasha cars may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, the term ‘itasha’ is derived from the Japanese words “Painful/Itai-(Itashii-)” (痛い) and “Car/-sha (車); painful in regards to the price that comes with wrapping a car, ‘painfully embarrassing’ to drive, or ‘painful to look at’; aka cringeworthy to see a weeaboo or Japanophile “ruin” their car.
(If you want a good overview of ‘itasha’ car culture, Alexi aka Noriyaro has this excellent video giving a good rundown of it all. It also happens to be one of his most popular and well-known videos, for someone who’s primarily a drifting YouTuber).
Those who have been following me for a while should know, I am no stranger to itasha cars and the scene. I have been affiliated with an itasha club back in Hawaii, ‘Akiba.HNL’ since 2019, even serving as the team’s media correspondent throughout my last year on island. In fact, some of my firsthand experience of seeing an itasha in real-life, was during my Freshman year on Oahu. I recall it like it was yesterday: Makoa’s BRZ at ‘NEET Honolulu’ at the Japanese Cultural Centre near University, sporting a design of ‘Hestia’ from ‘Is it Wrong to try to Pickup Girls in a Dungeon?’ - ‘DanMachi’ for short. There was also a S14 Silvia with Vocaloid Hatsune Miku on the sides, a Gundam-themed Honda CRZ, and a Scion tC also with a Miku livery (our teammate Bryan), a small but varied selection, that exposed myself firsthand to this ‘decorated vehicle’ movement.
Being part of Akiba.HNL definitely increased my appreciation for these types of vehicles; so much that when the time came to prepare the Juke for sale, I decided to send it out in the only way I knew a weeb would do it (on a very tight budget and timeframe).
With some talking with Kel and Kala, two fellow members/My Hero Academia fans who agreed with me that ‘Froppy’ would go well with the car; seeing as it resembled a frog (and Tsuyu herself has frog-like characteristics), I slapped on a cheap vinyl image of Froppy on both sides of the Nissan for the last few weeks I had it. I’d also argue a contact from Norcal, who runs one of the sticker shops I support, was equally influential in my decision, which led me to buy that ‘Froppy’ plate frame to cement the project.
But that influence was nothing, compared to what members Jake Martinez and Corey Perez have had. After all, these two were heavily into ‘Girls Frontline’, before I even heard about it. Prior to moving back to the Arizona desert, Jake applied his itasha onto his Ford Fiesta ST: a full sides and hood design with the game’s character, ‘UMP45’ (yes, modeled after the real-world Heckler and Koch firearm). I saw it myself at his first (and last) Cars and Coffee appearance with the team, before he shipped it off to AZ. Trying to find appropriate hashtags to pair with some photos I took of his car, led me to a random Google search about ‘Girls Frontline.’ It was only then, I learned that it was a mobile game.
For those who also have never heard of Girls Frontline (少女前线, ドールズフロントライン in Japan), it's a game for smartphones developed by Chinese software studio MICA Team. If you are familiar with similar games in the ‘gacha’ category: Kantai Collection, Azur Lane, or Strike Witches, aka the ‘Gijinka’ genre exploring ‘What if this typically inhuman object had human traits, or took the form of an anime character. ’ Girls Frontline plays off the same concept. Except here, this game reimagines anthropomorphised firearms , serving as ‘Tactical Androids’, or ‘T-Dolls’ in the form of ‘moe’ girls serving a private military contractor in a post-war ridden world: where all human life has nearly been driven extinct and evil Androids have taken over.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to imagine what their gun: whether its a concealed-carry pistol or the rifle they use for sport and hunting, was a cute anime girl? Maybe anime was indeed - a mistake.
Jake’s Fiesta ST wrap was pivotal to myself learning more about ‘Girls Frontline’ and learning that it was in fact, a popular mobile ‘freemium’-style game that had slipped under my radar. Maybe it was because I didn’t really use my phone for games as much as I did in high school, considering my access to my PC, consoles, and generally not having the time to put the time into ‘grinding’ the in-game currencies. I was broke enough as a full-time international student.
But curious I was, nonetheless. So much so that in the first weeks of 2020, I decided to make use of the OnePlus 6T phone I had lying around that was currently delegated as my alarm clock ; I downloaded it, and tried the game out for a few days. A few days turned into a few weeks, then a few months, and well: I am currently a Level 60 ‘Shikikan’ [Commander] managing his own Tactical-Dolls (T-Dolls) in the near distant future.
Then Corey unveiled his design on his Ecoboost Mustang: a side wrap featuring ‘UMP45’ as well. It was only a matter of time, after hours of grinding missions and collecting T-Dolls, that I would be looking at pursuing a Girls Frontline design for my next, proper itasha project.
Compared to my quick and cost-efficient way I did Tsuyu-Chan last-minute on my Juke, I was set on investing fully to properly get this itasha done, from start to finish. So that meant first, commissioning someone to create the design I envisioned. Whereas for Tsuyu, I simply grabbed a wallpaper image of her off the internet and submitted the file to a local printworks to vector print into a vinyl sticker to slap onto the doors, for my first ‘proper’ itasha wrap, I wanted to make it truly my own; a bespoke design that you couldn’t find anywhere else, made solely for my car and my car only.
That also meant choosing a theme or character I wanted the design to be centered on. Which, in a game with over 1,000 official characters, is not a quick nor easy decision to make. Thankfully, having put in a number of hours in the game (with plenty of unexpected freetime thanks to the pandemic), I had settled on which character I wanted the Benz to give tribute to.
(I also gave hints as to what character I would be going for, from one of the first things I bought to ‘weebify’ the Merc: a custom show plate by Xpress Skins. Check them out if you want to get your own done.)
The answer: ‘Ultimate Bullpup Assault Rifle’ herself, aka MDR: the ‘Micro Dynamic Rifle’ made by Desert Tech. Maybe it was her outfit; a combination of street and techwear that I have found myself drawn to. Or it could be she’s a technophile like me: constantly using her flip phone to flame message boards. It could also be her color scheme and voice actor I find myself instantly hooked on. And the coincidence that MDR boasts about her phone having physical buttons that ‘feel as awesome as a trigger’, the A Class was one of the last Mercedes to have the physical phone-keypad in the center console, before the consolidated, touch-centric ‘MBUX’ generation came along. Fitting, am I right?
With the character and theme chosen, the next step in the itasha build was to commission an artist to design it. The great thing about being part of a community as globally spread as the itasha/anime community, is that you meet a variety of different people. Not just fellow otaku, but when it comes to doing niche tasks like commissioning artwork: plenty of artists, merchandise designers, online vendors, and in my case: itasha designers. Individuals or whole businesses dedicated to helping fellow weebs pursue their ambitions to put their ‘waifu’ or ‘husbando’ on their vehicles.
Once again, picking off my inspiration Jake, I decided to go for the artist he also commissioned to create his first ‘UMP45’ design. An itasha designer based all the way in West Java, Indonesia. Gilang, aka ‘VivaRocks Itasha Studio’. Having done multiple Girls Frontline liveries for previous clients, it made sense to go with an artist who had good experience with the game’s theme and character style too. So, in went my initial request out to him through Facebook messenger.
It didn’t take as much as I thought it would to help him get started. Just sending over some photos of the car I wanted the design to be applied on, along with the make/model information, and he would get to work immediately. I should also explain why I initially sent him photos of a red A Class. Originally, we were going to buy off my friend Tony’s A200 off of his family; initially, everything seemed in order. But as we were waiting to transfer the title of ownership, some miscommunication occurred, and in the end: Tony’s A200 was no longer up for sale. Unexpected, but being a year full of unpredictability, who would have known? (As I remind myself: if we did go for that red A Class, we would have never known about the green, post-facelift one. With better equipment, CarPlay functionality, and even standard LED daytime lights.)
A few weeks went by, and VivaRocks had a concept drawn up for my feedback. At one point, he asked if I wanted to test out a ‘cultured’ fanart of MDR. As much I am a self-admitted degenerate, the family would still be using this car for a while, so I had to respectfully decline and ask to keep the design 'family-friendly.'
Eventually, the final product was ready. That’s pretty much the bulk of pursuing an itasha project: putting the idea into a physical product. I couldn't be happier with the results of VivaRock's work of what he dreamt up for the A Class.
The next step for me was to find a vehicle wrap service that could print out, and apply the design onto the car. Which was harder than I initially thought, considering I had to work within a budget of no more than $5-6,000 HKD. The big-name vehicle wrapping operations were out of the equation, as I did not want to put too much money into something that will at best, only last for a year before I get bored. Another shop I got into contact with (one that did the Shimakaze MX5 I met on one of my first Sunday drives upon returning home), gave me an inflated price. My guess was that the shop felt they could upcharge me for owning a Mercedes.
Talk about badge snobbery. (Sadly, it's one of the hidden rules here in Hong Kong: you are judged on everything you have, or don't.)
I also learned that due to the traffic ordinances [regulations] here in Hong Kong surrounding changing the appearance of a vehicle, the current design VivaRocks created would require a the car to be re-registered as being ‘Green & Black’ (since the front-fender sections covered a large portion of the original green body). I didn’t want to have to line up at the Transport Department office to get a new registration for the Merc just to ensure my new look was legal, so I messaged VivaRocks if he could modify the design accordingly.
And to be honest, the design was improved by removing the ‘rarity’ rating and symbol from the front sections: leaving all the focus on MDR herself (I ensured to tip VivaRocks a decent amount for the last-minute changes, considering he’s a family man and creating itasha designs isn’t his full time gig.) More good news also came no long after: a workshop that charged a fair rate for both printing and applying designs onto vehicles. Furthermore, this business primarily did commercial clients: printing advertisements for buses, and wrapping delivery vans, and they were looking to break into serving private customers too. I was happy to be one of their first.
All that was left was to send over the Adobe Illustrator files Vivarock’s design was on, and the dimension measurements for the W176 model for the workshop to measure and ensure it would fit as planned. Their turnaround, printing and application on the car, all happened within a business day. The A Class’s new livery was on, ready to be picked up after I left the office that day.
To say I was excited seeing the final product on the car is only telling part of the story. I was happy to see my vision come to reality, a long-term investment on this car that I would not regret, and more importantly: it was my first proper foothold into the itasha movement. A major step from the character vinyl on my former university runabout.
And already, the car has been getting its fair share of appreciation, heads turning, and general looks of bewilderment from passersby. Whether it be love or hate, it doesn’t really matter. I love how this car is getting attention in its own unique way. Not just out in the wild either: The MDR Merc' has been getting plenty of love and fans online as well: from itasha Facebook groups to Reddit threads, along with Instagram pages dedicated to featuring itasha vehicles all over the world.
I have even gotten support for the car on Discord recently, yet I'm not really active on that platform.
Every time I drive this car nowadays, it feels like a special occasion. An occasion I look forward to every week. And I can't help but glance over outside the windows to see people's reactions to what the car looks like now. It can be a bit 'in-your-face' for some, but at least the design and MDR's grin is vanilla: compared to some of the lewder, bordering on 'hentai' designs the more daring otakus go for.
I've been also been more active in trying to find new, or interesting locations to take photos of the Benz. It has been an upside of not being able to travel outside of Hong Kong these past few months: roaming my homecity I haven't really given thought to explore fully. After all, I've largely been away for four years studying abroad, no better time to explore the cool spots I see being shared everywhere on local social media.
Just recently, I went up to do some shots along Barker Road up at The Peak: at a section where observers can catch a glimpse of the Peak Tram passing by, as it runs its rounds between Central and the Peak Galleria. Everyone likes to get a shot of the tram, and I've seen many take shots of their cars with the tram flying back in the background. So I finally got around to doing a few with the Merc.
I observed plenty of people, mainly hikers or families on outings taking notice of the car as I waited for the Tram to come back around. One person in a Tesl coming out of the driveway behind even gave a thumbs up to me; whom I assumed at first was a driver annoyed I was holding them up. Turns out, through 'Subtle Asian Cars', he was a former itasha owner himself, and owns one very special Hachi-Roku here (Hi Hosen of ProgressionDrift, if you are reading this.)
Some even snapped a few photos or took a minute to admire the design. I even had one man come up to me and while my Cantonese proficiency is non-existent, I could make out that he was trying to say "I like your car!"
And aside of getting to flex at my Don Quijote runs for Japanese drinks and snacks: that is what I love about this whole thing, and why I support the itasha movement. We know we are weeaboos, and we love to show we are otakus for life. Life's too short to think about how others will judge you, and its a bore to conform to the normal crowd, especially in a sea of white, grey, or black Mercedes Benzes.
Got your thoughts on the direction I have gone with the 'MDR Merc'? Feel free to comment them below, and as always, I'll be back with more updates on what I've done with the A Class in the future. Hopefully when my current income situation is improved, so I can look at investing more into this project.
(And a late Happy Lantern Day too.)
Black Cygnus Photography (@black.cygnus)
Adrian Ma Photography
Engus Ng (@ej_nostalgia)
Davis Wu (@cars_rick_harrison)