Camaraderie is one of the biggest parts of car culture; I'm sure that any of us can think back and remember the first time that we bonded with a friend or family member over the joy of machines. The coming together of like-minded individuals is really what makes the entire scene exist at all, be it the world of racing, car shows, or just cruising the streets with your buddies on a Friday night. This mentality is the root behind any car club, big or small, and as a "member at large" of a tightly knit car crew myself, I know how deep these roots run.
When we first met Gerard Del Dios and Johne Santos, we knew these guys were serious about their love for cars, namely the two street-sweeping gems we have before us here, deservedly coming together for a feature in Import Tuner. While these two cars share many similarities, the two men behind the builds each have unique stories that brought them together as brothers from different mothers sharing the love of these funky early '90s Toyotas.
In the teal corner, meet Gerard. Hailing from Glendora CA, this 27-year-old nurse first began his search for a clean MR2 about five years ago. Gerard has owned plenty of other cars in his day, including a '89 Corolla, a Miata, a Lexus G300, and a Yamaha R6 sportbike, but none of those really spoke to his personal style and taste like the MR2. "Ever since I could remember I wanted to have and build an MR2," Gerard says. Growing up with an older brother who was heavily into the car scene, namely old-school Toyotas, shaped Gerard's interest from a young age. Interestingly enough, it was Gerard's brother who actually first located this car for sale on Craigslist, and although the teal color was not his first choice, Gerard couldn't have been happier to see the car in his own driveway a mere matter of hours later.
Gerard's MR2 has come quite a long way since he first picked it up with a mismatched set of wheels and minor wear and tear. Today, the car is damn near spotless inside and out. The route Gerard has gone with for exterior styling is subtle and based on a kind of "OEM+" mantra; the car almost looks (aside from the wheels) like it could have rolled out of the factory this way, with its subtle aero choices and choice JDM parts. The MadPSI front lip adds a nice touch to the original front end along with amber front turn signals, and that's pretty much the extent of the work on the body up front. Gerard isn't going for anything crazy here, just a clean and simple look. The subtle theme continues in back by a '94-spec upper wing and JDM Kouki taillights. Perhaps the most substantial modification to the body are the pulled fenders on all four corners, helping make room for the 18-inch Sprint Hart CPR wheels Gerard has had custom built for this application. Originally 17 inches in diameter, these CPRs have been re-barreled with a stepped lip, coming out to a final size of 18x9.5 +12mm up front and 18x11 +15mm in the rear. In person, these wheels look straight-up fantastic. They are huge, but somehow they look just right on the MR2—from a street car perspective, that is. Gerard is quick to admit that he doesn't track this car, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. The suspension has been modified to fit the large wheels and lower the ride height massively, thanks to a set of Tein Flex coilovers.
Even though the MR2 is not a racetrack-shredding monster, it has plenty of getup to blast through the roads. Gerard has gone with a KO Racing "Street Brawler" T3/T4 turbo kit with the usual supporting mods (boost controller, fuel system upgrades) to give him a bit of extra kick. This upgrade is again a modest one but good for about 260 whp, according to the manufacturer (with comparable mods), so Gerard's MR2 is not exactly a slouch.
The interior cabin of the lean-mean-sea-foam-green machine is not heavily modified, although the right bits have been upgraded where needed. The factory tan leather seats remain, which is actually quite refreshing. The contrast is nice with the black dash, and the seat color looks very good when paired with the exterior paint color. Two-tone is not easy to pull off, but it works here. A few small gauges and a Personal steering wheel are expectantly in place, but the feel is very low impact and modest. Gerard drives this car a lot, so he wants to keep it comfortable.
Now allow me to shift gears (pardon the pun) and speak a bit about the other mid-engine machine we have before us, Johne's '91 original-paint Crimson Red baby. Johne is no stranger to the life of building up project cars. In fact, he and Gerard met several years ago when Johne was looking to buy a lightly used set of tires for a previous build. The stance game was just starting to kick off, and at the time Johne owned a different MR2, which, in fact, was not his first MR2 either. I'm sensing a theme here; Johne likes Toyota products. Not that that's surprising, considering he works for a large part supplying company for the mark. Over the years, Johne and Gerard stayed in touch, Johne moved on from the last MR2 (thankfully, it was yellow) and after finding his current car, the two builds began to become similar in many ways—on the surface at least. Let's not be too quick to jump here, take a closer look.
Johne's MR2 is propelled by the same KO Racing turbo kit that Gerard selected, although it's supported by different auxiliary mods, making a total of (as expected) 261 whp, almost exactly on claim with the turbo kit manufacturer. Johne's engine has also been built with Wiseco pistons and a slew of other components to keep it strong and healthy (hopefully) for a very long time. After nearly being stranded on the long drive to Las Vegas, Johne decided it would be in his best interest to build the motor well and strong. Since the KO Racing turbo kit is running very moderate boost levels, I don't think Johne will have to be yanking the 3SGTE again anytime soon. Johne's engine compartment has been dressed up with mostly custom-coated black components, whereas Gerard's has a nicely polished look to it. The engine compartments may not look much alike at first glance, but the two cars are very similar from a performance standpoint.
Looks wise, Johne has kept the body all original aside from a Holy Custom Creations front lip, a nice addition to an already great-looking car. Johne admits that he is saving up for paint and bodywork. The car is not 100 percent immaculate, but Johne wears the battle scars of daily duty with pride as he saves his pennies for a fresh coat. The MR2 body is one of the coolest early '90s Japanese sports cars to look at, because it has all the swooping lines and low profile of the "big boys" of the era, yet it's very compact. The mid-engine layout also provides a certain look by nature, which is pure race-bred, and the large side intakes on the MR2 body just look so freaking cool. Johne has pulled his rear fenders by 10 mm to help fit the enormous Work VS-SS wheels, but the body line does not really change because of the pull. It's minimally noticeable, but necessary in order to fit the aforementioned Works, sized 18x10 +12mm up front and 18x11.5 +18mm in the rear. Although these wheels are a lot bigger and more aggressively fit than what most people would try for on this chassis, they look cool as hell. The car is slammed to the ground on Circuit Sports coilovers with K-Sport springs, and again, since Johne's car is not tracked at all, the super low ride height and perhaps a bit overly aggressive camber settings are essentially moot points, and required for entry into the "wheel game" as Johne calls it. Johne loves the way the car looks and rides, and the aesthetic of the oversized white Work wheels looks, simply put, gangster.
Johne has also kept things simple on the inside, opting to replace the factory driver seat with a Recaro Sport reclinable seat, and adding the expected performance monitoring gauges. Johne has also retrofit a satellite navigation system from another Toyota model, a very cool and unique custom feature. It's fully functional as well, so hats off to Johne for doing it right and not just for style points. Johne also drives his MR2 nearly every day, so the choice to keep things simple and functional is not a surprise at all.
Since these two guys have been friends for so long, it was a pretty fun experience to meet both Johne and Gerard in Downtown Los Angeles for our photo shoot. These guys are genuine friends, and it's very cool to see how their cars are similar on the surface, but different in many important ways. What we have here are two unique builds, from two very unique individuals. We like that both these guys are not afraid to put miles on the cars, and would like to see a few track miles end up on each car eventually—or maybe not. It's completely up to Johne and Gerard what they do with their cars, and whatever that ends up being it will doubtless be interesting to see where things end up.