Shed Stories: The Blackbird Car

In the mid-90s, Honda was determined to produce the world's fastest production motorcycle and to take over the associated bragging rights which, at the time, was held by Kawasaki's Ninja ZX11. A couple of years later Honda revealed the Blackbird. The Blackbird name is, of course, a quiet nod to the Lockheed SR-71 aircraft, one of the world's fastest aircraft.

Fast forward about 20 years and the same 1100cc engine that briefly held onto a world record sits comfortably in a tubular steel chassis, inside a garage, down a tree lined driveway, in Southland, New Zealand. With a glossy Mazda red paint job, low profile directional tyres and black leather bucket seats, the MLC Blackbird certainly challenges the traditional thinking of vehicle design at first glance. Look closer, however, and not a bolt is out of place. This is a car finished to an impeccable standard, exquisitely crafted by owner Neville McPherson.

As a coach builder for Classic Car Developments in Invercargill, Neville was no stranger to creating cars from scratch. His usual day includes hand forming parts for Jaguar D Type’s and Ford GT40’s, both which take 10,000hrs plus to complete and are one off projects for wealthy owners. When it came to building his own car though, Neville was not going for the fastest, loudest, most expensive, most exotic car. The criteria was quite simple. Something that had the heart of a motorbike, the handling of a go-kart and wasn’t going to take a decade to finish!

In regards to the name of the car, early on in the project, Neville mentioned to a friend that he was building a car. The prompt reply. “You must be having a mid-life crisis!” From there, the MLC Blackbird was born.

After Neville’s wife Michele had given the all clear with a “why don’t you”, things fell into place relatively simply. A slightly damaged 98 Honda Blackbird was quickly found on TradeMe, followed by a set of alloys, the steering rack from a Mitsubishi, and the running gear from a 4WD Ford Laser.

Neville took some of his design inspiration from the Lotus 340R, a uniquely styled version of the Lotus Elise that was released in 2000. That said, it still took three attempts to get each fibreglass section looking exactly how he wanted, each mould hand formed by Neville, including the unique dashboard that houses the original instruments from the Honda.

All of the bodywork is flawless, the lines smoothly transitioning between the wheels without any sign of crudeness. When climbing into the car (because it has no doors) Neville puts a small mat onto the bucket seats, which he made, of course, steps onto the seat and then lowers himself in. I also used the same approach but being a bit bigger and slightly taller did make it an exercise. My head also sat above the top of the custom made windscreen. Safe to say, the hair-do is part of the experience. Neville also demonstrates the reverse gear, which is courtesy of a second electric starter motor which runs in the opposite direction; kiwi ingenuity at its best.

Start-up is courtesy of a machined aluminium push button mounted centrally in the dashboard. The car hums, vibrates slightly and almost tingles at idle, a reminder that behind your head sits 160HP of Japanese wizardry. In a car that only weighs about 600kg that gives you a power to weight ratio slightly better than Holden’s latest SS. Getting to legal digits does not require much effort, and with a redline of near 10000rpm, getting into the power band could possibly draw the attention of the local constabulary.

On quiet back roads near Winton however, Neville opens the taps and the car responds with a delicious whine from the engine coupled with the induction hiss from the air box behind my head. Gear changes are dispatched quickly, a mechanical motion that has not been dampened by modern methods but instead provides an appropriate companion to the fantastic soundtrack from the Honda’s double cam engine. Yes, it is noisy and slightly bumpy, and part of my head was being subjected to a force akin to wind tunnel testing. Despite that, there were no rattles, vibrations or notes of concern. The Blackbird is as tight as a drum. Neville even saved the original bolts from the bike and managed to reuse them in the build, each one precisely located and I’m guessing, torqued correctly.

He mentions that he “didn’t want a car that looked home built”, and I am on board straight away. The Blackbird is a poster child, at home on the wall next to a Lamborghini or amongst a dozen Mustangs at the local car show. You can’t help but look at it. Neville mentions that he has met so many new people since building the car, all with huge interest and appreciation. Not something that happens when rolling up in your MX-5.

 

With 3000 hours of his time and roughly $23,000 of his own money invested in the project, Neville is quite rightly proud of his car. Even his wife Michele is happy to blast down the road to a country café for lunch, stating it is, “like a motorbike with training wheels”.

Neville displays the Blackbird in the fully lined garage where it was built, next to an original Auto Union DKW F11 that he has restored, in front of another completed project, a beautifully finished Suzuki Carry van from the 70’s. Burt Munro memorabilia, an old lathe, drill press and oxy set sit alongside a glass cabinet resplendent with vintage slot cars; a fitting garnish to a shed that is definitely, ‘The man cave’.

Neville admits he, “wouldn’t’ change a thing” if he had to do it all again, and I agree. Having seen homebuilt cars in the past, the Blackbird is at a different level. This is true dedication, love and time, combined with a level of creativity, which, to be fair, you don’t see a lot of nowadays. Maintaining that it is, “as much motorbike as it is car”, Neville has fulfilled a lifelong dream of building his own vehicle, stemming from years of slot cars, kart racing and tinkering with engines.

 

Minh D. Tran states that “Great design is eliminating all unnecessary details”. I would argue that this is exactly what Neville has achieved. There is no air conditioning, stereo, traction control or additional buttons that were just an afterthought. This has been thoroughly thought-out and executed with a precision that would do a Lotus engineer proud. Neville demonstrates the essence of kiwi ingenuity, by taking the plunge and diving into a project that, let’s be honest, trips up a lot of people. Yes, he made a car in his shed, but creating a work of art like the Blackbird takes more than just throwing fibreglass at a mould and hoping for the best. This car is a legacy, something to pass onto the next generation; a tribute to carburettors, petrol, and massive spoilers.

The best part of all this? Neville’s simple philosophy, “it’s not rocket science...if I can do it better I will”.

Have you got a story worth sharing? Are you building your own car, motorbike, machine or product in your shed? We want to know about it!

We want to promote the originality of everyday kiwi's and the brilliant creations they produce. So if you have a story from your shed, garage or workplace that is uniquely kiwi, creative and demonstrates the essence of the number 8 wire mentality, please get in touch with us at Motovated.