Two years ago, I was having a beer at my local tavern with my old friend Ben Hsu, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Japanese Nostalgic Car. As the driving force behind the most widely read English-language website devoted to classic Japanese cars, Ben has probably done more than any other individual in the U.S. to build awareness of vintage Japanese marques as cars to be admired and respected on equal footing with American and European rides, and I’m among his many converts. Our conversation turned toward driving events. Why, Ben wondered, were there no vintage rallies for Japanese classics as there are for veteran European cars, such as the Mille Miglia Storica. It was a fair question…one that he was now posing to me, an experienced SCCA road rally navigator and rallymaster. In short order, we realized that between Ben’s deep connections in the Japanese car community and his vision for what a top-level event should look like, and my years of experience in writing and producing high-quality navigational road rallies, the two best-qualified people in the United States to mount such a rally were sitting at that table.

Photo credit: @constantalchemy

Thus was born JNC’sTouge California, North America’s only vintage auto rally exclusively for pre-1980 Japanese cars. The inaugural running of the event in 2015 was a sort of a “proof-of-concept” affair, with a hand-selected, invitation-only entry list of 16 cars. As rallymaster, I designed a 120-mile course through the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu that was as challenging to drive as it was beautiful to behold. The event was an overwhelming success; unanimously, both entrants and sponsors alike demanded that we do it all over again. Naturally, we were happy to oblige!

For 2016, I served not only as rallymaster, but as a sponsor of Touge California. Model Citizen joined title sponsor Mazda, as well as automotive industry heavyweights Hagerty Insurance, Yokohama Tire, Mothers Car Care Products and Koyorad Radiator, to support this unique event that gives owners of classic Japanese cars the chance to experience the sort of driving adventure previously enjoyed only by well-heeled collectors of European and American classics. As one of the few diecast model retailers in the U.S. that places special emphasis on Japanese marques, we found it to be a natural fit.

Photo credit: @constantalchemy

This year’s Touge California ventured into the mountain passes and farm roads of northern San Diego and Orange Counties, beginning at scenic Lake Wohlford in Escondido. From there, drivers and navigators would tackle winding roads with significant elevation changes as they wound their way north to Palomar Mountain, then through the vineyards of Temecula, across the notoriously challenging Ortega Highway, and finally up Pacific Coast Highway to a final checkpoint in Corona Del Mar, before finishing at Mazda’s North American R&D facility in Irvine. The course would cover 200 miles, and included five “Touge” stages that would feature especially challenging roads that would put the 40-year-old machinery to the test.

Among the entrants were three vehicles from Mazda North America’s heritage collection: a 1975 Rotary-Engine Pickup, perhaps the most pristine 1978 GLC on the planet, and a 1985 RX-7 GSL-SE that started the rally with only 1100 original miles on its odometer. Mazda takes enormous pride in the fact that their “museum” is in fact a working garage, and that all of its cars get driven…they are not static display pieces. As we begin the slow-march toward self-driving cars and personal disconnection from the motoring process, to see a carmaker take such an enthusiast-oriented stance not only with their current product lineup but also with their valuable historical cars is extremely gratifying.

Joining the three Mazda-owned vehicles were 23 other Japanese classics, ranging in performance potential from a showroom-original 1977 Honda Civic to heavily built Datsun 240Zs, all the way to an early Toyota Celica that appeared mostly stock, but concealed a swapped Lexus V8 under the hood. However, because Touge California is an untimed, non-competitive event, the only kind of performance that mattered was endurance. Even though Japanese cars are famed for their clockwork reliability, any vintage automobile is susceptible to breakdowns, and Touge California experienced a handful of retirements. Still, 22 cars soldiered all the way to the finish in Irvine, having faced down some of the twistiest, hilliest roads we could throw at them.


Photo credit: @constantalchemy

After eight hours and 200 miles of demanding driving, we finally reached the finish at Mazda R&D in Irvine. As title sponsor, Mazda pulled out all the stops for Touge California. We were greeted in their comfortable courtyard by a banquet of delectable barbeque, followed by a presentation of the coveted “I SURVIVED TOUGE CALIFORNIA” sticker to drivers who had successfully completed the entire route. On display in the courtyard were Mazda’s current production models and several historical cars, including a rare 1967 Cosmo Sport and an RX-7SP, Mazda’s IMSA GTP warrior from the early ‘90s. The latter was a special highlight of the evening, when Mazda’s U.S. director of public relations fired up the 4-rotor, twin-turbocharged engine and let it wail.

The longer, tougher, and almost inarguably BETTER 2nd edition of Touge California is now in the books, and once again demand is high for another event. Ben and I are already in discussions about how to make next year’s event even more exhilarating, as well as potentially adding a second event to this year’s calendar. Stay tuned to the Model Citizen blog and to japanesenostalgiccar.com for updates on future Touge California events!


  • Posted by Louis on

    You weren’t kidding – the navigation book was very well written. Thank you so much for al the effort you put in – it was an awesome day!

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