We're enthusiastic proponents of the concept of a "classic Japanese car" at Model Citizen. Our generation grew up free of preconceived notions that Japanese cars were something lesser...mere transportation appliances, devoid of passion and utterly disposable. No, we got snarling Mikunis and brapping rotaries in the 70s, sci-fi dashboards and origami styling in the 80s, and holy-s*** turbo supercars in the 90s. "Made in Japan" carries no stigma here.
That said, we have concerns. In America, Japanese car culture is still evolving, and there remains in certain corners a healthy dose of "tuner" mentality that leads to modifications of questionable style and usefulness. As Japanese cars march slowly but steadily toward mainstream acceptance in the classic community in America, one has to wonder whether outrageous, frankly juvenile custom jobs will have a negative long-term effect on the reputation of the whole, or whether like homegrown subculture cars such as lowriders and lead sleds they will be accepted eventually as a welcome part of the automotive world's rich tapestry. Will the future of classic Japanese cars come down to a question of taste?
We hoped to find answers to this existential question at the 2016 All-Toyotafest at the Queen Mary, presented by the Toyota Owners and Restorers Club. Unlike the mixed-marque Japanese Classic Car Show held at the same venue, All-Toyotafest was open to cars of all ages, with entries accepted on a first-come-first-served basis. Consequently, the field was crowded with recent-vintage and "enhanced" Toyotas, Lexuses and now-orphaned Scions. For lovers of older iron, this did not bode well, particularly when one of the first things we encountered upon entering the show grounds was a row of lightly modified Priuses. Oh boy.
It got worse. There were innumerable "stanced" Scions that were ostensibly fully individualized, and yet somehow all managed to look indistinguishable from each other. There were SEMA concepts seemingly designed on a dare. There was a purple Cressida. A PURPLE CRESSIDA.
But then, we saw this: Russ Capulong's bone-stock 1985 Corolla GT-S, one of what is assuredly only a handful of original-spec AE86s left in America. The "hachiroku" Corolla is everything current-day car freaks say they want in a classic: it's light, rear-wheel-drive and almost completely analog. Unfortunately, the majority of these beauties have been hacked and abused to death by the drift crowd; our friend Ben Hsu of Japanese Nostalgic Car asserts that there are fewer stock AE86 Corolla GT-Ss left in America than there are Ferrari Enzos, and honestly we don't doubt him. Capulong's example had a few tiny flaws that might get a person bounced from a Pebble Beach fairway, but for sane people his AE86 should serve as the template for how to preserve and enjoy a modern Japanese classic.
It turns out that Russ had ANOTHER vintage Corolla in the show: his gorgous TE27 Sprinter Trueno clone. While Datsun 510s are the most recognizable hot Japanese sedans of the '70s to American eyes, these early Corollas are arguably better looking, and with a sweet twincam, hemi-head 1.6 liter four under the bonnet they make formidable canyon weapons to boot.
At the other end of the size spectrum from the Corolla was Kirk Hubbard's Century, an exclusive ultra-luxury sedan sold only in Japan to VIP executives and government officials (and of course, Yakuza bosses). Though Hubbard is none of those things, he is a committed Toyota freak, and his Century shows pride-of-ownership of the highest degree. The Century is no garage queen, however: Hubbard's stately sedan is a veteran of the inaugural Touge California rally, where it handled the winding canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains with grace and style.
Another star attraction of All Toyotafest (and like the Century never sold new in the U.S.) was the 1965 Publica convertible belonging to Sam Carbaugh, whose father purchased the car new while stationed in Japan. Sam continues to maintain the car in immaculate original condition (save for a set of aftermarket SU carbs) though keeping up with contemporary traffic with the Publica's 0.8-liter, two cylinder engine sounds nerve-wracking (but take note, Luftgekuhlt types: it's air-cooled!)
Here, then, were two distinctly different takes on the future direction of the Japanese car hobby. On one hand, there were the Tuners, bless them. On the other, there were the curators. Obviously, our sympathy lies with the latter and we make no apologies for it, and yet, who are WE to tell the kiddies in their ground-scraping TCs that they're wrong? Too many greybeards waste too much time bemoaning the death of car culture among today's youth, but while that might make for a great AM radio shouting point, it just isn't true. Kids still like cars, they just do weird things to them.
Perhaps the solution to the long-term mainstream health of the Japanese car segment of the hobby can be found in a third way: the beautifully restored yet subtly enhanced restomod. We managed to uncover just such a car at All Toyotafest, Brian Kallaher's Baltic Blue 1993 Supra. Brian's wife was the second owner of the targa-topped Supra, which she acquired in 1996. The couple went on their first date in the normally-aspirated Supra. "My jaw dropped when I saw it," Brian said. The car ended up parked in Brian's father-in-law's garage for many years, and by the time he took possession of it the paint and interior had been ravaged by the sun. Many people would have been content to throw an Earl Scheib spray job and a set of sheepskins at such a project, but Kallaher rightly recognized the Supra as being worthy of more. Thus began a concours-grade cosmetic restoration, which ended with a flawless body and a faithfully reupholstered interior. There are a few deviations from stock, however, most notably a Seibon carbon-fiber hood and liftback (with the latter being brilliantly finished in body-color paint). Otherwise, the car appears exactly as it did when it rolled off the showroom floor, with an original (but expertly maintaned) engine to boot. The significance of the Kallaher Supra is easy to grasp: here was a car that could easily have been turned into a ratty drift car, or to have become just another used up old pizza-running Toyota. Instead, Kallaher saved it, not because he thought it could be flipped for a profit - clearly, he spent more on it than could ever be recouped in a sale - but rather, because such a car is worth saving.