Nissan

TOUGE CALIFORNIA 2015 – PRESENTING THE BIRTH OF CLASSIC JAPANESE CAR RALLYING IN AMERICA

05 HakosukaOver the last few years, we’ve been delighted to observe a gradual shift toward mainstream acceptance in America of older Japanese automobiles as collectible classics. The Carriage House fleet has in recent times included first-generation examples of the Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2, so we’re well acquainted with the sporting virtues of lightweight, solidly built “J-tin,” and we’re happy that more and more people are rejecting the antiquated viewpoint that Japanese cars are nothing but soulless appliances. So when our old friend Ben Hsu, founder and editor-in-chief of Japanese Nostalgic Car, expressed to us his desire to create an American touring rally for vintage Japanese cars (the sort of event to which owners of more widely recognized classics from Europe and the U.S. have had access for years) we jumped at the chance to help bring his vision to life.

20150516_120849Ben’s belief in the viability of such an event was bolstered by the recent success of Japanese classics at high-profile collector car auctions, such as several sales of the much sought-after Toyota 2000GT for over $1 million, or excellent examples of the Nissan Skyline “hakosuka” and Mazda Cosmo Sport (pictured at top and above, respectively) cracking the quarter-million dollar mark. Additionally, publications ranging from Hemmings Motor News to the New York Times have indentified Japanese cars as a future growth area in the collector car world, and suddenly everyone seems to want a piece of the action. Always having been ahead of this curve, Ben felt that the time was right to give Japanese classics the vintage rally treatment as a way to spotlight not only the beauty of these amazing machines, but also their usability as “event cars.”

370So, how does Carriage House Models fit into all of this? Well, it turns out that our relationship with Ben Hsu dates back to the late 1980s, when as car-crazy middle-schoolers, our founder bonded with Ben over a shared love of diecast models. Household moves, college and careers in different parts of the country separated us for a couple of decades, during which time the Carriage House team got heavily involved in the Southern California road rally scene, first competing in, and then organizing a number of TSD navigational rallies in the L.A. area. Several years ago we rekindled our friendship with Ben thanks to a Facebook-facilitated reunion, and when the time came for him to make his Japanese classic car rally dream a reality, we were delighted to offer our experience in road rally organization to the cause. (Pictured above: the dear departed Carriage House MR2, used extensively in early research for this event.)

PiumaSkylineTougeOver the course of eighteen months, we worked with Ben to create exactly the sort of event he envisioned: a fun-to-drive, non-competitive tour of scenic, challenging roads that would not only give owners of classic Japanese cars a chance to enjoy them in the manner for which they were intended, but also would allow these same cars to be photographed and promoted in the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Ben laid out a few specifications (start and finish locations, time and distance parameters, etc.) but otherwise gave us nearly carte blanche to write the route. We responded by crafting a 120-mile course through our beloved Santa Monica Mountains that would be both thrilling to drive and gorgeous to behold. As it drew upon the Japanese tradition of spirited mountain-pass driving known as touge for inspiration, it seemed only natural to call the new event “Touge California.” From the moment the words were first uttered, we knew we were onto something special.

01 SiennaWe soon found that we were not alone. Ben reached out to his vast network of contacts in the Japanese car world to find partners in making Touge California more than just a cruise in the countryside. The response was overwhelming: heavyweights including Toyota, Yokohama Tire, Koyorad Radiator, Mattel, and Mother’s Car Care jumped at the chance to sponsor this groundbreaking event. Toyota was especially game, granting us use of facilities and vehicles before and during the rally (including an incredibly well-appointed Sienna SE minivan, which would serve as a shuttle for members of the press who came along to report on the event.)

02 MalamutAfter a flurry of last-minute preparations were completed, Touge California was finally ready to roll on May 16, 2015. After lunch and a tour of Mike Malamut’s private auto collection in Thousand Oaks, California, sixteen brave teams set off for a day of adventure in the Santa Monica Mountains. The route would include five “Touge” stages which would feature especially challenging roadways. As several of the cars on hand were equipped with somewhat primitive braking and cooling systems, workaround routes were devised for drivers who were uncertain of their vehicles’ ability to handle these demanding parts of the course. However, only drivers who could prove that they successfully completed the entire route (including all five Touge stages) by returning still-sealed envelopes to us at the finish would receive a coveted “I SURVIVED TOUGE CALIFORNIA” sticker at the end of the rally. Would any accept the challenge?

04 CP1The first leg of Touge California 2015 headed west along the famed Mulholland Highway, followed by the first Touge stage of the event: a quick, downhill blast toward Westlake Village. The first checkpoint followed soon after in a lovely, pastoral setting. At that point, the consensus among the drivers was that if the remainder of the day was to be as exciting as the first part, Touge California was going to be a winner. (Pictured above: Sebastian Hill’s sensational Datsun 510 leads a small group of rallyists into Checkpoint 1.)

06 Pt MuguThe rally’s second leg took the drivers further west into the green farmlands south of Camarillo (after a brief second Touge stage full of second-gear switchbacks), ending at Point Mugu on Pacific Coast Highway. Here, all sixteen cars were brought together for a group photo, much to the surprise of unsuspecting onlookers (including a family of Japanese tourists who, quite serendipitously, happened to be at Point Mugu as part of their American vacation!) Taken as a collection, it was hard not to be impressed both with the diversity of cars assembled for the event, but also how comfortable they looked in these spectacular surroundings…they were, after all, BORN for just this sort of drive. Somehow, for far too long, America looked upon them as simple transportation devices, but Touge California seemed to unlock the soul within these cars, and the excitement among their owners was palpable. (Pictured above: the nearly identical Toyota Celica GTs of Mike Foertsch and Mike Malnick, complete with their original, highly sought-after California “blue plates.”)

08 CP4The second half of the day started with an easy drive south on PCH, before heading north on the most challenging Touge stage of the rally: a ten-mile hillclimb that snaked from Malibu to Agoura Hills and featured more than a few blind, decreasing-radius turns to keep the drivers on their toes. A workaround was offered, but all sixteen drivers courageously faced down the Touge…as they did with the fourth and fifth Touge stages. That’s right: EVERYONE completed the entire route, Touge stages and all, proving that Japanese reliability and driving exhilaration are far from mutually exclusive concepts. (Pictured above: Francis Jones’ Toyota TE27 Sprinter Trueno leads Jacob Brown’s first-generation Mazda Miata into Checkpoint 4, halfway through the final Touge stage.)

13 DockweilerThe final portion of Touge California 2015 included a final drive south along PCH, followed by a surprisingly quick trip through Venice and Playa del Rey, before reaching the ultimate checkpoint at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo. Plans for sunset photography were scuppered by a long running time for the rally, so we departed as quickly as we had arrived for the post-rally festivities. Our friends at Toyota had arranged a Hawaiian buffet for our dinner at their American museum in Torrance, where Ben Hsu presented the coveted “I SURVIVED TOUGE CALIFORNIA” stickers to every driver.

20150516_211500The day concluded with a tour of the Toyota museum led by Lexus executive Paul Williamsen, whose intimate knowledge of the cars on display made for an incredibly educational evening. For an event whose purpose was to celebrate the history of Japanese cars on American shores, a more fitting conclusion could not have been found.

09 OverlookBased on the response of the participants in the first-ever Touge California, both the drivers and our many sponsor partners, it’s almost certain that there will be more rallies to follow…the idea is to make Touge California an annual event, and we’re already in discussions with the Japanese Nostalgic Car team regarding potential routes and venues for next year! From the Carriage House Models perspective, our only regret was that we were so busy handling the logistics of the event (including driving the preview car) that we didn’t have much time to take a breath and enjoy sight of these beautiful classic cars tackling the roads we had selected for them. Thankfully, in addition to coverage from JNC itself, several other media outlets were on hand to record the proceedings. To read more (and to see some truly great photography from the route) visit Japanese Nostalgic Car, Petrolicious, or Revved.

Carriage House Models is beyond proud to have been part of the historic first running of Touge California, and we can’t wait to do it again next year!

THIS JUST IN: Ignition’s Dazzling Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Kenmeri

IG Kenmeri frontWith the recent rise in popularity of classic Japanese cars on American shores, it was only a matter of time before a wave of formerly obscure JDM heroes arrived here in scale model form. At the forefront of this movement is Ignition Models, a specialist in Japanese “nostalgics,” offering a seemingly bottomless well of vintage high-performance Nissans, Honda touring cars, and assorted Group C racers. With production runs of 150-300 examples, Ignition’s creations are as rare as they are detailed…and detailed they are, exquisitely. Cast in resin, their models feature no opening parts, but they more than make up for this in exterior precision, featuring some of the finest chrome brightwork and other small components we’ve ever encountered in 1:18-scale models.

IG Kenmeri rearFirst to arrive at Carriage House Models will be Ignition’s stunning 1973 Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R (KPGC110) in classic white. Often called the Kenmeri (after a popular Nissan ad campaign featuring characters named Ken and Mary) the 2000GT-R was powered by Nissan’s lusty S20 straight-six, an engine reserved for their highest-performance models. The GT-R was bred for the racetrack, but Nissan withdrew from motorsport in the wake of the first oil crisis after only 197 GT-Rs were completed (all sold in Japan.) Consequently, the Kenmeri GT-R is among the most sought-after Japanese classic cars.

Supplies of Ignition’s ’73 Skyline GT-R will be extremely limited. We anticipate arrival by December 23rd, and interested collectors are advised to order quickly. Please visit http://www.carriagehousemodels.com for availability updates.

PARKING ON GRASS: Japanese Classic Car Show 2014

NSX

Until recently, the notion of a “classic” Japanese car might have been met with derision in the mainstream collector car community. True, there have been a handful of models that have enjoyed broad acceptance for years, such as the Datsun 240Z, but for the most part Japanese cars have largely (and unfairly) been considered bland, disposable appliances, not worthy of the adoration heaped upon American and European marques. Thankfully, a reassessment seems to be taking place as a new generation of enthusiasts looks back with fondness on the sporty compacts they once owned or lusted after, while older collectors have finally awoken to the virtues of the lightweight construction, inspiring performance, and sturdy build quality offered by Japanese cars. “J-Tin” is no longer a derogatory term.

Those requiring proof of the Japanese car’s emergence as a viable vintage collectible need look no further than the Japanese Classic Car Show, held this year at Harry Bridges Memorial Park at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Founded by Koji and Terry Yamaguchi in 2005, JCCS has over the years attracted thousands of the most interesting pre-1990 Japanese cars in the country. Though a loose, bring-it-as-it-sits attitude toward a car’s acceptance onto the JCCS lawn customarily has been the norm, the Yamaguchis have always had a rule on the books that cars with substantial dents or rust would be turned away. The announcement that this rule would be more rigorously enforced in 2014 created a minor controversy in certain corners of the internet, as some predicted that attendance would be depressed by a perceived “snobbishness” on the part of the organizers. Such concerns turned out to be unfounded, however, as the show was packed with cars ranging from concours-quality trailer queens to daily drivers with a few blemishes, as well as pieces from the corporate collections of the North American divisions of Toyota, Mazda and Honda (such as the pristine Acura NSX pictured above.)

Hako

If any single model is emblematic of the emerging Japanese classic car scene in the U.S., it’s the Nissan Skyline. Long-revered in its native country for its racing heritage and crushing performance in top specification, the Skyline captured the hearts and minds of America’s youth with its appearance in the seminal driving simulation video game, Gran Turismo. Among the Skyline’s many generations (dating back to the 1950s) perhaps the most popular is the C10 introduced in 1969. Affectionately known as the Hakosuka (or “Boxy Skyline”) the C10 in GT-R trim enjoyed overwhelming success in Japanese touring car racing in the early ’70s, burnishing a legend that lives on in the current-generation Nissan R35 GT-R. The C10 was never officially sold in the U.S., but with aggressive looks that recall our homegrown musclecars of the era, Hakosukas have trickled into the country in the hands of dedicated enthusiasts. Our favorite at JCCS this year was Marco Vargas’ yellow ’72 GT-R.

AE86 Nocum

If any car can challenge the Hakosuka Skyline for dominance of the Japanese classic scene in America, it’s the Toyota Corolla AE86, better known to enthusiasts as the Hachiroku (appropriately, “eighty six.”) A longtime cult favorite among drift racers and other grassroots motorsport proponents, the AE86 exploded in popularity as the hero car of the graphic novel series Initial D. There’s no great mystery in the AE86’s appeal: it’s a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe that in top specification packs a rev-happy twin cam, 16-valve four cylinder engine. Finding clean, unmolested examples in the U.S. is practically impossible at this point, making John Nocum’s 1985 GT-S liftback a rare treat.  Though appearing to sit on lowered springs, Nocum’s car was otherwise stock and well-preserved…even its notoriously sun-sensitive dashboard was uncracked.

Janet AE86

Of course, with mint originals in short supply, some AE86 owners choose to go the restoration route.  Few have pulled it off better than Janet Fujimoto with her 1985 GT-S notchback, which has been restored to a standard more commonly seen among six-figure Italian exotic cars.  A perennial favorite at JCCS, Fujimoto finally bagged the coveted “Best AE86” award at the 2014 show.

CRX

Another ’80s classic that has become virtually impossible to find in stock condition is the Honda CRX, most of which seem to have been thrashed as commuter cars, amateur racers, or worse: victims of ill-advised modifications by teenaged “tuners.” Thankfully, a few devoted owners have preserved these wonderful featherweight performers, perhaps none more successfully than Christopher Hoffman and his well-known ’87 CRX Si. Hoffman has owned the car since new, during which time he has accumulated 109,000 miles and more than a little press coverage (including feature articles in Hemmings Motor News, Japanese Nostalgic Car, and Petrolicious.)

Impulse

There are vintage Japanese cars seldom seen in stock condition, and then there are vintage Japanese cars seldom seen…period.  Such is the case with the first-generation Isuzu Impulse, sold in the U.S. from 1981 through 1989. A supremely handsome coupe with styling by Giugiaro, the Impulse was a fairly popular competitor to the Toyota Celica and Volkswagen Scirocco during its production run, and eventually offered turbo power and a Lotus-tuned suspension. Yet for some reason, only a handful remain today; owners have been known to refer to their cars as “extinct.” Among the few survivors, longtime Isuzu employee Jeff Shein’s ’85 Turbo must be one of the best. (Looming in the background is another popular Isuzu favorite, the 1991 Trooper 4×4 of Bart Wilkus, whose collection also includes an immaculate Impulse Turbo.)

Trueno

Another rare sight on these shores is the Toyota Sprinter Trueno, a high-performance variant of the Corolla made between 1972 and 1974. Russ Capulong’s ’72 was actually born a lower-spec Corolla, but was painstakingly converted over a three-year period into a Trueno clone using original Japanese-sourced parts (including a set of authentic 1970s Watanabe alloy wheels.) The result is striking, and was our favorite early Toyota at the show by a wide margin.

1600Roadster

One of the few Japanese classics to have enjoyed longstanding popularity among American enthusiasts is the Datsun 1600/2000 Roadster.  Launched in the late 1960s as a competitor to contemporary British sports cars, the Datsun Roadster offered a degree of quality and reliability that were unheard of among the English brands. As always, there were numerous examples shown at JCCS; our pick was Rich Scharf’s gleaming white 1970 1600. Like many other classic Japanese car owners, Scharf had previously owned a Datsun Roadster in his pre-parenthood days, and purchased his current ride as an “empty nest car.” Complete but rusty when he bought it, Scharf subjected the 1600 to a three-year restoration which he describes as 95% complete. After viewing the car’s beautifully finished interior and truly spectacular powder-coated undercarriage, we’d be hard-pressed to find the other 5%.

With hundreds of amazing cars to choose from at this year’s JCCS, it would seem that picking an overall favorite would be difficult.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t…the winner very literally stopped us in our tracks.  That car, and its fascinating backstory, will be revealed tomorrow!

Parking On Grass is the Desktop Concours’ irregular series on California’s vibrant car show scene.  Occasionally, cars will not actually be be parked on grass.