A First Hand Account Of Rally Nippon 2016 In Taiwan
If you’ve been riding shotgun with Petrolicious since the early days, you’ll recognize the name James Chen. If not, you need to catch up—we’ve featured not one, not two, but three of his machines in our Made To Drive film series.
Founder of Axis Wheels, longtime friend of Petrolicious, and overall great guy, James Chen recently had the opportunity to experience a very intimate event through his home country: Rally Nippon 2016 in Taiwan.
Mr. Chen was eager to share this incredible classic car contest with us and we’re sure glad he did, as it was quite the spectacle. Here’s the inside scoop from the man himself.
Andrew Golseth: So, in 2016 the Rally Nippon Japanese event was held in Taiwan?
James Chen: The story is a bit philosophical. I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when I was six. I try to go back on an annual basis. I’ve got some business interests over there and some family, so I go there once a year, or every other year.
Taiwan is not a very large island. The metropolitan areas are packed with traffic, so it’s generally not a pleasant place to drive. Yet, certain parts of the island are very, very scenic. I’ve always wanted to do a drive across the island, but I’ve never had the chance before and didn’t really know where to go. I didn’t want to jump in a brand new Camry and drive around the island—that’s no fun.
So, a good friend of mine, Mr. Ken Okuyama (the lead designer of the Ferrari Enzo), is a Japanese gentleman who moved to Italy to work at Pininfarina, and prior to that he worked for Porsche and GM as well. He told me about this rally, Rally Nippon, which is held once a year and normally hosted at a destination within Japan.
Every year they pick a new place, but in 2013 they decided to hold the Rally Nippon in Taiwan. It proved to be immensely popular because it’s just totally different that anything else they’d done. For 2016, it was decided the rally would again be held in Taiwan, but it would be the very last time.
I missed the first time it was held in Taiwan back in 2013, so I really wanted to make it to this final one in 2016. Long story short, there’s a bit of tension between the Taiwanese and Japanese people that dates way back from the extended Japanese occupation in Taiwan. So, it was great to see the Japanese bringing some harmony with the Taiwanese people and government through this rally. The ending of the rally was held at the CKS memorial palace.
For a foreign entity, especially considering Japan and Taiwan’s history, to come in and mend relations through a classic car rally, that’s pretty incredible. From a political perspective, there’s a national band that plays traditional Chinese instruments along with a famous Japanese flutist. People were in tears of joy because someone from Japan was playing alongside a Taiwanese national band.
AG: How’d you manage to get in the event and what’d you wheel?
JC: I couldn’t have gotten into this rally without Mr. Ken Okuyama. All the paperwork and logistics of shipping 70 cars to Taiwan for a week, then shipping them all back, that was all taken care of. I would have liked to bring my own car, but they already had a car for me. I was very lucky because out of the 70 participants, only three were Taiwanese, the rest were Japanese.
It seemed the Porsche 356 was the most popular vehicle there, but there were a couple Bentley Blowers, a Hakosuka GT-R, a 2000GT, some Bugattis and Bentleys, and a lot of Alfas. I was able to borrow a Porsche 356B to drive in the rally from one of the Taiwanese nationals competing.
Unfortunately, it had some issues a couple hours into the rally. The owner of the 356 I was borrowing just so happened to be the BMW importer for Taiwan. So when the 356 had ignition problems, she lent me their BMW 502, which was kind of the pace car, support car, and entered to promote BMW.
AG: Take us through the event.
JC: It’s a very informal rally. There is a time-in and a time-out and some take it very serious with stopwatches and timing devices on the dash. Some people just take it more leisurely, so there were two disciplines.
We started off in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, at the Presidential Palace, which we call the “Red House” because it’s made out of brick. The ending was the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which is the equivalent of starting at the White House and ending at the Lincoln Memorial.
All these locals showed up at the beginning because, you’ve got to remember, cars didn’t really make it into Taiwan until the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. A lot of Taiwanese don’t get to see classic cars. Plus, they have very strict laws of not being able to import old cars. For the Taiwanese people, it’s an unusual and special site to see.
The first day of the rally, we drove from Taipei, through the countryside. We avoided the highways as much as possible, taking the country “b-road” scenic routes. We stopped at local restaurants to eat and at all the checkpoints, which ranged from gas stations to parks to government buildings, there were crowds waiting for us, waiting for all 70 cars to show up and park.
Our day one overnight destination was Sun Moon Lake, which is where the Taiwanese president honeymoons—sort of the Niagara Falls of Taiwan. It’s a beautiful lake up in the mountains, very scenic. That’s where we ended up on the first day. Every hotel we stayed in was five-stars, the best of the best in Taiwan. With 70 cars in the event, we were basically taking out half the rooms.
The second day, the rally continued over mostly two-lane country roads with a less mountainous landscape. By day two, we had made it to the southern most point of the island in the coastal city of Kenting. Up until this point, the majority of the drive was taken on two-lane countryside roads with very little elevation change.
By day three, we headed north along scenic beach roads—which was like driving on Highway One, Pacific Coast Highway. Then, we got into the extremely mountainous part of the country, which is known for its natural springs and rich minerals. There were no guardrails, so it was pretty exciting if just a bit nerve-racking.
Finally, on the fourth day, we made our way back to Taipei, back in the capital around noon at the CKS Presidential Palace. We were welcomed back with a huge party with a band playing and crowds cheering. Later that evening, there was a black tie event that celebrated the rally finish and awards were handed out to participants.
AG: What’d you think of the BMW 502?
JC: The 502, I’ve got a whole new respect for those cars. It wasn’t very brisk in acceleration, but it had a ton of torque from that V8, so it’d cruise at 85 mph effortlessly. It was rock steady. It took a while to get used to the column shift four-speed manual, because I had never driven one of those.
It turned out great for the rally because it wasn’t really about who could finish the fastest, it was more about completing it. I was actually surprised with how much room there was in the cabin. There was plenty of legroom.
AG: Aside from the Japanese and Taiwanese mending relations through cars, what did you find special about the 2016 Rally Nippon?
JC: Everything stood out because everything was kind of different. I don’t speak Japanese unless I’m drinking [laughs], but even though there was some language barrier, there was a genuine comradery. It was all for the love of cars—cars broke and people helped each other out despite communication challenges.
I’m more American than I am Taiwanese, but there’s still a little bit of nostalgic national pride for me. Being able to park on these national monument grounds in front of these very interesting styled government buildings, that’s a big deal. That’s usually reserved for national demonstrations and election type events, not car rallies. It was a really special thing.
We even parked on the campus of the most prestigious university in Taiwan and ate in the faculty’s cafeteria—that’s like crashing Harvard or Stanford. It gave me goose bumps. I mean to be doing 50mph on a beautiful Taiwanese country road and to be overtaken by a 2000GT doing 65mph… you just go, “Wow!” That’s just not normal. That just doesn’t happen often, especially not in Taiwan.