The Roots Of Japanese Car Tuning Are Far Deeper Than Anything Fast Or Furious
Photography by Hayley Holmes
Monozukuri. Despite being an avid Japanese car enthusiast, the word was unfamiliar to me. In the moments before the opening night of the new exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum, I sat in my car clutching my camera with one hand and Googling this foreign term on my phone with the other. “Monozukuri is the art of making things,” said one source. “Craftsmanship without the emphasis on man,” said another. The results were varied and vague, but there was one thing they could all agree on: “Monozukuri is that which cannot be fully translated.”
Past the crowd growing in the lobby, up the stairs, through the hall with vintage motorcycles and tables overflowing with wine, cheese, and coffee, the exhibit opens up into a well-lit yet intimate space displaying some of Japan’s highest achievements in automotive design, many of which have not been outside of their home country until now.
The early cars are towards the front, but there is no strict chronology to the order: specimens like a pristine 1937 Datsun Model 16 and the quirky Nissan Flying Feather (created by the same man responsible for the beloved Datsun 240Z, Yutaka Katayama, who was also the first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A.). Further back, a lean, shimmering gold 1966 Nissan Silvia CSP311 sits across from a white Mazda Cosmo and a matching white and always-captivating Toyota 2000GT. Set between these cars are a few pillars, each displaying a different word thought to capture the spirit of monozukuri. “Creativity, Innovation, Collaboration, Craftsmanship.”
With the space filling up with guests and others like me trying to crop them out of our photos, the lights dimmed and Shiro Nakamura, former Vice President and current Chief Creative Officer of Nissan, took to the podium. Between introductions and thank you’s he paused for a moment and smiled. He pointed towards the miniature baby blue Mazda R360 Coupe towards the back and said, “That is the first car I ever drove. I was 10 years old.” His pointer finger then came to rest on the Silvia, and he continued, “And this one. I have one myself back home and I drive it every day.”
Offering another piece of the technically undefinable puzzle, he explained that the goal of monozukuri is to “strive towards continuous improvement.” The cars on display began to read as a timeline of individual breakthroughs—from the ultra-efficient and purposeful Mazda R360 Coupe—a tiny kei car that pioneered rubber springs and a torsion bar setup to keep the body level while navigating the broken, bumpy roads of post-war Japan—to the stunning sleekness of the Toyota 2000GT, a design so beautiful that even 007 couldn’t resist having a go in one—as testament and added treat, the star car of You Only Live Twice sat on the third level of the museum ready for its close-up.
In the spirit of monozukuri, as production processes grew and changed, so did the people buying the products. In the room adjacent to “The Roots,” the early cars, the exhibition concept goes on to explore the levels of customization that arose in the years that followed. A cherry 1973 Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-X “Kenmeri” with a GT-R engine swap crouches on its widened haunches next to a Kaido racer’s dream Toyota Cresta, and nearby an absolutely brutal 400-horsepower Mazda RX-3 sat between the supports of a lift, built as an homage to the famous Japanese race car driver, Yoshimi Katayama. Of course, no history of Japanese tuning would be complete without a wicked Supra Turbo—surely this Titan Motorsports-tuned MkIV example can run the quarter under ten.
Just like my coming to terms with the term, monozukuri is a process, and while it may not be completely translatable verbally, these cars are a very tangible expression of the underlying spirit. I encourage you to take the journey for yourself if you can make it to the Petersen. This exhibit will be on display until April 14th, 2019, so you have plenty of time.