The Truth About Cars » Japan The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 17:51:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Japan At Toyota, Craftsmen Get Hands-On In Search Of Innovation Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:17:45 +0000 Toyota factory near hard-hit Sendai. Picture courtesy

Twenty years ago, as a young Merchant Mariner, I was sent to Japan where the ship I was assigned to, the Sea-Land Spirit, was undergoing a major refit. The ship had begun life as a LASH ship, a vessel that carried cargo-filled barges which it offloaded from its stern via huge, rail mounted cranes that ran on tracks down the length of its deck, and now, after the demise of that business model, it was being converted it into a container ship.

Prior to the refit, the ship had been virtually abandoned, left to rot in some bayside backwater for many years, and it had taken a pounding from the elements. To get it back into service, the ship was towed to Korea where it underwent most of the major modifications, after which it was then taken to the giant Mitsubishi works in Kobe, Japan for the final touches. It was there, so I was told, that Japanese laborers called into question the quality of the Korean’s work. Some of the massive steel braces that had been welded to the deck, they found, were as much as a centimeter off. Shocked by the poor quality of their counterparts’ work, the Japanese shipyard workers cut the braces off the deck, moved them a fraction of an inch and welded them down again.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

The Japanese have a reputation for doing things right. Who else could take an iron ore of questionable quality and forge it into blades renowned for their strength, flexibility and sharpness? Who, but the Japanese, could take a pasty skinned, round face little girl and turn her into an object of enduring sexual desire? All cultures make things, but it is only in Japan that the making of things, “monozukuri” is elevated into an art unto itself, and where skilled craftsmen, who spend their entire lives honing their craft to perfection, become “gods.”

In recent years, however, thanks to the amount of production that has been handed over to robots, the number of “gods” on the factory floor has dwindled. Toyota, in particular, has noticed the problem and, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the company if now taking steps to reverse what it sees as a new form of brain drain by taking jobs away from robots and giving them back to men. The logic is slyly simple but infinitely deep, craftsmen, it goes, will always look for ways to innovate, always seek out easier more efficient methods and even find ways to reduce waste while robots can only do what they are programmed to do.


Over the past three years, the article continues, Toyota has introduced more than 100 “manual-intensive” workplaces at factories all around Japan. In one of the sections, men manually turn and hammer red hot steel as it is forged into crankshafts in much the same way that Henry Ford’s workers once did. True to form, the men in the section have been watching and learning and the result of their efforts has been a 10 percent reduction in material waste and a shortening of the production line that will soon be applied to the automated processes used to make crankshafts in the next generation Prius Hybrid.

There is no doubt that the robots are here to stay, but Toyota’s recent experiments show that keeping humans closely engaged in the process can pay real dividends. By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars, Toyota is setting the stage for innovation. It is, I think, a uniquely Japanese solution but it could be applied here in North America as well. Despite the many people who decry the lack of skills and poor work ethic of the North American factory worker, I believe that there are a great many men and women in our factories who would jump at the chance to work harder. Everyone, I think, wants to be valued and most people want to make a difference. This could work here too, maybe some of our own best and brightest should take a look at what’s going on.

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Leno Talks Nissan IDx: What’s Left Unsaid Speaks Volumes Mon, 10 Mar 2014 15:42:57 +0000 IDx Freeflow / IDx NISMO

The Nissan IDx concept, which debuted at the Tokyo motor show back in November of last year, is in the news again, this time appearing on YouTube as a part of the popular Jay Leno’s Garage series. We learned in January that the IDx is expected to go into full production and Nissan has been relentlessly seeking publicity for it by taking it to events all around the country. It is a good looking little car with just enough retro touches to remind people of the times when Nissan was sold in this country under the Datsun brand name and this video is the lengthiest review of the car I have yet seen. Leno spends a lot of time speaking with the car’s designer about all the little details that make the car so special and then takes it on a real world test drive. If you haven’t seen it yet, take time to look at it now as it will soon be the topic of discussion around water coolers and wherever else it is that car guys gather these days.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Rather than review the video, I’ll let you watch it and draw your own conclusions but I was struck by the fact that, even during the test drive, there was no discussion about the car’s driving dynamics or performance. Leno and the car’s designer ride around together talking about silly things like three-box design philosophy and keeping the car cheap so that normal people can afford it, but at no point does Jay say, “Wow, this thing handles great” or “Wow, this thing really accelerates.” Perhaps it was a simple omission on the part of the video’s producers but I feel like it could be more than that and, because of it, I am getting an odd sense of foreboding.

Back when Nissan announced that the IDx would go into production, they mentioned that the turbocharged engine in the show car would not make the final cut. They suggested instead that the production car would mount a 1.6 liter four cylinder and this earlier statement is confirmed by the designer during his ride with Leno. What does not come up in this conversation, however, is the other bit of informaion Nissan originally dropped in their January announcement: that their stated choice of transmissions for the car is their continuously variable transmission.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I would imagine that, if Nissan was paying attention to the opinions of their many fans and had elected to go with a different choice of transmissions, the designer would happily have trumpeted that decision during the interview. The fact that he ignores the transmission altogether makes me feel even more certain that the IDx will be delivered exactly as Nissan’s original announcement indicates – sans manual. Frankly, I am disappointed, and unless the company takes action to offer at least some version of the car where people can row their own gears, I think the IDx is going to be another one of those cars that almost, but not quite, caters to the enthusiast market.

To be sure, I’m not sure if catering to the enthusiast market is a wise thing to do for a car intended to sell in large volumes, but I would like to think that our opinions still matter. If nothing else, enthusiasts generate buzz around a new car and that excitement can and does drive people into the show rooms. The industry has this habit of hyping cars to the enthusiast market and then coming up short and, frankly, I don’t like it. I believe the BRZ/FR-S is not selling in the numbers they expected because Toyota and Subaru decided they knew better than us about what people really wanted in a small sporty coupe. Dodge, too, horribly botched the debut of the new Dart by failing to bring enough automatic transmissions to market something that is, from my perspective, at least partially to blame for their failure to sell what is otherwise a nice little car. Will the Nissan IDx be the next example of a promising little car that ultimately under-delivers? I honestly hope it isn’t because I would love to live in a world where we have more than enough cute, zippy, fun to drive little cars running around, rather than a world where I am always right.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Japanese Tourists Spark Chase, Get Spiked Wed, 26 Feb 2014 18:12:27 +0000 Click here to view the embedded video.

The Japan Times is reporting that a car driven by Japanese tourists had to be stopped with a spike strip after its driver failed to stop despite the fact she was being pursued by at least three patrol cars.

The car initially drew the attention of officers when it was spotted going less than 40mph on Interstate 15 near the Arizona-Utah border at around 1 a.m. last Saturday Morning. Suspecting a drunk driver, officers attempted to make a traffic stop but, instead of pulling over, the car accelerated to over 75 mph and began driving erratically. The chase lasted for approximately 7 miles ending only after police deployed a spike strip that destroyed three of the car’s tires.

With the car disabled at the side of the road, officers used their loudspeakers to order the occupant out and were surprised when a Japanese woman in her 40s emerged. Unable to speak English, she could not understand the officer’s instructions and proceeded to run back and forth in the street until officers physically grabbed the woman. While pulling the woman’s husband from the car, officers noticed the couple’s seven year old son in the back seat and realized the situation was not what it appeared to be. After realizing the family spoke almost no English, officers contacted a Japanese-speaking trooper elsewhere in the state who was able to defuse the situation.

The woman explained that she had no idea what to do when the police rolled in behind her and had initially accelerated in order to get out of their way. She also apologized for the crash, not realizing that her tires had actually been spiked in order to bring the chase to an end. The family, it turns out, had arrived in California on Friday and then rented a car in order to drive to Bryce Canyon. Once the situation was clear, officers took the family to a motel. There are no plans to press charges.

Generally, tourists are allowed to drive in foreign countries, although an International Driving Permit can be required. When I first went to Japan as a teacher back in 1999, I held one of these permits, obtained through AAA, that enabled me to drive overseas with the proviso that I held a valid US license. I used it without incident, including once during a traffic stop when I got popped hooning around on the motorcycle, for the entirety of the time I lived there. The rules of the road are not entirely the same, but there is enough similarity that people should be able to transition from one place to another without much difficulty.

Failing to understand that three police cars tailing you want you to pull over is ridiculous no matter what country you are from and this is a situation that could have ended badly for everyone involved. I think the officers of the Utah Highway Patrol deserve a great deal of praise for the way they ultimately handled the situation. They exhibited, I think, the highest level of professionalism. It’s nice when a story like this has a happy ending, good on them.

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The Stroke Of Midnight Tue, 31 Dec 2013 12:00:00 +0000 Supra

At the stroke of midnight, a new millennium would begin and the whole world was supposed to come unhinged. Religious leaders were telling us that we needed to be afraid because Jesus Christ, aka the “Prince of Peace,” was coming back to wreak holy vengeance upon us all, cosmologists hinted that that an ominous planetary alignment was going to totally screw up our Feng Shui and computer experts were saying that the silicon chips that they had been relentlessly incorporating into everything since the late 1980s were going to suddenly freak out. It was this last thing that got most people’s panties in a twist. When the computers stopped, we were told, power grids would fail and modern society would grind to a halt. Anything that had an internal clock, they said, would simply stop working.

By the dawn of that fateful New Year’s Eve, I was firmly established in my new life as an English conversation teacher in Japan. My move to the Land of the Rising Sun was a jump made of the sort of desperation that only poverty can induce, but my change of scenery had done little to improve my situation. Where my previous hell had been my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house, it was now a tiny, virtually uninsulated, one-room “mansion” in the Kyoto area where I slept fully clothed under a few thin blankets atop a lumpy futon spread out on the floor over an electric carpet while the winter wind, right off the Siberian steppes, whistled and wailed as it forced its way into the shabby little room through a million small openings. Although I ran the heater almost constantly, I had given up hope of actually trying to warm the space and now the cold added just one more layer of misery. The world was a shitty place, I had decided and it t really didn’t matter to me if it ended. In fact, thanks to the sudden resurgence in popularity of “1999” by Prince, I was looking forward to it.

There is a certain mindset that comes with grinding, persistent poverty. Managing your money becomes an all-consuming thing and you pick and choose your luxuries. For me, someone who has always loved vehicles, my own personal mobility took priority over some of the other luxuries I might have enjoyed and, over the 9 months I had been in-country I had managed to acquire two reliable, but beat-down vehicles of my own, a Honda motorcycle and a Toyota Supra. Now, as Y2K bore down upon me the weight of what those computer experts had been saying was beginning to hit home. Both of my vehicles, I knew, had chips in them and, as they were both old, there was a chance they might actually be affected by the software glitch. Would they start on the day after? Could I fix them if they didn’t? I wondered.


As the fateful day approached, my girlfriend decided that we needed to ring in the New Year with a trip to Lake Biwa. Japan doesn’t really have any mighty rivers, no inland seas or anything even remotely like the Great Lakes, but given the small size of the country, at 39 miles long and 14 miles wide, Biwako does a pretty good impersonation. Set in Shiga prefecture, just across the prefectural boundary from Kyoto, the lake is a scenic attraction and its shores are lined with industry, hotels and entertainment complexes. One of these hotels was planning a celebratory fireworks show to ring in the New Year and, I was told, we would be going.

We headed out early in the evening, wending our way through the busy holiday traffic and through the center of the city of Kyoto before turning east through the small mountain pass that separated the city from the lake. Traffic intensified as we neared the shore and we eventually found a parking place in a crowded hotel garage an hour before the event was set to start. As we left the car and moved towards the viewing stands, I noticed a row of gasoline powered high intensity work lights, the kind that are often used during night time road construction, along the edge of the garage and it suddenly struck me why they were there. At the stroke of midnight, should the power fail, these would be fired up to provide the light that people would need to get back to their cars. Someone was taking this pretty seriously, I thought, it was an ominous sign.

Despite all the hype, until that moment I hadn’t thought of the Y2K problem outside of my own little miserable bubble. Now, it hit me with a real force. If the doomsayers were actually right, I realized, I was out on a limb. I would be trapped in a foreign country on the other side of the planet from my own personal support network and if things really came unglued, I would be irrevocably on my own. I felt a touch of fear rise up but just as quickly as it emerged, I shoved it back into its place. The threat of disaster doesn’t equal the real thing, I reasoned, and I wasn’t about to let it ruin my night. If poverty had taught me anything it had been to focus on the here and now. Tomorrow, for better or worse, would arrive soon enough.

My girlfriend and I climbed the stairs, found our places in the viewing stands and had a great night. As the seconds ticked down the lights dimmed and then went out as the fireworks show began. It was so engrossing that the possibility of disaster didn’t even cross my mind again until the show was over and the hotel lights came back up. As we walked back to the garage, I noticed the overhead lights burned as brightly as ever and that the line of generators stood silent and alone, sentinels against a darkness that did not come. I found my Supra safe in its parking place and smiled to myself as the engine snapped to life at the turn of the key. The world would continue, technology had triumphed and fear had been banished.

I pulled into the lane and joined a long line of cars making their way out of the facility. One by one the line of cars moved towards the street and then slipped away into the night, each vehicle whisking its occupants away into their own individual futures. When my own turn came I turned onto the street and pressed the accelerator. As the revs came up, the twin turbos on my 14 year old Supra sang their own special song and pushed the car forward with a sense of urgency and purpose. The new millenium was upon us.

Toyota Supra

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Reminder: Win A ’99 Skyline GTR JDM Sales Book Tue, 26 Nov 2013 20:50:21 +0000 book

With the original post that explains how you can win a hardcover sales brochure for the 1999 Nissan Skyline GTR now buried a couple of pages deep, I thought I would give you this reminder that the contest is still open and runs until Thanksgiving Day. Originally, I asked The Best & Brightest to look through the last year’s worth of articles and share their favorites but have, upon reflection, decided that may be a barrier to entry to some of the people who have only recently joined our nonexclusive club. If you have been waiting to do less and win more, here’s your chance – respond to either this or that previous article and sometime on Thanksgiving Day I will throw your name in a hat with all the others and choose a winner. One entry per person, please.

As I mentioned in that earlier article, I received this book from one of my students who worked for Nissan when I was teaching English in Kyoto back in the day. It has remained safely on my book shelf ever since and is in perfect condition – no stuck together pages or dried out boogars. Based on a little research it seems that these books are rare on this side of the Pacific and the only one I found was being sold on Ebay for around $40.

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Tokyo Motor Show: Are The Japanese Really Back? Mon, 25 Nov 2013 15:30:01 +0000

Three of the world’s most important auto shows began last week. Since my invitations to the various press events must have been lost in the mail I, like virtually everyone else in the world, followed them over the internet. I’m OK with that, really. I hate fighting the crowds and by the time a show closes high resolution photos of the most important cars are always all over the world-wide-web, anyhow. With the photos are the journalists’ impressions. Some are good and some are bad, but they all make me think. For example, there’s this article from the Top Gear website on the Tokyo motor show that asserts, on the strength of the cars at this year’s show, “Japan is back.” Hold on – Really?

To be sure there were some important and exciting cars at this year’s Tokyo motor show. Honda showed us a new NSX and the S660 sport compact that compares favorably to the Beat kei class sports car that Honda produced back in the last century. Nissan showed us the amazing three-seat, electric “Bladeglider,” a hotted up Nismo GTR and the retro themed IDx. Toyota’s performance car offerings came in the form of the Lexus RC and a convertible FT86. While Toyota ripped the top off of their Toybaru twin, Subaru went the opposite route and gave baby some back with their Cross Sport. So far as I could glean, that was about it for cars intended to stir the hearts and minds of enthusiasts. That would have made for a pretty small show though, so augmenting the really interesting stuff were was a whole slew of hybrid/electric/gas, etc SUVs, sedans and city cars intended to appeal to the masses.

Click here to view the embedded video.

From my perspective what we got are some new toys of the uber rich, two small cars that my all-American ass won’t fit into, a couple of modifications on a car I probably won’t buy anyhow and one wanna-be-retro Nissan that might actually have some possibilities if they don’t screw it up with a powertrain that serious enthusiast wouldn’t want. The emphasis on products with hybrid or alternative energy powertrains and other technical innovations says some good things about state of Japanese industry and the many different body styles on display indicates that the Japanese have noted the success of Korean cars’ design language and are finally looking somewhere other than Mercedes for inspiration, too. Good news for sure, but does any of it mean Japan is back?

For me, the glory days of Japanese cars happened roughly between 1985 and 1995. The cars of that era had good, solid lines and, while the designs weren’t daring, they did have their own unique sense of style. There was technical innovation too and it came wrapped up in practical packages. Real performance was offered across all the price ranges and the variety of new cars was enormous. There was something there for everyone and if you could not afford a Twin Turbo Supra or a Turbo 300ZX, you could, at the very least, take home on of the good looking down-market alternatives: the AE86 Twin-Cam Corolla or the 200SX Turbo. Today, that wide aray of choices is no longer a part of Japan Inc.’s current line-up.

I’m not sure why that is, but in the process of writing this article it suddenly hit me that the cars on display at this year’s Tokyo motor show says something about how our society has become ever more divided over the past couple of decades. It doesn’t take an economist to point out that the rich have gotten richer and the rest of us poorer. The market reflects that reality. The rich get supercars, those of us in the middle get family trucksters and the odd toy while the unwashed masses receive battery powered practicality. The choices are gone and fun is being increasingly reserved for those who can afford it. It wasn’t that ay 20 years ago and the sad truth is that Japan isn’t anywhere close to being back. But then, none of us are, are we?

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Tell Us What You Liked, Maybe Win Something Cool Sat, 23 Nov 2013 18:35:28 +0000 book

111 articles. I’m a little surprised by that number. Some months ago, when I submitted my snippet to TTAC’s Future Writers’ Contest, I had no real idea that it would lead to a regular place on these hallowed pages. Like a lot of you, I had read TTAC for years and even commented from time to time, but until that contest began I had never thought about becoming a contributor. I am not an industry insider nor do I have any real insight into car design, manufacturing, sales or even repairs. I am just a regular guy who loves cars. Still, I knew I could write and so when the contest came up I thought I would go ahead and send in a piece to see how I stacked up. I’ve always had a way with words and I figured I would win hands down – boy was I wrong about that, I didn’t even win my own day. Still, I received enough votes to get a full try-out and once I got the editors’ email addresses I just kept on sending them stories until they gave me access to the back side of the site. For some reason no one has told me to stop and now, whether you like me or not, you are stuck with me.

With Thanksgiving just a few short days away I’ve been looking back over the past year and thinking about all those things I have to be thankful for. Being able to write for TTAC is high on that list. This is a special place with an incredibly diverse readership. We come from many nations and all walks of life. Some of us have spent our lives designing, building, selling, repairing or recycling cars while others are just getting started. Like all families we speak the truth to each other and sometimes we fight. Some of us don’t really like each other but at the end of the day, though we may go away mad, we always come back. I’m damn proud to be a part of that.


Yesterday when I was going through the many Japanese books on the family bookshelf I came across something that I had forgotten about, a hard backed sales brochure for the 1999 R34 Skyline GTR. Whether or not you can actually read it, it is a beautiful book, with many wonderful photos of a truly awesome car. I thought I might write and tell you all about it, how I received it from a student who was an instructor at Nissan’s Technical College (Nissan Gakuen) and how I have quite literally carried it all around the world for more than a decade. But then I thought, rather than write an article and then return it to its shelf where it will surely be forgotten, why not give it to someone?


And so dear friends, here is your opportunity to own this special bit of history. Of course, to get it, you are going to have to do a little work. In line with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, click through the past year’s worth of articles and choose your favorites. In your comments, tell us why the article your chose hit-home, what you liked about it. Easy, right? On Thanksgiving Day, in between the parade, dinner and the pumpkin pie, I’ll decide the winner and the book will be mailed to you the following day.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Best and Brightest, friends, Romans, countrymen thank you for giving me your time and attention over this past year. It is my continued pleasure and a true privilege to have the opportunity to write for you each week. Have a wonderful and a safe holiday season.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Ashes To Ashes: My Visit To A Japanese Junk Yard Tue, 10 Sep 2013 11:15:27 +0000 Toyota Supra

The hot August sun beat down with real intensity, its heat baking the dun colored earth into a hard packed surface that flecked away in a fine powder that puffed skyward with every footstep I took. The area before me seemed large, but like so many things in Japan its sense of scale was distorted by the fact that, over time, I had grown accustomed to tiny plots of land and buildings crowding in upon one another so closely that they blotted out the sky. In reality the space was little more than a fraction of an acre but even so it seemed like an oasis of space in an otherwise crowded urban desert. The fact that it was packed with junk cars was just icing on the cake.

I had purchased my 15 year old Twin Turbo Supra for a song from an Australian English teacher whose wife had inherited it from her uncle. The uncle, who had actually wanted a Corvette, had purchased the car new in 1986 after he had been informed by his parking garage that “foreign cars” were not allowed in their facility. The policy, which seems unfair on the surface, was actually intended to keep out Yakuza rather than Yankees. The Yakuza, it turns out, are a problem for people who own parking garages. They contract for monthly spaces and then stop paying their rent. Because they are scary, they are impossible to evict. The best way to keep them out is not to let them in and discriminating against their preferred mode of transport, expensive, showy foreign cars, it turns out is surprisingly effective.

Like most used cars on the Japanese domestic market, my Supra was low mileage but showed the bumps and bruises typical to life in the big city. All four corners bore minor scrapes and one of the front turn signals was broken. I solved these problems my visiting my local dealer where I ordered a can of white touch-up paint and a new signal but the one problem inside the car, an emergency brake lever that refused to ratchet any longer, necessitated a trip to the junk yard. My Toyota dealer was quite helpful to me and even drew me a simple, but surprisingly accurate map to the nearest one. My first visit there netted me the desired part and the repair was simple. Satisfied with the result, I tucked the location of the junk yard away in my memory bank and waited for my next chance to use it.


My chance came in the form of a leaking radiator. Given the extreme heat of the Japanese summer and the long hours spent idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I knew the problem was a priority from the moment I first saw the pool of coolant forming under the car. Even so, I hemmed and hawed about the situation, suspecting it was condensation from my air conditioner and delayed addressing the issue until I finally got a red warning light on my dash. A cheapskate at heart, and despite the obvious the seriousness of the situation, I still tried to avoid the issue by carrying a gallon jug of water with me for a while, but eventually, I knew, the part must be replaced. The cost of a new unit would be high, I thought, so one sunny Saturday morning I determined another trip to the wrecking yard would be in order.

Despite the small size of the yard, dozens of late model Japanese cars in surprisingly good condition sat parked in neat lines and I surveyed them with an experienced eye as I picked my way across the yard to the small tin shed in the middle of the property. Among the cars I noted at least three Supras similar to my own and I suspected the same part would likely be on each of the dozens of other Toyota sedans scattered in the mix. Any number of cars on the lot could be possible donors, I thought happily.

My good mood was broken by the little old woman at the shed who greeted me with a dour, unpleasant expression and suspicion in her eyes. She wasted no time at all in telling me they didn’t have what I was looking for. It didn’t matter if they actually did, I was a gaijin and she plainly didn’t feel like playing pantomime with me. Despite her attempts to wave me away, I pressed in on her with my less than fluent Japanese and once she figured out I wasn’t going away, our conversation was brief and to the point. She waved a weathered hand at the yard and told me to have at it.

I went back to my car, gathered my tools and found my way out to a dark blue Supra that upon first glance seemed to be in better shape than my own. I popped the hood and examined the scene before me, it was all there and in less than twenty minutes I had the radiator pulled. I paid the old woman, still scowling, at the shed and headed back to my car. Reasoning that the junk yard was as good a place as any to change my radiator, I popped the hood and went to work right there. I pulled my own radiator out in no time at all and slipped under the front of the car to hook in the lower radiator hose and the transmission lines. It would have gone swimmingly except for the fact that my “new” used part didn’t have the fittings for the transmission cooler – I had pulled the radiator from a car with a manual transmission.

Radiator in hand I made the trip back to the old woman in the shed. She regarded me as dourly and unhelpfully as she had been before but based on my previous persistence she knew I wasn’t going away without a fight. Eventually she relented but looked me with dark eyes devoid of any humor, “I can’t have you out here tearing all these cars apart. Get it right this time or get out.”


My second trip out into the junkyard was more tentative and I selected to the next donor with greater care. With my own car in pieces, the old bat had me over a barrel and I believed her when she told me that I had just one more shot. Frankly, I was pissed. When I finally found a car that looked right, I started by ensuring it had an automatic transmission and then went over the radiator with a fine tooth comb prior to putting a single wrench on it. I was lucky and the radiator seemed perfect, with good solid joints and not a single bent cooling fin. With two radiator removals already behind me that day, I attacked this new job with experience to back my determination. I pulled off the shroud in less than five minutes cut the hoses with a razor knife and snapped off the steel transmission lines with a pair of wire cutters. With the radiator free, I pulled off all the excess parts right there at the front of the car and left the mess for someone else.

I made quick work of the install and, reasoning that the whole problem may have been caused by a sticking thermostat decided I was better without one so I pulled the part and left it in the dirt. Once I had everything buttoned back up, I added my coolant and water and sat there in the yard while I ran the engine up to operating temp. After about 10 minutes of idling in the summer sun, I checked for a tell-tale feather of steam and sniffed around for the sickly sweet aroma of antifreeze. Satisfied with the lack of either, I took one last look at my handiwork and closed the hood.

The old woman told me to throw my used up radiator onto a pile of metal headed for the recycler and then glared steadily at me to make sure I didn’t steal anything as I made my final trip back to my car. She was there as I climbed into the Supra and watched as I paused one final time to knock the insidious powered earth off my shoes prior to pulling my feet into the cabin and closing the door. I backed out of my spot and looked for her in my rearview mirror. She was still there in front of the shed, still regarding me with a sullen malevolence as wisps of dust disturbed by my tires licked up and around her in the breeze. I slipped the car into gear and our eyes met one final time in the mirror. Covering the brake with my left foot, I mashed the gas to the floor and the face was lost as a great cloud of dust began to boil up from my tires. The wind was just right. It was glorious.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Kei Car Caper: Deep Inside Carol Thu, 29 Aug 2013 16:51:08 +0000 carol 2

If I say the name “Carol” to the average American and mention a total width of 51 inches and a curb weight of a little over 1200 pounds, they will naturally think I am speaking about a woman who looks like Honey Boo-Boo’s mom. If I say the same thing to the average Japanese person, their mind will flash immediately to the cute little car produced by Mazda. It’s well they should, because when Mazda decided to team up with Suzuki in 1989 to produce a new Kei class car for their just launched youth-oriented “Autozam” brand they cornered the market on “kawaii.”


The Carol name was first hung an a small Mazda in 1962 with the introduction of the company’s first four passenger vehicle. It was a cute car, with a curving roofline and a reverse angled C pillar that sweeps up and back, something that makes me think of French cars of the same era, and it featured a rear mounted water cooled 258cc OHV four cylinder engine. It was highly successful and captured 67% of the Kei market the year it entered production. The design went through several small updates and soldiered on until August of 1970, selling more than 265,000 vehicles over its production run. The name was retired when production stopped and Mazda introduced a new small car, the “Chantez,” two years later.


With the revival of the Kei car class in the late 1980s, Mazda dusted off the Carol name and hung it on a new little car they had co-developed with Suzuki. Unlike the square, almost Yugo-esque design of Suzuki’s Alto, however, Mazda opted to appeal to young women with a rounder, softer approach. Nagare before Nagare was a “thing,” the Mk II and MK III Carol were happy looking little cars, with big round headlights above a wide, smiling grill. The soft lines continued as they flowed up and back into a large greenhouse that ended with a cavernous hatchback door that was sometimes fitted with optional spoiler along its top.


Inside, the Mk II and III Carol is all utility. The rounded roofline makes the interior seem huge but the seats are necessarily close together. The dash is low and features a lot of hard plastics molded into interesting, rounded shapes. The gauges are set into small pods. Overall the effect is cute, but cheap, something that is just right in a little economy car.

The Carol was redesigned 1998, and the Autozam name was eliminated. The kawaii factor was unceremoniously dumped and the new Carol became just another drab little economy car. It was updated in 2001 and received another redesign in 2004. Yet another redsign followed in 2010 and, despite all the refreshes and redesigns, the Carol somehow failed to receive any of the “zoom-zoom” excitement that so many other Mazdas of that era received. Today it looks thoroughly modern but, without its smile, is just another face in the crowd.


Back when we were first dating, my wife’s daily driver was a MKIII Carol and I had the opportunity to drive and ride in it on several occasions. It was a tinny, cheerful little car and I was surprised at how much it reminded me of the old Volkswagen Beetle. It was unrefined and plain, but offered so much utility at such a low price it was easy to see why Mazda sold so many of them. Like some women I know, the Carol’s good looks piqued people’s attention, but there was a lot hiding behind that pretty face and it was those other qualities that made people want to make a comittment.

On the road, the little car was surprisingly spry to drive. Most Kei cars are never used on the expressway, my wife’s car was no exception, and it’s clear to me that Mazda’s designers understood this. Because it had been designed to be a city car, the Carol was light and its gearing was low. That meant that when I hit the gas, the little car scooted away from stoplights with surprising vigor. In fact, I thought then, and still think now, that stoplight to stoplight, my wife’s Carol would have been more than a match for my 2.0 Twin Turbo Supra which was hamstrung with an automatic transmission. Small and nimble, the little Carol handled the duties of daily driving without much fuss and always greeted you with a cheerful smile every morning as you climbed in. It was hard not to like it.

Click here to view the embedded video.

I imagine that, like most newer cars, the new Carols are superior in every way and handle the duties of Japanese city life with just as much skill as the older model I drove, but I am disappointed that Mazda has let the cheerful face of the car go away. While they have continued to hang ever more outrageously grinning grills and swoopy sheet metal on all of their other cars, would it hurt them to let the little Carol, the car with the name that helped Mazda break into the passenger market, join in the fun? Come on Mazda, it doesn’t matter how practical the new Carol is, without a smile on her face she’s just not going to get noticed and will remain just another wallflower on the edge of the dance when she really needs to be out there shaking things up.


Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Shooting The Gap: An Unorthodox Solution Wed, 21 Aug 2013 16:14:08 +0000 keiji-bypass_japan

As I slipped the clutch and rolled on the throttle, the big GSXR1100 bucked and growled like a wild beast between my knees. I took the little wiggle and the bucking in stride and cracked the throttle even wider to shift the bike’s weight onto the rear tire. The bike responded instantly, the sound of its anger pouring out the back as a prolonged shriek of pure rage. The toll plaza fell quickly away as I hit third gear and leaned into the gentle, sweeping left hander that would bring me up onto the Yokohama-Yokosuka Expressway and there, in the final few meters before the merge, I drove the tachometer towards redline and shot past a pair of slow moving cars before shifting into the higher gears and settling onto the highway ahead of them.

The road was wide and smooth and the south bound traffic moved quickly along above the posted speed limit. I ran along slightly faster than the traffic and enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun on what was an otherwise cool October day. I was here, where I wanted to be, atop what had been for one brief shining moment a bike that had been on the very sharpest part of the cutting edge of technology. Fifteen years on that time was well past, but the bike’s power and attitude remained and I felt every intoxicating bit of it through the steady thrum of the engine. The power lurked there, under my right hand, waiting – demanding – to be put down onto the street and I was in the right mood to indulge it.


Ahead was my chance, two cars rumbling along side by side in a painfully protracted pass, neither willing to do what it took to clear the lane of travel for the faster vehicles stacking up behind them. I checked my six in the rearview mirror, rolled onto the white line that divided the two lanes of the freeway, dropped two gears and opened the throttle. The bike shot forward into the gap and in an instant I was out ahead of the traffic accelerating away in brazen display of sheer power. It was glorious.

Right about now, those of you who have never thrown a leg over a bike are thinking I am nuts. I’m not going to disagree with that. There was a time I didn’t have much at stake and I was willing to push right to the edge, but the truth is lane splitting, even at high speeds on the freeway, isn’t a big deal. Bikes can go all sorts of places that cars can’t and understanding that is more important than most people realize. Besides allowing you to act like Top Gun on some Japanese freeway, it can actually keep you safe when the shit hits the fan. What’s more, it’s a skill that you can use in your car.

Click here to view the embedded video.

To most of us, our place on the road is inviolate and the lines on the road might as well be two feet tall and made out of granite. Safe inside in our metal boxes, we are secure in our right to a place on the road and our confidence in the rules, and the fact that the vast majority of people will obey those rules almost all the time, means that we don’t have to think about things like exit strategies. Beginning motorcyclists need to snap out of this mentality in a big hurry if they are going to enjoy a long, injury free career in the saddle. Because bikes are smaller than cars they are often overlooked by drivers and having someone merge into their place on the road is a common occurrence. Without a steel crash cage to protect their soft flesh, a rider’s inviolate legal right to a place on the road the same as any car offers scant real-world protection and so the best answer is often to flee from trouble.

A good rider constantly scans the road for trouble and takes special note of possible escape routes. A beginner often thinks in terms of where a car can fit and so exit routes tend to be few and far between. More experienced riders think in broader terms and soon any space you can reasonably expect to fit into becomes a possible egress. The space between cars running the same direction is surprisingly wide as is, believe it or not, the space on the yellow line between opposite lanes of traffic. Motorcyclists can also go onto sidewalks, up paths and even into spaces between parked cars if necessary. If shoving your bike through some small rat hole stops you from getting squished like a bug then, when the situation calls for it, do what it takes to live.

The bike I really learned to lane split on - my CBR250R

The bike I really learned to lane split on – my CBR250R

As a driver, you should be thinking along similar lines. If you can’t stop to avoid a collision, you should seek to avoid it by going around it. Cars are bigger than bikes, of course, but they don’t require an entire lane worth of space in an emergency. They can, if the situation is right, run between cars, go up the shoulder, into a median or up onto a sidewalk as long as there are no pedestrians. No place is off limits in an emergency so long as you aren’t putting anyone else’s life in danger. So maybe you have to rebuild someone’s fence or reseed a lawn, but the cost pales in comparison to extensive repairs and a lengthy hospital stay.

Not everyone can be Top Gun, but all of us should be ready to act when our lives are at stake. Understanding that there are other options outside the norm is a trick that every driver needs to add to their bag. Sometimes the unorthodox solution is the best one, and knowing that it is there waiting to be used might just save your life one day. I’m not asking you to split lanes on your way home tonight, but just think about the possibility. Criticize my antics that sunny October day now if you like, but remember them because one day they might just save your life.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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In Japanese Bondage: The Honda Freed Hybrid and the Mazda MPV Wed, 14 Aug 2013 16:21:20 +0000 2011_Honda_Freed_Spike_Hybrid_002_6105

Yesterday, I took a look at the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear and the Toyota Hi-Ace, the “size queens” of the Japanese market. Today, I decided to look at the odd men out, so to speak, those mini-vans that hit the sweet spot in the market and offer seven seats in a small or mid-sized package. Sticking with that earlier theme, both of these are only available outside of the United States so, sorry, you can’t get them here. But it’s fun to see how other people live so let’s take a look.

As my young family has grown in size and number over the past few years, my in-laws have been absolutely wonderful. When we lived in Japan we saw one another frequently and even today, thought we are half a world away, my wife and her parents Skype at least once a week and we are blessed with their presence in our home usually two or three times per year. Last summer we decided to bless their home with our presence and the whole Kreutzer clan picked up and headed across the Pacific. In preparation for our arrival, my in-laws ran out and purchased a new seven seater and wisely, with an eye towards the fact that most of those seats would be empty most of the time, they went small and they went hybrid.


The Honda Freed is a “compact seven seater” with sliding side doors that is similar in size and function to the Mazda 5 we get stateside. In person it bears a striking resemblance to the most recent incarnation of the Honda Fit, with a steeply sloping nose, a long curving windshield, and a rectangular back half that ends so abruptly it looks like it was cut with a knife. As a Star Trek nerd, the little Freed reminds me very much of one of the small shuttles used in The Next Generation from the outside and on the inside, if it is not overly spacious, it is at least futuristic.


The Freed offers three rows of seating with each of the back two rows slightly elevated in a way that makes the vehicle’s cabin appear to have stadium seating. The third row is even with the rear wheels and my guess is that this arrangement was necessary to fit atop them, but the effect is generally nice and gives the rear passengers a chance to look over the front seats and catch a glimpse out the windshield. I understand that there are second row captain’s chairs available, if they can be called that, but my in-law’s car was outfitted with a three person bench seat. The back row is cramped and only offers space for two. Because the rear seat is so far aft, there is no additional cargo space and no place for a fold-flat seats. To allow space for cargo, the rear seat is split in two allowing each side can be folded and then swing up into a position where they block the rear quarter windows. Personally, I don’t like this arrangement.

I don’t spend a lot of time in Hondas these days so stop me if you already familiar with the two level dash the Freed mounts. It is an odd looking piece at first, but it fits in well with the car’s overall styling. The top of the dash incorporates the instrument bezel and a place for the car’s navigation system while beneath its rounded leading edge a second almost flat shelf comes out and provides space for the climate controls and the gear shift. It is, I think, a little odd but quite refreshing given that the alternative would have simply been a flat panel with a glove box.

hondaFreedhybrid dash

Although I had the opportunity to ride in the Freed on the expressway, where it seemed to do just fine, I did not get to take the wheel until we were safe at home in Kyoto and then my trips were mostly confined to the local area. Around town it was a competent little car that handled the city streets well and accelerated without any kind of drama whenever I hit the gas. All in all, not bad.

But not all of the hybrid systems were so seamless. In order to save gas, at lengthy stoplights the engine would shut itself off if I held my foot on the brake too long and, of course, when the engine turned off so did the air conditioning. That’s a problem on a hot summer day so I began to use the hand brake to hold my position in order to keep the engine running and the air conditioning pumping. Not horrible, but annoying. The other “eco” effect I noticed was how the car acted while coasting. It seemed to me that whenever I took my foot off the gas they car would begin to slow more rapidly than a normal, non-hybrid car might and it the overall effect was that the car seemed as though it was especially heavy for some reason. That said, the effect was predictable and never caused any issues while driving even if I never quite acclimated to it entirely.

I generally liked the Freed well enough but I think there are a lot of other cars on the market I would probably go to before I actually purchased one. With four adults and three children in the cabin, the little car was quite cramped and with all the seats in action there was virtually no space for any kind of luggage. Even without the grandparents, the car was still crowded with my wife and me up front, two kids in the middle and another in the third row. To facilitate a trip to the grocery store we would have to fold up one of the rearmost seats, and I really hate the way they fold up where they block a window and create a possible problem should they somehow, say in the event of a side impact, come loose and fall onto any body parts that might end up in that space in an accident.


I like the idea of a smaller mini-van, but I think we need to acknowledge that larger families need larger size vehicles. In my in-law’s case, the Freed makes a great deal of sense as it offers good economy in a small, easy to drive package while having the extra seats for those times my wife and kids decide to head home for the summer. For daily use, however, about the smallest I would be willing to buy for my own family is another van we can’t get here in the States, the new Mazda MPV.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to start this part of the article by stating right up front that I owned a 2002 JDM Mazda MPV with the 2.3 liter 4 cylinder for the entire three years we lived in Okinawa. Prior to purchasing it, my wife and I spent some time in the then brand new 2006 MPV and I was quite taken by it. It was that experience that sent me to my local Mazda dealer to seek out a used version and it was my inner cheapskate that caused me to end up purchasing a slightly used 2002 for a fraction of the price the redesign was fetching. Regardless of the fact that the design was already “day old bread,” I loved that van and sold it to family when I left just so I could see it when we go home.

2002 mpv

It’s funny how the mind works, because when I was in Japan my MPV seemed like a reasonably large, reasonably well powered vehicle. Back in the United States, however, I soon saw just how small the MPV actually is when compared to other vans and the especially so when compared to the even more giant SUVs that prowl this side of the Pacific. Even so, the earlier generation of MPVs did well in the United States, but I will note that to help satiate the American’s desire for more of everything the smaller 4 cylinder was not available here and only V6 MPVs were sold on our shores.


The 2006 MPV I drove, and yes I know that Mazda still sold MPVs in the USA in 2006 and so I want to stress here that the US got the old version while the Japanese stopped selling that design domestically in 2005, was a handsome, long nosed, low profile vehicle that appeared more like a tall station wagon than a typical mini-van. They came in two flavors, both 2.3 liter four cylinders, one turbo charged, the other not and had any number of features that were typical at the time but, as one commenter who lives in Hong Kong rather astutely pointed out when I mentioned the JDM MPV in some remarks a week or two ago, lack a lot of the more modern electronic and interconnectivity features found in many of the newest vans. Our Canadian enthusiasts, who waxed rhapsodic about the previous model’s four wheel drive capability, will be thrilled to know that the current redesign also features both front and four wheel drive versions.

As those of you who have them in your cars probably know, the Mazda 2.3 liter is a smooth running little engine that does pretty well on the road. The extra weight of the MPV and a load full of passengers does affect the engine, however, and there are times when I found myself working the engine harder than I would normally like. In general, it was serviceable on the highway but I would have enjoyed trying the turbo. Around town, as with virtually all Japanese minivans, the engine was more than sufficient.


Inside, the MPV was a good combination of “get the job done” practicality and pure class. I liked that the gear selector was not on the dash next to the wheel but was located below it on a small protruding console on the lower part of the dash. Above that, the climate controls were prominent and intuitive and, topping the center stack and tucked neatly between a pair of vents, was the navigation/audio screen. In front of the driver, in a blatant display of Mazda’s Zoom-Zoom philosophy, back lit analog gauges included a large, easy to read tachometer alongside a matching speedometer. There are several seating options available and they run from the totally practical cloth covered three row bench to the highest-end full leather recliners you can get. There is no doubt in my mind that the MPV’s primary mission is to move people in comfort and style and that utility, which is still present thanks to a fold-flat rear seat and the well in the floor that swallowing that seat necessitates, comes in a close second.

mpv seats

On the road, the current MPV is not as easy to drive as many of the larger, taller JDM vans currently on the market. Because it is has a longer nose, the driver sits well behind the front wheels and the overall driving dynamic is quite car-like. Also, thanks to a lower greenhouse, the windows too are slightly smaller than the enormous ones available on more typical high-end JDM people movers like the Elgrand and the Alphard and that makes it slightly more difficult to see out of. Handling and the ride is good and the driving experience is reminiscent of a large, full size luxury car. I like it.

The MPV is all about compromise and, unlike many compromises I have been forced to make during my life, the trade-offs made in its design do not end up giving away all the good in favor of all the bad. The design offers seven seats and sliding doors with the handling dynamics of a large car. It gives up overall height, which is bad because it limits the driver’s view but also good because it eliminates the sail area that sends most mini-vans skittering across the freeway on gusty days. It sits the driver further back in the cabin than most vans, which I think makes it more difficult to drive in tight situations but gives an added sense of comfort and control. I think the MPV would do wonderfully on the American market and I would purchase one in a heartbeat.

It’s a shame we don’t get either of these wonderful people movers stateside. They both strike a perfect balance by being big on the inside and small on the outside and, in doing so, are exactly what a mini-van is supposed to be. To wrap up, both of these mighty minis are decent vehicles that would probably draw people into showrooms in the United States, but only one, the Mazda MPV, would make my short list of mini-vans. If only they were sold here. If only…


Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Japanese Size Queens: Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear & Toyota Hi-Ace Vans Tue, 13 Aug 2013 13:00:22 +0000 Mitsubishi_Delica_Spacegear_L400_top

There are several vans that will not be among the finalists to replace the Kreutzer family’s ailing Ford Freestar and among them are the size and utility queens of the Japanese Domestic Market, the Toyota HI-Ace and the Mitsubishi Delica. Of course you already know that neither of these vans are sold here in the Land of the Free, so my attempt at including them in an article about my current search may seem a bit facetious but, the truth is, I know these vans well and they come up enough in the comments that I thought they might be worth discussing in more detail. Since I have become the resident “van guy” for the time being, let’s avail ourselves of the opportunity, shall we?

Believe it or not, there is a huge difference between Kansai and Kansas. The roads in Japan are usually narrow and impossibly crowded. In most neighborhoods there are no sidewalks and buildings come right out to the edge of the street. Rows of bicycles and scooters are lined up in front of most stores, their back wheels often protruding out into the roadway, and their presence blocks pedestrians who must then compete for space with the cars in the street. Some streets are one way but have exceptions for anything on two or three wheels, so you may even find yourself avoiding oncoming scooters who are themselves maneuvering to avoid all the aforementioned obstacles as well. At night, add in flashing lights and the scene becomes a sort of twisted, impossible game where the possibility of an accident increases a million fold.


Like all manner of creatures, the form of Japanese vans has evolved – or for those of you who live in the deep South, has been created by God – to perform well in the world in which they exist. They tend to be tall and narrow, generally have good all around visibility and usually have any number of mirrors or back-up cameras to help them settle into the small spaces in which they must park. Fuel efficiency is a must and some are diesels, but with increasing regulations forbidding oil burners in many major urban areas most vehicles these days tend to have smallish gasoline engines. Since speeds are usually low, large engines are generally not needed anyhow.


Wikipedia tells me that the Mitsubishi Delica hit the market way back in 1968 as a light cab-over pickup truck. It evolved into a van that stayed in production with only minor changes until 1979 when it got a its first redesign. Another redesign came in 1986 with the introduction of the “Starwagon” and yet another came in 1994 when Mitusbishi introduced the larger “Space Gear.” In 2007, Mitsubishi introduced the 5th Generation Delica, the D-5. Although the current D-5 is a good looking van with its square, upright lines, the real high points in Delcia history ar the “Starwagon” and the “Space Gear” both of which look like lunar rovers when outfitted with the available four wheel drive and all the various nerf bars and ladders available. They are unique, funky and flamboyant. They are, however, the Rolling Stones of minivans; if you are in the right mood they rock the house but are otherwise overshadowed by the sheer excellence of their contemporaries.


I drove a late ‘90s fourth generation “Space Gear” to and from work for two years when I lived in Osaka in ‘04 and ‘05. Because most of the people I worked with lived some distance from our job, my employer graciously provided us with a shuttle to and from work that we paid for ourselves through ticket purchases. Naturally, yours truly quickly became the designated driver and I got a lot of seat time behind the wheel. Our usual route involved a combination of major thoroughfares, small side streets, alleyways and even a dozen miles of high speed elevated expressway that soared high above the clogged city streets below so I had the opportunity to see it at its best, and worst, in every environment.

There is a lot of variety in the Delica line and I should note here that our van was not one of the heavily optioned four wheel drive models that naturally come to mind when someone outside of Japan thinks of the Delica. It was instead a simple, basic passenger van, the kind of van that plies its trade without fanfare all across the world everyday. It was cheap, rubbery and had a cloth interior that featured a second row bench with a collapsible jump seat on the end to allow access to the rather cramped third row at the back.

delic interior

Even without the four wheel drive option, our Delica was a tall, ponderous beast. On the plus side, the driver’s seat sat me up high and lots of windows ensured I had good all around visibility. It was most at home at low speeds on surface streets and least at home on the expressway where, quite frankly, it struggled. At higher speeds, the van could be downright frightening and even the slightest cross wind caused it to heave around like a ship on the ocean. Fully loaded with 8 adults in the cabin and beating into a headwind the sound of the wind tearing by the windows made you feel like the vehicle was going to fly apart at any moment and I often noted the concerned looks on the faces of my colleagues.

Despite its performance flaws, I can’t really pan the Space Gear. When looking back on an older vehicle a good reviewer needs to consider a number of things, the state of the art at the time and the actual purpose for which a vehicle was intended. The Space Gear is, I think, a product of its time and place and in that light it was probably an OK ride. In fact, I briefly toyed with the idea of finding a four wheel drive version when it looked like I might be assigned to Central Asia. Ultimately, however, I ended up with a Stateside assignment and my flirtation with the Space Gear ended there but I still wonder what my experience would have been like with the fully optioned four wheel drive Delica in a land with no expressways. I suspect that it may have been good. In a “right tool for the job” sort of way, I think I would have really enjoyed it.

If it were sold today in the United States I think the Space Gear’s good looking design and four wheel drive system would still attract a lot of interest. However, without an improved powerplant and chassis I think the Space Gear would be a dismal failure. Knowing what I know, I’d probably even pass on a used one unless someone could convince me that its shortcomings could be sorted out with a few aftermarket additions. If that were the case, the possibilities are titillating…


The Toyota HI-Ace is another child of the sixties. Introduced in 1967 it has evolved steadily over the years into any number of job specific forms and includes cargo vans, ordinary and stretched passenger vans for tour and airport shuttles use, and even fairly luxurious family offerings like the Granvia which was sold in both Asia and Europe. The current boxy looking Hi-Ace is the 5th generation and I think it looks especially good for a vehicle that places sheer utility ahead of style and comfort.

The van I regularly drove was a general utility vehicle used on my job to run errands and to carry cargo, mail or supplies as needed. Like the Delica, the Hi-Ace was good around town and gives a clear, 360 degree view from the driver’s seat and enough mirrors to let you know your exact position on the road at any given moment. As is normal for my employer, ours was the least optioned model available and it was filled with hard plastics and rubberized mats. Given the vehicle’s primary role, however, these things are really a given and I can’t find fault in it just because it was built to a specific purpose.


Opening the driver’s door and slipping into the seat atop the right front wheel was always odd experience for me. I drove a cab over Isuzu delivery truck for several months when I was in college and the Hi-Ace took be right back to those days except this time I was more or less seated at the same height as most other traffic instead of above it. With the controls so far forward, the current Hi-Ace is long and because you are ahead of the front wheels you need to watch yourself on turns, going a little further into the intersection before swinging the wheel sharply towards your new direction. That, in combination with the bouncing that naturally comes from being out at the end of the vehicle, always gave me that same odd sense of both joy and fear that I always get from a ride on the carnival.

On the highway the Hi-Ace was generally well mannered and while not a power machine by any stretch of the imagination did not seem to struggle to keep up with traffic. Like the Delica, the Hi-Ace’s high profile made it sensitive to gusts and it would move around on you, but it never felt as tippy the Mitsubishi. One peculiar trait I noticed was the tendency for the van to buck over freeway joints and expansion joints and at certain speeds the van would just settle back onto is suspension before hitting the next joint would send it skyward again. I suspect this is part and parcel with sitting out ahead of the wheels and it was more of an odd characteristic than it was a real annoyance.


Between the two vans, I think the Hi-Ace would be more at home on American streets but not as a family van or intercity transport. They would do well, I think, as cargo vans where their competition would be either much larger cargo vans that use more fuel or the much smaller Transit Connect. Although the roads in Kansas and Kansai are indeed half a world apart, the economy and utility that JDM market vans offer in an urban environment is so finely attuned that they could be a great success here and I am sure that many people would appreciate their addition to the market. I may not buy one, but I am sure there are those people who would jump at the chance.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Initial D Manga Ceases Publication With “Final Stage” Tue, 06 Aug 2013 11:30:17 +0000 D

Kodansha has released the final installment of the popular action comic Initial D in its August 6th edition of “Young Magazine” which hit store shelves at the end of July. For those of us in the United States who have followed Takumi Fujiwara’s story through the anime series via Netflix or Hulu, it matters little as we have not seen any new material in some time, but for readers of the comic, this marks the end of an epic 18 year run. Whether or not you are a fan, this is a series that has had a huge impact on car culture all over the world and so its passing is worthy of note.

If you have somehow managed to remain blissfully unaware of the world of Japanese comics, known as manga, some explanation is probably required. The first thing you need to know is that, unlike American comic books which are sold as individual books usually a just few dozen pages long, Japanese manga are huge blocks of recycled paper that appear to have more in common than a telephone book than they do a comic book. The pages are generally made of a grey newsprint that feels coarse under your fingers and the art, most of which is done in simple black and white, is easily smudged. Each publication has dozens of competing titles running in any given issue and only the most popular manage to work their way onto the cover or even into the foremost pages where they might, on occasion, be rewarded with a third color, red. Like the old fashioned American pulp fiction magazines of the 1930s and 40s, manga are mass marketed items that are cheap, quick to read and easily disposed of.


The Japanese marketplace is jam packed with manga and virtually every convenience store, train station kiosk and book seller has dozens of fresh titles on display each week. Their titles are almost always printed in bold fonts and garish colors to attract the eye and their covers are filled with risqué images intended to tempt young men into laying down their hard earned Yen. Although it is a little slicker than some of the competition, Kodansha’s “Young Magazine” is no different than the norm, really, perhaps a little thinner than most but offering a few more full color pages up front, pages on slick paper that usually feature photos of young “idols” with vulnerable expressions wearing skimpy swimsuits and showing surprising amounts of cleavage. Following these pages, in the back of the book, stories about sports, gangsters or the romantic entanglements of teens give the readers something only a touch more cerebral when they have exhausted the possibilities of those earlier pages. As I am not really a fan of Japanese manga anymore, and have never been a regular reader of this particular comic anyhow, it is hard for me to judge the quality or popularity of any of the series currently on offer; most seem unremarkable, but it is from these humble origins that Initial D arose, just one story in an already saturated marketplace.

That the series became a runaway hit and eventually an international phenomenon says something about the attention to detail involved in its creation. I say “creation” because unlike American comics, Japanese manga is not the sole work of one artist, but is instead the product of many combined talents. There is always the creator, the one who sits down and conceives the idea, determines the story line, exerts artistic control and manages the effort, but behind him or her are the artists, each a specialized part of the team, draftsmen to draw the buildings in the background, technical artists to ensure the accurate representation of the various vehicles in play, character artists to bring life to the people, letterers, inkers, shaders and probably dozens of other artists I have no idea about. The success or failure of the product ultimately depends upon each of these people, and it is safe to say that the artists involved with Initial D are all top notch.


To those of us who are auto enthusiasts, what makes Initial D special is the fact that the technical artists have got the cars right. We can look at a single panel and tell exactly the kinds of cars that are pitted against one another as they battle their way up or down a mountain road. Our eyes are drawn to the details and the way the cars are depicted in Initial D is usually spot-on as well, the suspension on one wheel squatting as the car’s weight shifts in a hard turn or the sweep of a tachometer frozen in time at the edge of a panel as we look over the driver’s shoulder and out through the windshield at the road rushing towards us. But Initial D is deeper than just that, it features characters that are more-or-less believable, guys who want to be heroes but who struggle with their own limitations, young men who suffer life’s trials both on and off the road. Moreover, the situations depicted are familiar to many of the kids who actually read the book, the reality of dead end jobs, life with drunken, abusive fathers, a girlfriend who has an “arrangement” with an older guy on the side, and all of the generally stupid, reckless things that guys will do in the pursuit of excitement. It is an unflinching look into a working class Japanese world that despite its harshness remains filled with an odd, forlorn sort of glory; something that few of us in the West ever get the chance to see.

Now, it has ended. To be certain there are plans for another movie and still another anime series to bring everything to a close, but the ending of the manga means the end of original creative work taking place with the characters. Looking back, I can see that Initial D was a product of its time. That special time in the mid 1990s when the great Japanese cars of the late 80s/early 90s were just beginning to outlive their usefulness to their original owners and were hitting the used market in ever increasing numbers. A time when the youth of Japan were really beginning to absorb the fact that no matter how well educated or hardworking they were that, thanks to the economic crash at the beginning of the decade, they would likely never be as successful or as wealthy as their parents. It spoke to those kids, drove countless numbers of them into the car hobby and gave them hope. Although it continues to draw new fans, I wonder if the reason that Initial D is ending has anything to do with the fact that so many of us who were young when it made its debut have now outgrown it. Still, it will always be a part of our youth and it’s fitting, I think, that it ends in the 8/6 edition. Its been a hell of a ride.


Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Nissan Gakuen: My Visit To Nissan’s Technical College Tue, 23 Jul 2013 19:09:12 +0000 Z

A lifetime of World War 2 movies and an 11 year marriage has taught me one thing about the Japanese; they never do anything half way. Whether it is diving a Zero into an American ship or cutting yours truly down to size, if it is a job worth doing it is worth being fanatical about. The attention to detail the Japanese put into every tiny thing they do is awe-inspiring and so it makes sense that when a Japanese car company spends billions of yen to design and produce a vehicle, they back that up with a mechanics’ training program so thorough that an average graduate can completely tear down and rebuild one of their cars. And isn’t it convenient that one of Nissan’s main training centers was located just a kilometer from where I used to live?

The thing about living in a foreign country and being functionally illiterate in the language is that you can drive by a place a thousand times and never know what goes on there. So it was with a large complex of buildings located close my local train station in Uji Japan just south of the city of Kyoto. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this particular set of buildings was actually a Nissan factory, and then imagine my disappointment when I found out that it had just been closed down and all the workers transferred elsewhere. There was, however, in the corner of this sprawling factory one bright spot of continuing activity, and I discovered it when one of my students, a Mr. Yoshida, revealed to me that it was the Nissan Technical College and that he, incidentally, was one of the instructors. Would I like to come to their school festival?

Welcome to Nissan Gakkeun

Festivals in Japan usually mean high temperatures, green tea, girls in summer kimonos, surly greasy headed gangster wannabes and a busload full of riot cops parked discretely a block or two away “just-in-case.” They also mean food, games, karaoke contests and a lot of fun and in that way The Kyoto Nissan Vehicle College’s, called “Nissan Gakkuen” in Japanese festival met all my expectations. When I arrived at the factory gate at the appointed time, I was met by Mr. Yoshida who escorted me inside the factory and treated me as though I was a VIP.

The school was already a hive of activity. In one space two groups of advanced students were working feverishly over a matching set of cars in a race to see which group could tear down the top end.replace the head gaskets and completely reassemble their car first. Close by, other groups of students worked furiously with diagnostic equipment as they raced to troubleshoot a problem on two other matching cars. In a paint booth at the edge of the faciltiy, several students worked to prep and paint body parts and in still another space, students were interacting with their instructors who posed as customers asking about the various features top of the line Cima in case a mechanic was ever called upon to interact with a customer in a salesperson’s absence.


There was also food, fun and fellowship. The school was obviously a pleasant place to be and the space itself was fastidiously clean, smelling of cleaning solvents and fresh paint. Various rooms branching off of the main room held a bevy of historic Nissans, each there to ensure that the mechanics who graduated from the school could work on any Nissan product no matter how old. Teachers moved around the school in immaculately clean and pressed coveralls worn atop their white shirts and ties, the seriousness of their endeavors plain on their face and their pride over their students’ obvious abilities shining in their eyes.


To be sure, the young men and women attending Nissan Gakuen are not the same kind of people I found in my own high school auto shop class. Like most colleges in Japan, entry into the school is based on competitive testing and spots in the classes are highly subscribed. The people who graduate from these courses after four full years of study will be sent to main-line Nissan dealerships all around the country and will be well regarded experts in their field. They are not shade tree mechanics, but highly trained technicians who, like their samurai ancestors, will make whatever sacrifices need to be made to assure their company’s honor is upheld.

My brief visit to Nissan Gakuen left me deeply impressed with the company’s commitment to quality service. I have only ever owned a single Nissan product, the 200SX Turbo I have recalled so fondly on these pages previously, and I found it to be a highly engineered little machine that almost required special training to work on. I know now that if I had owned the car while I was in Japan, the graduates of Nissan Gakuen would have been up to the task. Should you ever get the chance to visit a Japanese technical school, my advice is, “do it.”


Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Two Guys, One Cup: Behind The Wheel Of Suzuki’s Littlest Sportscar Mon, 15 Jul 2013 17:56:30 +0000 Suzuki_Cappuccino_91-97_30

The little red car sat squat and low on the street looking for all the world like the product of an unlikely tryst between a Dodge Viper and a child’s pedal car. It was a classic two seat sports car, with short rear deck, small passenger compartment and “long” hood that stretched away from the driver just far enough to cover the engine beneath it. The proportions were right, but the actual numbers were ludicrous: 81 inch wheel base, 54 inches wide, a curb weight just a touch under 1600 pounds and 660 CC engine with a maximum horsepower rating of just 63 horsepower. This was going to be an experience, I knew, but first I had to figure out how I was going to fit behind the wheel.

Many of us in the Western Hemisphere live in awe of the Japanese Kei car. A special category of micro-car, the Kei is limited in overall size and engine displacement by law. People who buy Keis benefit from a reduced vehicle tax and are also exempt from appearing at the local police station to prove they have a place to park their car before they are allowed to register it with the DMV. Kei cars come in all sorts of configurations but are for the most part utilitarian cars that strive to be small on the outside but as large as possible on the inside. Like the vaunted Mitsubishi Zero fighters of the second world war, Kei cars trade weight for performance and many of them are quite spry on the road, but lack the solidity of other small cars.


In the early 1990s three Japanese companies, Suzuki, Honda and Mazda under their Kei car specific Autozam brand, introduced competing sports cars. All three are worthy of mention in any article about small sports cars, with the Autozam AZ-1 and the Honda Beat being mid-engined rear wheel drive machines while the Cappuccino is a front/mid engined car also with rear wheel drive, and, since they all were built to meet the same legal standards all have virtually the same weight and horsepower numbers. Driving dynamics of the AZ-1 and the Beat, unfortunately remain a mystery to me because, unlike the Cappuccino I didn’t happen to have a student who owned one.


Taka was a cool dude. Tall and thin, but not especially handsome, he had the demeanor of a Japanese rock star. At 23 years old, he melted all the high school girls’ hearts whenever he slipped into the school and poured his lanky frame into the seats of our waiting room. It would have been easy for him to effect a snide, superior attitude but since his day job was running a backhoe for the Japan Rail company he was surprisingly down to earth. The little red sports car he drove fit him perfectly in size and attitude, at once glamorous and attention getting while at the same time firmly grounded in the real world and with humble underpinnings.


The Cappuccino was a tinny little thing of Lilliputian proportions and I realized as I approached the driver’s side that I was going to have to seriously contort myself if I was going to get my modest 6’1” 240 pound all American beef fed frame behind the wheel. My first attempt at a normal entry failed miserably. Next I tried stepping into the car with both feet, something that was only possible because of the car’s open top, and sliding down the seat back; no dice. Finally I pivoted my hind-end out the open door, put my hands on the black top and crab walked my way into the saddle.

My unconventional entrance worked, but now I was stuck with the steering wheel inches in front of me and the foot well so filled with my legs that I could only find the pedals by sense of touch. They were there, impossibly tiny and just millimeters from one another. Taka guided me. “Off to the left of the clutch is a dead pedal to rest your foot on.” He told me. It made all the difference and although I still felt pinched, the unseen world beneath made at least some semblance of sense.

When the door closed I found myself fully entrapped in the little car. Its high door sills precluded resting my arm on the edge of the window and the tiny console on my left just large enough for my elbow. The shifter was there, striking me in the middle of my fore-arm rather than fitting my hand, but as Taka climbed in next to me I turned the key, found the gear and hit the gas.

We headed out down the narrow, one way thoroughfare in front of my school to the main road that ran alongside the Uji river. It was a terrible road to drive, a narrow strip of pavement that ran precariously atop a levy intended hold back the river should it approach flood stage. The few guard rails that the Japanese government had decided to place along it at odd intervals always struck me as being much too close and I had avoided this road for many months as my Supra felt far too wide for it. It was, however, one of the few roads in town that didn’t have a stoplight every fifty feet and so it was a good place to air out a car – if you had the guts.


The narrow road seemed surprisingly wide from the cockpit of the Cappuccino. The little car wound out in first gear, and hissed energetically through its pop-off valve as I pushed in the clutch for the shift to second. There was another rush of acceleration and another gratifying hiss and the car scooted under my butt as I wound up the revs high enough for the turbo to have a real effect. The wind blew across the hood, over the windscreen and tousled my hair and the little car came into its own as I slung it into the curves that followed the river’s every bend. Despite the cramped quarters, the little car felt natural under me, pulling me out of the tiny cockpit and my focusing my attention onto the road ahead. Like a motorcycle I had the sensation of flying and the little car responded to my every input with razor sharp handling. The road rushed forward to meet us and I entered the zone where my driving inputs were purely mechanical, each happening a moment after my mind had already swept past that place on the road.

Taka’s hand on my arm brought me back to the real world and I suddenly realized I was flogging his pride and joy a little harder than I probably should be. We hit the turnaround and I brought the car back a little less energetically than I had taken it out. Back at the school we grinned stupidly at one another and I began the task of extricating myself from the seat I had taken so much time to clamber into. What a ride.

With my feet once again on terra firma, the car resumed its comically small proportions and the normal world reasserted itself. My initial thoughts about the car were, I decided, right. The Cappuccino is one part supercar and one part toy and all kinds of fun. Safety issues aside, it is a shame we don’t get more little cars like this in the states. Everyone wants to be a hero, and this is a car that could make a hero out of everyman. That’s O-kei with me.


Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Honda Will Be Late To The Chinese Hybrid Revolution Fri, 14 Jun 2013 14:44:50 +0000  

Everybody was betting big on electric cars in China. Everybody thought China will be the world’s biggest market for EVs. It was a bluff. At the Shanghai Auto Show in April, the smart money suddenly was on hybrids. Insiders expect that the Chinese government will extend bigger subsidies to buyers of hybrid cars, after the big electric car revolution in China turned out to be a bust. This is good for Japanese carmakers – for some at least.

Honda will delay Chinese production of hybrids for up to three years while it develops local sources for cheaper components, Affordability is critical,” a Honda spokeswoman told Reuters

The wire thinks the sudden retrenchment is because “Toyota Motor Corp said last month it was trying to source key hybrid components in China to make hybrids more affordable. Toyota said it was planning a joint venture in China with a local supplier to produce batteries for gas-electric hybrid cars.”

Reuters confirms again that “Toyota – and other automakers in China, both indigenous Chinese and foreign – gear up to try to kick-start sales of “conventional” hybrid cars in China in anticipation of policy changes aimed at boosting sales of hybrid vehicles.”

Under the old policy, China offers generous subsidies for EVs and plug-ins, but finds few takers. A change of mind towards hybrids is widely expected. Says Reuters:

“A growing number of industry insiders and experts believe Beijing will boost purchase subsidies significantly for conventional hybrids as early as this year.”

The Chinese car market tilts heavily towards cars that don’t use much gas (or “oil,” as the Chinese like to say,) but the Chinese also like a deal. Incentives on hybrids would blow that segment wide open. However, the government won’t incentivize imports from Japan, hence the race for local sources.

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Inside The Industry: An Unsung Hero Recalls How A Worldwide Crisis Was Averted Tue, 28 May 2013 15:46:29 +0000


After the March 11 monster earthquake and tsunami wiped out large parts of Japan, headlines focused on the near-meltdown of Fukushima. Recently, I learned that there was a strong likelihood of a worldwide economic meltdown, caused by a microchip factory 80 miles south of Fukushima. Here is the story of how the crisis was contained.

Renesas - EE Times 2

Inside the cleanroom on March 11

“I was already retired when the earthquake came,” remembers  a Toyota official who requested that his name is not published.  He is a seasoned production expert, one of the few alive who received personal training from Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota production system. “I thought, let others handle the problem, but I was wrong.” He was recalled and asked to spearhead the Toyota part of the reconstruction effort.

When he received the call, Toyota’s Japanese production system itself was pretty much unharmed, however, there were 659 cases of suppliers in serious trouble. The most serious trouble was at a chipmaker named Renesas. Born from a merger of the semiconductor arms of NEC, Hitachi and Mitsubishi, Renesas supplied some 20 percent of the world’s automotive microcontroller market. About 70 percent of the production was sold to Japanese automakers, the remaining 30 percent went to US and European car companies.  Two weeks after the catastrophe, it was estimated that Renesas’ Naka plant, would not be operational until July.

Renesas - EE Times 1

Renesas office on March 11

That estimate was overly optimistic, I hear now.

“On April 1, we were told that basic repairs would take two and a half months,” the unnamed official remembers. “Start of mass production was scheduled for September. Which meant that first product to customer would have been shipped in January.“ 

While the eyes of the world were on the smoldering ruins of Fukushima, the damaged chip plant was about to trigger a worldwide disaster.  Renesas is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of flashable microcontrollers, the little brains that are inside of more products than we imagine. The chips could not be easily replaced, moving their production elsewhere would have taken nearly a year.  “Carmakers, PC-makers, cellphone makers, appliance makers, all were affected,” remembers the reactivated production veteran. “We were facing a worldwide economic crisis.”

Renesas asked for help, and its main customers sent help. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Canon and many more sent their best people to Hitachinaka, a two hour drive north of Tokyo.  What they saw was disheartening.


Three days later, the power lines were back in place

“The building was more or less OK,” remembers the production expert. The insides of the cleanrooms were a jumble of equipment that had been thrown around by giant hands. Pipes  for concentrated acid were leaking, high voltage lines were even more dangerous. “And every two hours, there were aftershocks.”

Two and a half months of repair time sounded optimistic, but our man told an assembly of aghast Renesas engineers:  “I won’t listen how long it will take, we’ll finish the initial repair in 10 days.”


Complex machinery had to be repaired and aligned

Thousands of people, brought in from all of Japan, went to work, 24 hours a day. Three days later, the power lines were back in place, it would have been earlier “if the aftershocks would not have made us to do our work twice.” 150 specialty chemical pumps were disconnected, sent to their makers, and were back, rebuilt and as good as new, ten days after.


The before picture (left) was taken March 18; the after picture was taken April 11.

1,700 machines and pieces of equipment had to be repaired, reinstalled, aligned.  “Many were imported machines, and the responsible technicians had returned back to their country,” remembers the man that tells the story. With the help of Japan’s formerly formidable Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI), missing engineers were rounded up.  A large room was converted into a crisis center, where the team leaders assembled twice a day. The rules were simple: If something works, don’t report it. If there is trouble, report it and ask for ideas.

The basic repairs were done within ten days. End of April, the machines were running. “All were perplexed,” remembers the unsung hero, “full production was established in August, six months earlier than originally estimated.”


The before picture (left) was taken March 18; the after picture was taken April 11.

The Renesas recovery saved  many billions of dollars, and prevented a crisis that would have impacted many industries. Remembers the anonymous retiree, who says he was just one of nearly 100,000 people worldwide who helped bring Renesas back on-line:

“I wish they would have given us just 10 percent of the savings as a fee. Nobody gave us anything, but anyway, we did what we needed to do.”

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Snow Drifting Fri, 24 May 2013 17:31:32 +0000 Photo courtesy of

The black Nissan 200SX Turbo was only a few years old but it had been solidly thrashed over the years. It had obviously been an expensive, well optioned little car when it was new, but the people into which its well being had been entrusted had obviously not respected that fact. Now it slumped on its sagging suspension, any number of small dents defacing its once gracefully straight bodylines and its once beautiful aluminum wheels, now torn by contact innumerable curbs, were shod with cheap, mismatched tires. This car was supposed to be fast?

The little Nissan’s owner was almost as scruffy as the car. Tall with long flowing hair that fell down over his collar and got in his eyes, Kazu, a Japanese exchange student from the far Northern Island of Hokkaido, looked like a real life anime hero. The son of an Olympic ski jumping champion, Kazu was a handsome guy and women swooned whenever he appeared. He seemed to care little for his natural good looks, however, and dressed in shabby, worn clothes that stunk from the many cheap cigarettes he liked to smoke. Like so many young Japanese men I have met, he was congenial and since we had a common interest in cars we had things to talk about whenever our girlfriends decided we should do things together, but there was no genuine friendship between us.

Over the few weeks we had known one another, Kazu had educated me about the Japanese car scene. He had any number of Japanese car magazines and because I couldn’t read the language he often had to explain the content of the various articles. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the future when it is staring you in the face and, truth be told, I was a little incredulous at some of the things written in those magazines. Four or five hundred horsepower out of a four cylinder seemed extreme to me, even if it was turbo charged and, what’s more, much of this power was coming through adjustments made on a computer! How could that be? real power required V8 engines, lumpy camshafts and big carbs. I was dubious.

One of the things Kazu was into was called “Dorifuto” and many of the magazines showed pictures of small Japanese cars sliding violently through corners on wet or icy pavement. Being from Hokkaido, an island that spends much if its time under a great deal of snow, Kazu knew all about this and was eager to demonstrate his skills. So, on one rare Seattle snow day, he invited me along for a ride and we headed out into the hills in search of slippery roads.

Highway 2 led us out of Everett and up into the hills where the previous day’s snowfall still lingered on the back roads in the shadows of the tall trees. Despite the recent snowfall, warming weather was having its effect and much of what had only hours before been dangerous compact snow and ice had turned to sloppy slush. Kazu smiled when he saw it though and we charged into the first corner way too hot.

Photo courtesy of

In one swift, smooth motion, Kazu whipped the wheel and with a quick heel to toe movement of his feet pitched the Nissan into the curve. The back end slipped out and the nose of the car pivoted towards the inside ditch. Kazu mashed the gas, found the groove and held the car there on the edge of control as we slipped through the corner. Upon our exit, he straightened the car and raced towards the next curve here he completed the process in the opposite direction. The curves came faster and Kazu continued to navigate them with remarkable skill, the car always on edge but never out of control in his capable hands. The overall feeling from the passenger seat was not one of jerky, violent motion like I had imagined when I had first seen the photos in Kazu’s magazines but was instead smooth, the car pivoting and slipping in a gentle rhythm controlled by the constant steering and pedal inputs the of driver. I was surprised.

The next corner was a blind left hand sweeper cut into a steep hillside, the inside of the curve up against the mountain and the outside of the corner falling steeply away into a deep, brush filled ditch. As we approached, Kazu made his usual motions and the car pivoted again. We dove headlong into the corner, the little Nissan stretched sideways across both lanes as it slid sublimely into the curve.

The car in the opposite lane came as a total surprise. Kazu reacted instantly, grabbed the emergency brake and whipped the wheel. The car responded to the inputs and the front end pivoted back onto the right side of the road a moment before impact and the oncoming car passed by us on the left with just inches to spare. Still sliding, Kazu released the e-brake, whipped the wheel the other direction and punched the gas. The car pivoted back into the corner and resumed its full slide. The whole process took only an instant and the effect was like opening and then closing a door around the other car.

The road straightened and Kazu got back on the gas and set us up for the next corner, but after a couple of more slides it was clear the fun had gone out of the moment. Caution returned and he slowed the car’s speed. At the first turn off, we headed back down towards the valley below and down out of the snow. Later, as usual, we would speak little about the ride but from that point on, whenever I had the opportunity to look at Kazu’s strange magazines, I had a new appreciation for this strange new world I saw reflected in those pictures. It looked like fun. Maybe one day, I thought, car guys in America would do something similar. Maybe one day…

Photo by Thomas Kreutzer

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Close Encounters of the Japanese Kind Wed, 22 May 2013 14:10:53 +0000 GSXR1100

At just 10:30 AM the sun was already near its full zenith and it beat down upon the city of Osaka with an intense, angry glare. Waves of heat shimmered up from the pavement and superheated the air which blew around in tepid, weak breezes that offered little respite. Perhaps later, the column of heat created by the great city’s many square miles of pavement would spark a sudden thunderstorm as it rose high into the stratosphere and the resultant rain would bring relief as it cascaded down and turned the streets into raging torrents. For now, however, there was only the glare of the sun, the stifling heat and, for me, the thought that riding an 1100 cc air cooled sport bike in a full set of leathers was a choice I should have avoided making.

The morning had begun as all summer mornings do in Japan, with the incessant shrieking of cicadas and the knowledge that sweltering heat and insufferable humidity were to follow. Regardless, my bike had sat unused for far too many days and I knew that if I failed to get the it out on the road I would regret my inaction later. To mitigate that future guilt, I decided I would make the trip across town to get a hot dog at Costco. My silly, trumped up excuse for action firmly fixed in my mind, I rolled my mighty GSXR from its hiding place under the stairwell of our apartment house, slipped into my familiar riding gear and set out.

It was still early enough that traffic was light and despite the big bike’s size, I weaved through traffic with relative ease, splitting lanes as needed but never really putting bike‘s full power to the ground. When it had been built back in 1991, my GSXR was as close to a street-going race bike as you could get. Regardless of that fact, its first owner had modified it to be even faster, adding larger carbs and a full stainless steel race exhaust that raised the bike’s horsepower well into the triple digits. It was loud, temperamental and, compared to the newer, fuel injected sport bikes made today, crude and it hated to be constricted by real world concerns like traffic laws and my own will to live. By the time I got close to my destination, the bike too was having trouble with the heat and was beginning to show signs of a fouled spark plug.

Photo Courtesy of

I rolled onto the wide boulevard that led the last half mile to my destination and pulled up at a stoplight. Ahead of me, the road stretched out wide and straight, three lanes wide in each direction and on its surface only the shimmering waves of heat rising from the pavement gave any indication of motion. The light turned green and I revved the bike, using the open road as an opportunity to raise the revs a bit higher into their range to tray and blast loose that bit of carbon that I knew was clinging to the electrode of at least one of my plugs. It was the city, however, and I stayed in the lower gears, letting off the gas and killing my acceleration just under of the speed limit. Ahead, the last two lights between me and my destination turned green in tandem and I held my speed.

Just then, out of the entrance to a blind alleyway, a bicyclist shot out into the main street. How he failed to hear me, I have no idea, but the distance between us negligible and a collision looked imminent. I laid on the horn and just as quickly clamped on the brakes. I squeezed down hard and the big Suzuki’s brakes bit deeply, unsettling the bike’s suspension and shifting the bike’s weight forward onto the front end, almost bottoming out the forks. With me baring down upon him, the bicyclist stopped dead in the road and right in my path – a deer in the headlights.

You learn to make choices fast on when you are on the back of a sport bike and years of experience had taught me my options were limited. There was no time to swerve, and a sudden pivot in any direction would leave me dumped on my side in the street. There was no swerving then, my best option, I decided, was straight ahead, right up and over that stoplight running SOB. It was going to be ugly.

I bore down on him like a freight train, my big bike’s dual headlights boring into his soul as I closed the gap, my horn blaring steadily. The distance closed to inches and then, a split second before impact, in an act of sheer desperation the bicyclist kicked forward with is foot and rolled just one foot forward. That movement saved us both and I slid past behind him with a bare inch to spare stopping about 5 feet beyond what would have been our point of impact. I turned my head, glared back at him over my shoulder and extended my arm palm up, giving him my best sign language version of “WTF?” With a downward motion of his hands and a slight bow, he placated me and, with the cars behind beginning to bare down upon us, we separated, him to his destination and me to mine.

The manual operation of the bike occupied my attention while I covered the remaining distance to Costco and parked, but once inside the store the entire experience hit me hard. It took some time to compose myself, it isn’t every day you almost kill someone, after all. After a brief period of adrenaline related butterflies in my stomach, I headed into the store and my mind was filling with the other possible courses of action I might have taken. Lost in deep thought, I approached the food court.

For whatever reason the line at the hotdog stand was huge. Hundreds of small dark haired women, many with children scuttling around their feet, waited patiently in long lines, each one taking a few extra moments to verify the complicated menu that listed so many odd, Western food options prior to making their order. The process took far too long, but it was OK, after the events of the morning waiting mindlessly in a long, slow moving line was rather cathartic. After many long minutes I found myself before the counter, made my order and scurried away to condiment table where I dressed my hotdogs and filled my cup with cold soda.

Photo Couresty of

I turned towards the tables and found myself shocked at the site of a sea of sullen faced men, none with food in their hands, occupying virtually all of the tables as they waited for their wives who were lost somewhere in the mass of humanity lined up before the counter. There I stood, two dogs gripped in my right hand as it stuck through the chin bar of my full faced helmet, my leather riding jacket in the crook of my arm and my tank bag and a soda tenuously sharing the grip of my left. There was nowhere to sit, and I found myself flushed with sudden anger. This was typical.

Like a well practiced team, these men had rushed to the tables and staked out their places while their wives ordered and prepared their food, Meanwhile, no one else would be allowed to sit. I stalked into their midst staring them down and forcing them to turn and look away whenever they dared to glance in my direction. At last in the middle of this group I found a single table, a carefully folded jacket draped across one side of it. Frankly, I didn’t care anymore, chances are I would finish before the jacket‘s owner returned anyhow so I sat down and unloaded my food.

I unwrapped a dog and had only taken my first bite when they arrived. An elderly man, perhaps in his 70s, his small, silver haired wife, their daughter and grandson approached the table furtively and made to take the coat away. In their hands they each had a plate of food, a drink and I could tell when I made eye contact that, like me, they knew there was nowhere else to sit. I began to wrap my hotdog back up and rise, but the man bade me to sit and after a word with his wife the family sat down with me, the little man across from me, his wife to my right and the daughter across from her with their grandson on her lap. It was only mildly uncomfortable for us all and soon they were chatting away with one another about the most ordinary of subjects, carefully and politely avoiding the subject of the giant gorilla of a man who had stolen their spot. I finished quickly, gathered my trash and made to leave when the old man spoke to me for the first time.

“Are you an American?” He asked in English.

I paused. It could be something of a loaded question, I knew, but I am what I am and I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes.”

He bade me sit again and leaned in close. “I speak English,” He told me in a quiet, almost furtive voice. “I worked for the American Navy in Yokosuka at the end of the war.” And then he told his story:

I was 12 years old and my father had been killed in the war. Times were very bad and I needed to work to buy food for my mother and sisters. I went to the Navy base to look for work. I was scared. I had been told the Americans hated us and I thought they might kill me. But I knew that without food, we would die anyway, it was that bad.

They didn’t kill me, instead, they gave me a job shining boots. Every morning, I would go to the base and meet with the other workers in a small hut. Someone from the base would come to take them men to their work sites and bring us boys boots to shine. It was hard work and we got little money but whatever I earned, I gave to my mother and with it she bought food. It was never enough, though, and we were always hungry.

One day just before it was time to go home, an American sailor came into the hut where we gathered. He had a big shoulder of beef in his arms and he put it on the table in front of us. He told us, “Don’t anyone touch this! This base has a rat problem and we need to see if this shack has rats in it. I will leave this beef here and if it is gone in the morning I will know there are rats here and can call an exterminator.” Then he left.

We thought he was crazy! We were starving and he was going to leave the meat for rats! When he left, we cut up the beef leg and took it home. We knew it was wrong, but our families were starving. We thought we would be punished.

Fraternization was strictly forbidden in all theatres after the war.

Fraternization was strictly forbidden in all theatres after the war.

The next day, the man came back as we were going home and instead of punishing us, he put another large piece of meat on the table. He told us, “There must be many rats in this building because in the morning I didn’t even find a single of the meat left yesterday. I need to know how many rats are here, so I will leave this meat here as well and come back again tomorrow.” Naturally, we cut that meat up and took it home as well.

The man came every day for several months and we always laughed about how foolish he was. Today I am older and I understand what he was doing. That man had been told it was against the rules to give food to the Japanese, but he saw us starving and found a way to help us. He might have been arrested and punished for disobeying orders, but he put himself in grave peril in order to give us food. We laughed at him and I am sorry about that today.

The old man looked at me with tears in his eyes and, to the shock of his wife and daughter took me by the hand. “The Imperial military abused the Japanese people and they would have let us die for their glory. Our enemy came and saved us. I love America. I know it is the greatest country in the world. Thank you.”

I can see that sailor in my mind’s eye now. He is typical of those we call the greatest generation, tall, hollow eyed and raw boned. He might be a farmer from the Kansas plains, his brown hair bleached blonde from long hours of hard work in the sun. He might be shorter, heavier, and a survivor of the hard streets of New York or some other crowded North Eastern city. He might be an American Indian from the Southwest plains whose family had been consigned to a life of poverty on an isolated reservation, or an African American who had gone into the service despite his own country’s lack of respect or concern for him and his family’s well being.

Whoever he was, that sailor knew what suffering was when he saw it, because he had lived it. He had felt the bite of hunger, seen the swollen bellies of his brothers and sisters and he knew, despite the fact that the people in whose faces he saw it reflected had recently been our sworn enemies, that he could not let human suffering go unanswered. Instead, he chose to make a difference, and that choice echoes down through time to this very day.

On Monday, our country pauses to honor the men and women, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents who swore their lives to our nation’s service. We will remember their great deeds, the battles they fought and the obstacles they overcame. It is all too easy, however, to let slip away those other important things that they do in all our names, those times when they act out of compassion and simple human concern. We should seek to remember those things as well, because it is through them that we win the peace.

To all of you who have served, thank you for your service, and your sacrifice. More than that, however, thank you all for your humanity and your kindness. We honor you, because you have honored us all. Thank you.

"The American Way"  Painting by Norman Rockwell

“The American Way” Painting by Norman Rockwell

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Inside The Industry, Special Edition: The Truth About Getting In Wed, 15 May 2013 20:15:31 +0000 IMG_5034


This being Q&A Wednesday, I promised to answer  TTAC commenter 28-cars-later’s question in feature-length. He said: “Bertel, how do you get such access to Ghosn… is Nissan just *this* friendly to the press?” Let me explain to you how it works.


I am in Tokyo for a simple reason: Love. Being here also is made easy due to the fact that nowhere in the world can you cover the world’s automotive industry with greater ease than in Tokyo. Companies that are in charge of about a third of the world’s automotive output are not more than a few subway stations apart. Sure, companies like Toyota or Mazda officially are headquartered elsewhere, but they have substantial presences in Tokyo. From where I live, it’s 45 minutes to Toyota, 30 minutes to Honda, 30 minutes to Nissan in Yokohama. All by train, few people still drive in the world capital of cars. Besides, having Ronnie Schreiber in Detroit provides plenty of counter-weight, especially now that he covers the truly poetic aspects  of the state of Michigan, in a story so deep that I am unable to fathom it.


You don’t have to speak Japanese to work with the Japanese car companies. I don’t, except for what’s needed to order a hotto kohee, a hot coffee.  The large multinationals usually have large polyglot and often multinationally staffed  PR departments that cater to the international media.


Nissan is the epitome of internationalism. The whole company is like the United Nations, their management hails from all corners of the world, the language at 1-1, Takashima 1-chome, Nishi-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa 220-8686, Japan, officially is English. Simultaneous translation is a growth industry at Nissan.


Despite their inscrutable image, access to Japanese carmakers is easy. Much easier than, say, get access to a flack at GM, at least for me, Ed Niedermeyer, or Robert Farago back when.  In Tokyo, simply pick up the phone to make your presence known, you have a get-to-know-each-other meeting over a cup of  hotto kohee, and unless there is immediate mutual dislike, you are in. With a third of the world’s automotive volume  being bunched-up within a few square miles, getting the inside track is a matter of a few days  and a similar number of cups of kohee.


Actually, one  needs to be selective in making contact, because  soon you won’t have time to write with all the visits. Let’s have a look at my Outlook. Tomorrow, at noon, I will be at Mitsubishi to learn what they will race up  Pike’s Peak. Then I need to jump on the Keihin-Tohoku  line to Yokohama to learn everything about Nissan’s Common Module Family (CMF), despite warnings that “this briefing will consist entirely of the same content which Nissan disclosed on February 27, 2012.” You never know. On Friday morning, I will be at Nissan again for some kei car story that is sadly embargoed until June 6th. After a ride on the Keihin-Tohoku line, I will be at Toyota. On Monday, I will go on a 4 hour ride on the alleged bullet train to Shin-Kurashiki near Hiroshima. There, I will hear everything about a kei car Mitsubishi builds together with and for Nissan. It’s most likely the same car that will be disclosed by Nissan on Friday under embargo. So I better don’t go on Friday, thereby being able to write what and when I want, apart from being able to sleep in.

Once you are on the list, you visit a third of the world’s automotive volume multiple times a week. If you are not on the list, no problem. Show your meishi, your business card, at most press conferences, and you are in.  Exciting, no?


Now you probably ask how can they afford all those lavish press events with all the free booze and canapés multiple times a week? Simple: There is no free booze, there are no canapés. The only food is of the for thought variety. You are lucky if you get a bottle of water – usually reserved for special occasions, such as the quarterly results, or the launch of a new model. The entertainment at the launches consists of a PowerPoint deck, the lavish press trip usually takes place on the aforementioned Keihin-Tohoku line, paid for by my own SUICA card, a fare card that depletes faster than the battery of a Plug-in Prius.

When I go to Mitsubishi on Monday, there will be free transportation: A shuttle bus from Shin-Kurashiki to the factory. The train fare  from Tokyo ($330) is expected to be paid by the members of the media. Yesterday, going home to Tokyo on a (free) bus laid on by Nissan, a whisper went through the assembled A-list of Tokyo’s press corps: We were told to surrender the lanyards, as we always do. But this time, we could keep the baseball hat. At factory visits, hats are mandatory. It also is mandatory to give them back. Except at the launch of Infiniti’s main premium segment model. There, you get a free hat.

This is probably not the answer 28-cars-later wanted to hear. But it’s the truth. He surely doesn’t want me to lie.


Closeness allegedly breeds contempt. Not true in this business. Familiarity makes for mutual respect. It’s easy to hurt someone who doesn’t like you either, it’s harder to throw written invectives at someone you will see face-to-face tomorrow. GM has yet to learn this simple trick of manipulating the media.


I am known to occasionally make a mistake. Then, my phone rings, and someone apologizes for not having been clear enough in the morning.  Japan is the land of politeness, and  of high precision. Factual mistakes are fixed immediately. Differences in opinion are never mentioned, and it is understood that they would remain unchanged anyway. I have yet to hear one comment about a car review, good or bad, on TTAC. Wait, the other day, someone at Nissan said “I did read Baruth’s comparo of the 2012 and 2013 Sentra.” I gave the internationally accepted hand sign for “give it to me,” and nothing was given.  I don’t know whether they liked it or not. After reading the story, I still can’t figure it out.

They usually can take a joke. Despite of what some people think, my picture features of Nissan’s gesticulating CEO Carlos Ghosn appear to be a source of great amusement in the company, and I always have the same seat at the press conference. (Front row, across the aisle from the brass, right in front of the lectern.)  And that’s the secret of unfettered access: Make them laugh.

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Inside The Industry: If It’s So Hard For Infiniti To Come To Japan, How Easy Do You Expect It To Be For Other Brands? Wed, 15 May 2013 12:31:03 +0000 IMG_4647“So would this new Infiniti Q50 be the new JDM Nissan Skyline?” asked TTAC commenter luvmyv8. One of the benefits of having a TTAC editor on the other side of the globe, as opposed to in a basement in Peoria, is that we can get first-hand answers to luvmyv8, straight from Nissan’s and Infiniti’s top men.IMG_4161

“What I can tell you today is that the Skyline name will continue in Japan,” said Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn in regards to luvmyv8. When pressed further, Ghosn said that bringing Infiniti to Japan “has always been the object of a lot of discussion within the company.” Ghosn started his answer with a mild put-down:

“With the arrival of newcomers … by Johan de Nysschen now heading the Infiniti business, he also brought with him a lot of very competent people from the industry who have a very good knowledge of the premium market. We are debating and challenging everything. But so far there is no decision that has been taken about the introduction of the Infiniti brand to Japan. But it is being discussed. There are pros, there are cons. Usually, we make thorough business decisions based on the analysis of the pros and the cons. For the moment, all I can tell you is that there is no decision to introduce Infiniti in Japan. The Skyline will continue in Japan.”


TTAC readers know that Infiniti chief de Nysschen is a strong advocate of Infiniti coming home to Japan. In an interview last year in Hong Kong, de Nysschen said :

“Ironically, we take models that are unique Infiniti platforms, developed for Infiniti, and in Japan, we put a Nissan badge on them.”

De Nysschen may be a newcomer to Nissan, but not to Japan. He managed Audi’s business in Japan, and came here in 1999, at the same time as Ghosn arrived in Tokyo. Ghosn immediately wanted to hire de Nysschen, but had to take a rain-check. De Nysschen knows the market, and that it is not easy.

When a reporter asked de Nysschen in Tochigi about Infiniti’s homecoming plans, the questioner found himself instantly castigated:

“So, that means that if you ask Mr. Ghosn a question and he doesn’t answer, you are making another attempt to get an answer out of me?”


Nevertheless, there was an answer, delivered wrapped into de Nysschen’s trademark carefully carved sentences:

To be a global brand, you might well want to compete in the premium sector in your domestic market.

We spend a lot of time talking about Infiniti brand values, and how those are to be communicated, not only in the tone and manner of our marketing and our advertising communication, but also, they need to be expressed and conveyed through the product, through design, through technology, through the engineering.

It seems to me to be very difficult for all the men and women who work on expressing these values in the Infiniti product to then not also see the vehicle and the brand being available in the domestic market.

Also, in term s of the international flavor for the brand, our customers are internationally mobile. And one important cornerstone of premium brands is that wherever you encounter them, they are positioned consistently, they portray the same values and qualities, whether you meet them in New York, or in London, or in Beijing, or indeed in Tokyo.”

After having made a strong philosophical case for estranged Infiniti coming home, de Nysschen sees himself faced with the realities:

“One of the disadvantages of course is cost of entry. It is very expensive to set up a distribution network in Japan. Last time I looked, not too many free open spaces were shouting to come and build an automotive showroom.”


Again, this is coming from a former Audi manager who had busted a cozy (and largely unknown) distribution agreement between Volkswagen and Toyota, and who had talked Ferdinand Piech into setting up an exclusive network in Japan. Eventually, this led to the end of Volkswagen’s Japanese distribution agreement with Toyota. This case should be a required course in the education of carmakers, especially those who feel entitled to major shares of the Japanese market without really trying. Continued de Nysschen:

It is my commitment that Infiniti will achieve profitable growth, and that we will achieve very quickly a positive contribution to the overall operating profit of Nissan. That means that we have to balance the speed with which we want to enter the Japanese market.”

I take that as a carefully wrapped no.

In regards to luvmyv8’s question and with regards to luvmyv8, de Nysschen said that “on the Skyline, I really have no further comments to add other than those already expressed by Mr. Ghosn. I would urge you to be patient for just a little while.”

As this is a question and answer session, let me try to answer  28-cars-later’s inquiry. He said: “Bertel, how do you get such access to Ghosn… is Nissan just *this* friendly to the press?” Instead of a simple and pat “yes,” let’s make a separate story out of that.

IMG_4062 IMG_4144 IMG_4161 IMG_4402 IMG_4482 IMG_4647 ]]> 19
Mustang by Mazda? When Ford Probed The Possibility Fri, 10 May 2013 16:17:52 +0000 Photo courtesy of

In the early 1980s, as the economy continued to slump and gas prices soared, American car makers were desperate for a way forward. The good old days were gone forever. Under pressure from the Japanese, whose small cars had gone from rolling jokes to serious, high quality competition in little more than a decade, the big three knew they needed to make a radical departure from their traditional approach before it was too late. Although some of the more stodgy cars would soldier on and continue to sell to members of the Greatest Generation well past their expiration dates, for the rest of us the future was a smaller, lighter and more efficient. The winds of change were blowing and even the Ford Mustang felt the chill.

In 1982 Ford began to take a good, hard look at their strong selling V8 powered, rear wheel drive pony car. Introduced in 1979, the Fox body mustang was a radical departure from the Ford Pinto based Mustang II that had carried the name forward through the disco era and it was a good car, but all indications were that the front engine rear wheel drive platform appeared to be on the way out. Most domestic manufacturers were headed towards front wheel drive platforms, Chrysler was already heavily invested in its K car and rumor had it that even GM was considering moving its Camaro and Firebird to FWD. Fortunately, Ford’s 25% stake in Mazda offered them quick and relatively inexpensive access to a FWD platform already under development, the Mazda 626, and they chose to examine that option.

Toshi Saito of Ford’s North American Design Center prepared the initial concepts, one of which was chosen and the project moved forward into a full sized clay mock up and eventually a fiberglass model was constructed and sent to Japan where Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima. Mazda’s management approved of the design, but after some thought Ford decided that it wasn’t quite what they were looking for and came back with a longer, leaner and more rakish design that required some re-engineering from Mazda. The car was to be produced in the United States and Mazda purchased a Ford property in Flat Rock, Michigan to produce the car alongside their own 626 and Mx-6 models.

Photo courtesy of

Much like the now oft-derided Mustang II, the new Mustang was set to be a radical departure from the Fox car. First, no V8s were to be offered. Instead, the front wheel drive Mustang would mount a Mazda sourced transversely mounted 4 cylinder good for about 110 horsepower. For the first year, GT Mustangs would feature the same 4 cylinder with turbo good for about 145 horsepower – comparable to what the Mustang V8 was making at the time – and the next year move to the Mazda V6 which was good for about 175 horsepower. The design was sleek, slippery and generally well liked by those who saw production models and images.

The public backlash against the car came as a real shock. Mustang enthusiasts and red blooded ‘Murricans everywhere were appalled at the thought of a Mustang based on anything other than good old American design and sent up a howl of indignation that resonated all the way back to Ford’s executive offices. Firmly in the Reagan era, a resurgent America would simply not tolerate the venerable Mustang name attached to a Japanese design. As thousands upon thousands of angry letters poured into the corporate offices, buyers rushed into dealerships and sales of the Fox body Mustang, which had been slipping as the design aged, suddenly increased.

Photo courtesy of

People, it seemed, were anxious to own what was sure to be the last “real” Mustang rushed into the dealership before it was too late and, in a moment of “Classic Coke” vs “New Coke” brilliance, Ford capitalized on the controversy. The classic Mustang would remain on sale, but the new car would live too, and so Ford reached into the bag of names and pulled out one that had been attached to an especially well received aerodynamic concept car just a few years earlier and, with a knowing wink to proctologists everywhere, dubbed it the “Probe.”

Photo courtesy of

The rest is well known history. Introduced in 1988, The Probe was a success and it went on to win the hearts and minds of many of those who cross shopped it with its primary competition, the Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge Turbo K variants, the small FWD GM cars, the Cavalier and the Beretta and Japanese turbo cars of all makes and models. Sales were brisk and the Detroit News reported in 1989 that Ford was selling around 600 of them a month. The design was refreshed in 1993 and almost 120,000 were sold that year. By 1997, however, the design had run its course and only 16,777 were sold. Meanwhile, the “Classic” Mustang soldiered on, was continually refreshed and, although it has been updated and redesigned over the years, it is still with us as the front engine, rear wheel drive pony car that God and Lee Iacocca originally intended.

Looking back, the 80s was a time or real, small-car innovation. Car companies, both domestic and foreign, put forth an amazing number of designs across all price ranges as they fought for market share. In that regard, I suppose, Ford really didn’t hurt themselves by keeping the ‘Stang and adding the Probe to their showrooms. I’m guessing the Probe really didn’t steal buyers from the Mustang as they each appealed to different market segments. I wonder, however, what would have happened if Ford had made the decision to stick with New Coke? Would GM have followed suit and put the Camaro and Firebird on a smaller FWD platform? Would the Chrysler K Turbos have eaten all their lunches? I wonder…

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Swimming In The Pond Of The Japanese Garden Thu, 02 May 2013 13:00:17 +0000

In some ways my initial move across the Pacific was a lot easier than my return. I was at the end of my personal rope when I went to Japan in 1999 and, even though I was stepping into a dead end job, there was nowhere to go but up. Coming home was quite the reverse. Of course I had a job offer, but I had learned the hard way about birds in the hand versus the two in the bush and, truth is, I was scared. I had carved out a nice little life for myself in Japan. I had friends, a decent place to live and, for a change, money in my pocket. I had even purchased a car and a motorcycle, but now it was time to sell out and move on.

The car in question was my 1986 Twin Turbo Supra and it was in great shape. In the two years I had owned it I had taken good care of it, corrected a few minor paint issues with rubbing compound and special wax that turned the paint back to its original brilliant white, added new tires, a kick ass stereo and even completed the shakken. Back home in the States a similar car would have sold for several thousand dollars and there was no way I could have lost money, but in Japan, as usual, it was a different story.

Someone once told me long ago that Japan is like the pond in the center of a Zen rock garden. From the outside it looks tranquil, placid and is a perfect reflection of the sky above. Underneath, however, everything that happens in every other pond is taking place. Bugs are laying their eggs, frogs are eating the bugs and the fish are eating the frogs. The entire circle of life is going on under that water and it isn’t until you decide to plunge in that you really understand how deep and how murky the pond really is.

The Japanese, as I had learned during my initial purchase of the Supra, don’t generally do person-to-person sales of used cars. Sure, you might sell a vehicle to a family member or a good friend, as I discovered when I sold my Mazda MPV to my “Japanese family” when I left Okinawa in 2010, but selling a used car to a stranger is practically unheard of. I’m not sure if anthropologists have ever conducted a study as to why this is the case, but rumors about the Japanese belief in evil spirits attaching themselves to things that others have used in a personal way aside, I think it is because public transportation is nearly universal, parking is limited and cars are expensive to own. The result is that young people don’t need to own a car to get around and, thanks to all the fixed costs of car ownership, are effectively priced out of the market. Therefore, most cars are purchased by adults who can and usually do buy new because of status issues, increased reliability and other benefits given to new cars under the shaken inspection system.

The average Japanese person trades in their old car when they buy a new one. The money they receive in trade is ludicrously low, but given that most people don’t have the need, desire or even the extra space to keep an older car it works out well. Sure, like anyone who trades in a car they lose out on some money, but they are essentially paying for the convenience of disposing their old car. I had learned, however, that a little elbow grease and an unconventional approach could often circumvent the natural way of things in Japan and so I determined to turn to the “international community” for a solution.

There are quite a few foreigners in Japan. The vast majority of them are tourists, then in decreasing frequency come the international students on exchange trips, the Mormon missionaries, the JET teachers, company-men on temporary assignments and finally the dregs of Western society that end up as ESL teachers at for-profit English conversation schools, spouses of Japanese citizens and all the other flotsam and jetsam of the world that get swept into the relatively sheltered waters of Japan and end up staying there for years at a time. As with many communities that fail to fully integrate into their host countries, Westerners in Japan have built for themselves a vibrant and fun sub culture all their own and all it takes to access it is the time and willingness to sit down in an Irish pub and listen to people who have no intention of ever returning to their home countries bellyache about how much they hate Japan.

About a month before I returned home I put an ad in the local Gaijin (foreigner) classified ad paper, known as the Kansai Flea Market and waited for the calls to roll in. I got some quick bites on my bike and sold it after just a week at a small profit, but the car languished in the paper and generated just one call from an Australian bloke who was hoping I knew about any laws that might prevent him from taking it home. As my departure neared I checked with my girlfriend’s friends to see if any of them wanted it and was given a resounding “no” by everyone we asked. Finally I decided to take it to a place called “Gulliver” that ran frequent ads on TV about buying used cars.

In retrospect I should have probably guessed that any company that has the money to run almost constant ads on TV wouldn’t pay much for the cars they bought, but when the guy told me my car was so old that they would only take it for free I wasn’t very happy. Still, as the time for my departure was drawing ever nearer, I went ahead and struck the deal and told him I would bring the car back the next day. Of course one thing led to another and I didn’t bring the car back until the following week but since I was giving it to them who would have thought it would be an issue? Well it was, and imagine my surprise when the guy told me that because I had failed to honor my word and bring the car the next day the terms of the deal had changed. Now, instead of simply giving them my car, they wanted me to pay them $50 to take it. I wasn’t happy, but with my tickets to go home in hand, I went ahead and paid the money and bade my Supra farewell.

Had I known that I would eventually get the job of my dreams, marry my Japanese girlfriend and end up living in the same region of Japan just three years later, I would have paid up my parking fees in advance and let the car sit until my return. But at that point in time, with the future still uncertain, I know that it was better that I let the car go. Still, whenever I visit Japan and return to my “hometown,” I feel a sudden flash of shame and anger every time I drive by that shop. I know I was cheated and, frankly, it grates on me. Of course, outside of a snarky article on a car blog, I will never exact revenge. Still, it’s nice to think that someday, maybe someday, I will.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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A Walk Down The Memory Lanes Of The Japanese Car. Tour Guided By Lexus LFA Engineer, With 92 Never Before Released Pictures Wed, 01 May 2013 12:56:04 +0000


Last weekend, we were in Kuniyoshi, Chiba, the peninsula across Tokyo Bay, to check on some old cars. This is what and who we met.

TTAC’s cross-cultural adviser, Frau Schmitto-san walked by what looked just like the 360 Subaru we test-drove a year ago in Japan.

Minutes later, we saw a skinny, bespectacled man who looked very much like Chiharu Tamura, owner of said 360 Subaru, and Deputy Chief Engineer of the Lexus LFA supercar. The test drive had been a ruse to distract from my secret mission: To observe the making of the LFA.

It was him, it was his car. Tamura-san had driven Subie-san all the 250 miles from Toyotashi to Kuniyoshi to attend an event that celebrated old cars, old trains, old buses, and an old town.

The event was to help revitalize Kuniyoshi, a town that needs a revival badly. The town doesn’t even exist anymore, at least not officially. In 1955, it was merged with a few neighboring towns into Isumi. In 2005, it was merged again.

The only thing that reminds of Kuniyoshi is Kuniyoshi Station, a stop on a narrow gauge line that had been threatened with closure, many times.

This is the old train that brought us to the station.

It didn’t look much different than the old train that is now a museum piece, parked on a short piece of rail that leads to nowhere.

In front of the station, we find a rarity: A 23-window 1967 Volkswagen Bus, the DeLuxe version with sunroof and eight skylight windows. The bus is in great shape, its interior and upholstery have been restored. Later, in the evening, we’ll take it to a nice dinner by the beach and watch a big fat red moon rise over the Pacific Ocean.

The bus belongs to the station, and is driven by the station master, Daisuke Kurihara. He is a multi talent. Living with his mother in a farm, he is a trained opera singer.

At age 25, Kurihara retired from the opera, studied drawing and started producing highly detailed miniatures of old cars, old trains, old buses, and old motorcycles.

This is his rendition of a Volkswagen Beetle.


This is the original, which we find by the road around a corner. It is a 1967 Beetle 1500. The Beetle was exported to Japan in great numbers and was the foundation on which Volkswagen built its empire as the largest importer to Japan.

Naturally, Japanese cars dominated the Kuniyoshi event. This is the convertible version of the Toyota Publica, introduced in 1963. The Publica was intended as Japan’s Volkswagen: It traces back to MITI’s “national car” concept of 1955.


Before anyone makes tired jokes about Toyota and unintended acceleration, let me preempt and assure you that any intended or unintended acceleration during the event was made impossible by way of this simple device that was issued to and mandatory for all participating vehicles.

This is the 1967 Mazda Familia, aka Mazda R100, with the rotary engine, that made it a Mazda Familia Presto Rotary.

The rotary engine quickly received a reputation of being finicky and thirsty. No wonder the owner is asking for donations.

This modern-looking kei car is from the early ‘70s: A Honda Z GS. Its 354cc engine spun at a dizzying 9,000 rpm for a 36 hp output.

This is a 230 Nissan Cedric in the Deluxe trim. Built between 1971 and 1975, the Cedric was sold abroad as the Datsun 200C through 260C

I lifted the pertinent information from the all-knowing Wikipedia. Actually, the car we saw in Kunioshi is not simply the same, but identical to the car pictured in Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s PC police blanked out the bottom part of the license plate, but left the upper third, and that’s all we need for a very close match.

I could go on and on about the historically significant vehicles parked by the roadside in usually sleepy Kuniyoshi, but I am afraid this could bring the TTAC server to its knees. So here are the Japanese bookends of the event:

The three-wheeled Daihatsu Midget, introduced in 1957 with a 250 cc engine that produced a breathtaking 12 hp, quickly became the mainstay of transportation throughout Asia. There were a few of them on display in Kuniyoshi, and some of them may still be in use.

Although production officially ceased in 1972, copies of the Midget are still made in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia where they do duty as “tuk-tuks,” or motorized rickshaws. The orange one in the back is a Mazda three-wheeler, formerly used by a moving company. Its size is more than adequate to move the average Japanese apartment.

On the other side of the Nipponese spectrum is the Mitsubishi Debonair. Introduced in 1964 and built nearly unchanged through 1986, this was a big car – by Japanese standards.

Designed by former GM designer Hans S. Bretzner, the car looks a little bit like an old Lincoln Continental that was washed too hot and shrunk .

This 1975 Executive model sports the 2 liter ‘Saturn 6” engine, which makes it a rarity.

As far as foreign cars go, it is interesting to observe what constitutes a classic car in the eyes of the Japanese collectors, what is seen as representative of an era and a car culture. The doitsu, or Germans, are well represented by their iconoclastic Volkswagens, mentioned and shown further above. The French are exemplified by a lone Citroen CX 25 GTI, parked in front of a house that is in need of revitalization.

Turkey is here, not with a car, but with Turkey’s national food, the doner kebab.

America is epitomized in Kuniyoshi by a rolling symbol of excess, a very much stretched Cadillac. According to some in Detroit, the Japanese car market is closed, but some cars appear to manage to squeeze through.

Intentionally, or by happenstance, the stretch was placed in front of a symbol of Japanese frugality and bonsai culture, the Mazda Carol, a kei car that was powered by one of the smallest 4-cylinder automobile engines in history, and that grabbed an amazing 67 percent of the kei car market in its first year in 1962.

This is the American car that made the strongest impression on Japan.

An impression so strong that the Willy’s Jeep is the only car shown in duplicate at the Kuniyoshi event.

It comes complement with a faux Cavalry Major.

There are the original Signal Corps radios, in duplicate.

Shockingly for a society where public display of weapons is rare, and where even antique swords need a license, there is a regulation M1, thankfully under lock and key.

Even more shocking: “He’s one of the very few American Army Majors who can eat rice with chopsticks,” says Frau Schmitto-san.

Around the corner, and mostly ignored, a Made-in-Japan Jeep, built under license by Mitsubishi. The Made-in-America Jeep is the most successful American import to Japan.

Meanwhile, back at the Subaru 360, Tamura-san explains a little mishap that occurred on the long way from Toyota-shi to Kuniyoshi.

The 45 year old exhaust manifold finally gave up the ghost and separated from the engine.

Something like that does not faze a leading Toyota engineer: With a field-expedient wire, a nearly invisible and mostly inaudible fix was effected.

We thanked Tamura-san, and we thank him again for this fascinating trip down memory lane and down the alleys of Kuniyoshi. Who could be a better guide through Japan’s living automotive history than one of Toyota’s leading engineers?

Ooopps, one of the leading engineers of Lexus, of course. The ID holder is made from carbon fiber, a memento of the carbon fiber LFA, a car that also is history. All members of the sadly disbanded LFA team received such a holder, and made from CFRP, car and ID holder will most likely live longer than any car we have seen in Kuniyoshi.

IMG_1270 IMG_1291 IMG_1299 IMG_1304 IMG_1308 IMG_1320 IMG_1335 IMG_1338 IMG_1386 IMG_1400 IMG_1433 IMG_1437 IMG_1446 IMG_1450 IMG_1465 IMG_1471 IMG_1478 IMG_1480 IMG_1505 IMG_1520 IMG_1529 IMG_1537 IMG_1544 IMG_1571 IMG_1598 IMG_1622 IMG_1657 IMG_1684 IMG_1716 IMG_1836 IMG_1848 IMG_1870 IMG_1901 IMG_1908 IMG_1918 IMG_1920 IMG_1949 IMG_1957 IMG_1982 IMG_1985 IMG_1994 IMG_1997 IMG_2004 IMG_2037 IMG_2107 IMG_2110 IMG_2115 IMG_2141 IMG_2154 IMG_2251 IMG_2263 Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Kuniyoshi - Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 24
Mooneyes: Breaking Down Cultural Barriers, One Hot Rod At A Time Thu, 11 Apr 2013 14:22:25 +0000

Honmoku street is a wide, tree lined avenue that bends through the southern “Naka” district of the city of Yokohama. Close by sits the massive port, the gateway through which so much of Japan’s industrial output is sent to the world, its tall cranes working ceaselessly and with no regard for human concerns like the time of day. Above it all the Yokohama Bay Bridge soars like a vision, lifting cars and trucks across the entrance to the harbor as effortlessly as it straddles the line between art and infrastructure. Although the massive bridge and its double decked feeder highways encircle the entire district, the sense one has on the ground is of open space and nature, rarities in the second largest city in Japan. In the midst of it all sits the classic American Hot-Rod shop, Mooneyes.

Mooneyes is legendary among car guys. Its iconic eyes have adorned the sides of race cars and hot-rods since Dean Moon started the company in a small garage behind his father’s Norwalk, California café in 1950. An avid car guy, Dean Moon was heavily involved in the local drag and dry lake bed racing scenes in California as they gained momentum through the 1950s and 60s and his sense of innovation and style helped shape the nascent “hot rod” culture as it was emerging. Many of his stylistic innovations, things like spun aluminum disc wheel covers and the foot-shaped gas pedal are must-have items on any period correct classic hot-rod.

When Dean Moon passed away in the late 1980s, the company took a brief break and then stopped work altogether after the passing of his wife a few years later. In the early 1990s, Moon family friend Shige Suganuma, a long time dealer of Moon Products in Japan, reformed the company as Mooneyes USA. The US Branch of the company continues Dean Moon’s work at the shop’s location since the early 1960s, 10820 S Norwalk Blvd, Santa Fe Springs, CA where, according to the Mooneyes website, visitors are welcome and where there will be an open house from 9:00AM to 3:00 PM on Saturday July 13, 2013.

The subject of this article, Mooneyes’ Japanese location, is a place worth checking out. It combines a full service hot rod shop with a parts store, gift and novelty shop and an American 1960s style café complete with oversized hamburgers, milk shakes and apple pie. At night, its neon lights beckon you forward with a welcoming glow, and a row of classic cars, both American and Japanese, stand ready for inspection as they await just the right person to take them home. After a hard day’s struggle with the Japanese language and culture, stepping inside feels a lot like coming home to a better, vanishing America where the cars are cool, the gas is cheap and where no one counts calories.

Out back, rows of cars sit ready for the full hotrod treatment. During my time in Yokohama, I noted the progress of these cars on my way to and from work as they arrived in the rearmost parking lot in various states of disuse and decay and then moved to the area behind the garage from where they eventually disappeared into the shop for weeks or days before turning up refreshed, renewed and reformed for sale at the front of the building. My favorites were always the classic Japanese iron, the most common of which were variants of the Toyota Crown, including sedans, station wagons and even an El Camino-like trucklet. Some of these ended up as beautiful restorations, others as slick looking hot-rods and still others as mechanically solid rat-rods. All of them were appealing.

With Mooneyes just a block from my apartment, the whole area was frequently awash with car culture and excitement. Mooneyes is the sponsor of many great events, including hot rod and chopper shows that draw cars from all over Japan and visitors from all over the world. As of this writing, upcoming events include the “All Trucks Morning Cruise” on April 14th at Honmoku Hilltop Park, and a Hot Rod Cruise Night at their Honmoku Shop the evening of April 27th. More information is available in English and Japanese at

It can be hard for a foreigner to break into Japanese culture and make friends, but I have found that cool cars and fast motorcycles are a good way to break the ice. If you are ever in Japan, take the time to head out to Mooneyes’ shop in Honmoku, Yokohama. Grab a hamburger, get the T-shirt and take the time to talk to some of the people you meet there. You will return home happy, full and refreshed. The car culture that Dean Moon helped to start so long ago and so far away conquers all.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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