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Friday, May 27, 2011

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Motor city maniacs: A Nissan R380-2 (front) and Nissan R380-1 on display. NOSTALGIC CAR SHOW 2011 PLANNING COMMITTEE

Car buffs get set to take a drive down memory lane

Staff writer

They aren't easy to drive, they don't give you the greatest fuel consumption and they sometimes cost a fortune to restore, but cars from the 1960s and '70s continue to capture the hearts of a loyal community of car enthusiasts in Japan.

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A Honda S800 (front), Toyota Publica pickup truck (middle) and Toyota Publica are put on sale.

For a glimpse into this world, visit the Nostalgic Car Show 2011 — to be held at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center this weekend and at Port Messe Nagoya in mid-June. The annual event attracts more than 20,000 visitors at each of the venues, where up to 200 seemingly pristine cars of various models from the era will either be on sale or be exhibited to show off the skills of their repair shops.

But perhaps more importantly, the show gives visitors a glimpse into the history of Japan's proud car-making industry from the time when merely owning a car was a dream for every family across the country.

Hajime Seki, a former Honda car dealer who launched the annual car show 22 years ago, wants to stress the sentimental value that cars from the 1960s can have.

"For my dad's generation (in the '60s), buying a car was a status symbol," recalls the 62-year-old native of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. "Japan's motorization was taking place and people regarded new-model cars, such as the Nissan Sunny and Toyota Corolla, as dream machines. And when a new car actually arrived, the whole family welcomed it, treating it as if it were a new member."

Seki smiles and adds that he himself grew up drooling over his dad's luxury Nissan Cedric sedan. He still remembers his father and him driving in that car to Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture, where the young Seki was able to watch the first-ever homegrown Japan Grand Prix car-race event in 1963.

"I often get asked by people, 'What is the difference between second-hand cars and nostalgic cars?'" he says, leaning in closely as if to reveal a secret. "Secondhand cars have no added value. Nostalgic cars do."

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Car lovers gather around a Lamborghini Countach at a previous Nostalgic Car Show event held in Tokyo.

Mechanically speaking, popular sports cars that debuted around 45 years ago — such as the Prince Skyline series and Toyota 2000GTs — came from the efforts of engineers who, unlike today, had no Computer Aided Design (CAD) system to help them when they were creating those models.

The first-generation pioneers of Japanese car manufacturing were originally engineers for Nakajima Hikoki, which supplied many of Japan's aircraft during World War II. But when Japan lost the war in 1945, those engineers found themselves jobless, and many turned to car-making at the Prince Motor Company, which was bought up by Nissan in 1966. Soon, Japanese cars began to lead the nation's postwar economic expansion and helped crystallize Japan's reputation in the world as an industrial superpower.

Cars that Seki grew up dreaming about were out of reach for many, especially for young people at that time. He cited the example of the Skyline 2000GT-R, one of the best-selling cars in the history of Japan's automobile industry, which is often called "Hako-suka" by enthusiasts for its hako (box)-like shape (suka is a contraction of "Skyline"). The Skyline series' popularity skyrocketed after its earliest model, the 2000GT, raced neck-and-neck with a Porsche 904 of then-West Germany at the second Japan Grand Prix in 1964, becoming the first domestic car to clinch second place in a car race. Seki recalls that the GT-R model cost ¥1.68 million in 1970, which was 30 times his monthly starting salary at his first job out of college, at an insurance company.

Many of the models to be exhibited at the car show are pricey as well, with some that have been fully restored going for ¥50 million. But others are relatively affordable, with price tags of ¥2 million or ¥3 million, Seki said, noting that many of Japan's first baby-boomers, who are in their early 60s now, are retirees, and they have the time and money to finally buy and fiddle with those dream cars of yesteryear.

So what exactly is so attractive about nostalgic cars? Hiroshi Yamanaka, who owns a car-repair shop in Tokyo's Nakano Ward and heads the 40-member-plus Prince Skyline 2000GTA&B Owners Club, gave this reporter a short ride last weekend. The cream-white sedan has an exceptionally long bonnet to accommodate the by-engine beneath and is impeccably polished and tuned like a brand new car. It glides effortlessly along the road. As Yamanaka hit the gas pedal, the engine's low humming sound turned increasingly louder. The car shook a bit, but the car's movement was balanced and rhythmical.

Yamanaka, 58, conceded that classic cars have their faults. Even with good maintenance, the brakes aren't as responsive, so when he drives, he needs to make sure to keep more of a safe distance from the car in front of him than if he were in a modern car. Also, most old cars have no power steering, which means maneuvering them requires some physical strength. In addition, there are no such luxuries like air-conditioning. Instead, the Skyline 2000GT is equipped with tiny triangular windows on both sides of the front seats that open to about a 45-degree angle, thus allowing for a nice breeze to come in when the car is in motion.

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Pride and joy: Hiroshi Yamanaka stands next to his Prince Skyline sedan at his shop in Tokyo. Yamanaka says you can really "feel the speed" when driving older cars. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

Yamanaka boasted that his 45-year-old toy — and it is a toy because he only drives it in his spare time — can still reach its maximum speed of 200 kph. "If you were riding a contemporary car, you wouldn't feel its speed," he said. "With this car, you can feel the speed even at 100 kph."

That sense of enjoyment is shared also by Seki, who says he owns 30 cars, including a Hako-suka, and another Skyline model C110, nicknamed "Ken-meri" (after a TV commercial featuring a young couple named Ken and Mary who would travel around the country in that car). "It's definitely a car in which you feel that you are driving the car, whereas with today's cars, you feel like the car is driving you."

While electric cars and hybrid cars are often touted as cars of the future, Seki says driving a less fuel-efficient nostalgic model wouldn't do too much harm if it's only for a weekend, and if it's only for a short distance.

"It's not a hobby for everybody," he says. "It's simply not a means of transportation from point A to point B."

One thing that Seki says he wants to pass on to younger generations are family ties involving cars, like ones he formed with his dad. To encourage dads to taking their children out to the show, admission for elementary school children and those younger is free. And for car-loving kids and adults alike, there will be a section titled "Nostalgic Toys World," where plastic models, kits, tin toys and other classic toys will be on sale.

The Nostalgic Car Show 2011 will be held at Tokyo Big Sight West 4 Hall on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. It will be held at Port Messe Nagoya No. 1 Building during the same hours on June 11 and 12. Admission is ¥1,800. For more information, call the organizer (050) 3321-5401 or visit www.nostalgic.co.jp.

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