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2016 Yokohama Hot-Rod and Custom Show

The Japanese are making Americana great again

Where to find the new global mecca for fans of automotive Americana — hot-rods and custom restorations of Detroit classics? Each December at the annual Yokohama Hot Rod & Custom Show. That it’s in Yokohama not Yorba Linda perhaps should not be surprising. For when Japanese wax nostalgic their imaginations often head out on a desert highway, into a mythical land they first beheld as a shimmering mirage in the 1950s.

Back then, Japan was still recovering from wartime devastation. Private cars were scarce and overseas travel was an impossible dream. But thanks to Hollywood and glossy magazines, Japanese discovered a magic kingdom where ordinary folks were so unbelievably rich that even teenagers had amazing wheels. A charmed adolescence that revolved around driving to malt shops and surf beaches. America in the ‘good ole days!’

1940 Ford Pick Up1940 Ford Pick Up

Those images left such an indelible imprint that, even in today’s Japan, “nostalgia” is almost synonymous with “1950s Americana.” By the key metric of Elvis impersonators per capita, Japan leads the world in this genre. More than the tunes, though, it was 1950s images of curvaceous American sheet metal and glittering chrome that stirred a tsunami of automotive lust in Japanese loins: they desperately wanted to own cars… and to build them. It took 20 years, but that tsunami eventually washed over the U.S. in a tide of imports.

Combine such auto-erotic memories with an almost maniacal devotion to metal craft and you begin to understand why Japanese hot-rodders are starting to leave California in the dust.

Still, I almost bugged-out on covering the show at the Pacifico Center on Yokohama’s waterfront, anticipating a dull bunch of local fetishists showing aging Japanese pigs in lipstick – y’know, souped-up ’66 Corollas. And the media-stunned organizers nearly put me off by demanding I swear on a stack of Bibles that I wasn’t going for personal gratification and that I’d wear a grubby vest marked “Press.” I’d like to see them try pulling that shit on Jeremy Clarkson! But once Hollis Humphreys, Japan’s Customs-wise genius of car importing, told me a client paid $12,000 to ship a hot-rod return from Perth, Australia, curiosity overrode my pique.

1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Walking into the show with such low expectations, ace photographer John Lancaster and I were blown away by what we discovered. Lancaster’s images tell most of the story, but some context is needed here.

In person, the organizers – custom-gear supplier Mooneyes Inc. — turned out to be really nice people with serious dedication to the art form they support. While studying in California in the 1980s, Mooneyes president Shige Suganuma fell under the spell of legendary hot-rod guru Dean Moon. That led Suganuma to open a Japan branch of Mooneyes once he returned to Yokohama. Then, after Moon died and none of his family wanted to continue the business, Suganuma ended up buying the works. So now Mooneyes has an operation in Santa Fe Springs, California that makes custom parts for sale in the U.S. and export to Yokohama and elsewhere. (Yo, Trump, you got no beef with these guys!) And Mooneyes runs twin December hot-rod shows, Yokohama then Irwindale, California a week later.

Apart from amazing cars and bikes, what really turned my head was the number of foreign faces: almost 10 percent of 15,000 visitors were from overseas. So I asked dozens of them: “Where you from? Did you come to Japan specially for this? What do you like about it?”

1968 Subaru Sambar1968 Subaru Sambar

Almost all flew in specially, from as far off as France, Britain, Italy, Thailand, Quebec, the U.S. and — in huge numbers — from Australia. The hall was rife with beer-toting Aussies. Phil Muscat, a hot-rodder up from Melbourne along with his teenage daughter said he was blown away by the immaculate paintwork with “over-the-top” designs. “At home they’d laugh at you if you did some of this stuff,” he told me.

Showing the flag for Australia was Ben Forster, the boilermaker from Perth who dug deep in his pocket to ship his 1927 Model T Coupster all the way to Yokohama, then straight back the next day. That won him all-round respect, and sealed a well-deserved award for craftsmanship. Although his paintwork was immaculate, the design did seem a bit tame in this company.

The dozen or so other shipped-over exhibits were all brought from Long Beach by Mooneyes. (Shipping L.A. to Yokohama is dirt-cheap if you’ve got your own trucks on either end.) Our favorite was the Sirod2 Roadster by SoCal hot-rod legend Pete Chapouris, who came with his car.

1927 Ford Galaxian1927 Ford Galaxian

Still, most exhibitors were from Japan and overwhelmingly into Americana — although tons of Japanese metal were on display, plus a smattering of VW. I was entranced by the quality of craft and attention to detail, even in places no one can see — but what do I know? I’m a new-car guy. So, it was helpful to have Pete Chapouris put matters in context.

“Ten years ago,” Chapouris said, “the best you’d see in California was maybe seven or eight out of ten. And what you saw here in Japan was maybe three or four. Today it’s about even.”

That over a thousand hot-rod fans now fly halfway round the world to witness this achievement underscores Chapouris’ point. When it comes to venerating America’s automotive heritage, the Japanese are now second-to-none.

1970 Dodge Challenger1970 Dodge Challenger

Sadly, though, this pinnacle is reached just as Japanese officials — always on the lookout for fun to prevent — double-down on suppressing the nation’s already wilting automotive passion. The almost-desperate theme of December’s show was “Respect Our Culture” and signs all over pleaded “Save Our Hot-Rod Show.”

This after Yokohama City Hall tried to ban the show following noise complaints from neighboring residents. And this at a site six blocks down from Nissan global headquarters, in a land where auto-making is the bedrock of national prosperity. How nuts are these bureaucrats?

With all this as your yardstick, American readers, behold the love that Japanese lavish on your automotive heritage. You gotta respect it.

Photos by John Lancaster

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