Museums & Collections

In Photos: The Incredible (and Nearly Secret) Shikoku Automobile Museum

In an unassuming building 10 hours away from Tokyo sits one of the best car collections we’ve ever seen.

I love going to car museums, doubly so if it’s a collection owned by one person and the facility started as a way to share a singular passion and vision. To that end, the Shikoku Automobile Museum has been on my radar for years. A friend told me about this wonderful place and its eclectic mix of classics, including a Lamborghini Countach LP400, an Alfa Romeo TZ2 Zagato, and a Ford RS200, as well as—perhaps most important—the one-off Cizeta Fenice Spider. But since the facility is on a completely different Japanese island than where I live, and a 10-hour drive from Tokyo to boot, I always put off a potential visit.

But as luck would have it, I just so happened to be on Shikoku Island during my trip to the 2019 Concorso d’Eleganza Kyoto, as the attendant Tour d’Eleganza ended its first driving day there. As fun as the tour was, I wanted to do a bit of exploring around the island, and after an overnight in Tokushima, I headed out on a two-hour sojourn to this mysterious and wonderful museum.

The Background

The Shikoku Automobile Museum is located in a town called Kochi. and not much happens there. The houses are surrounded by rows of rice fields, graves and tombstones are scattered alongside the main roads, and I didn’t see a single soul walking around. While I was there in the middle of a weekday, it was eerie how quiet it was compared to the familiar 24-hour bustle of Tokyo. The museum itself is in an unassuming grey building that looks more like an old aircraft hangar than a shrine to some of the greatest and rarest cars ever built. There’s little clue to the treasure trove that lies within, but as soon as you open the doors you’re greeted by three Toyotas: a Formula Japan car, a Sports 800, and an intriguing left-hand-drive 2000GT. Apparently, the latter car was a U.S. dealer example and features a Japanese body with a larger 2300cc SOHC engine instead of the usual 2000cc DOHC engine. The chassis number indicates it’s also an early car, and possibly a “special-purpose” car used as a mule for a possible fixed-headlight design.

The owner of the museum and its contents, who wishes to remain anonymous, started his collection with an Alfa TZ, an Alfa TZ2, and a 2000GT thanks to the success of his series of Toyota dealerships in the area. The museum was opened in 2001 with the three aforementioned cars after he kept getting requests to see them; once word was out that the facility was opening, he was flooded with offers of interesting cars to display—and purchase. Thus what’s on display are cars he likes and wanted, making the collection truly curated. Several cars have come and gone, and a couple years ago his silver LFA was displayed inside; more recently, a McLaren M6GT and Porsche 934 were sold off.

At the reception desk, the caretaker of the museum greets you, and he’ll grant you access in exchange for 800 yen—about seven bucks. Before going through the automatic sliding doors, you can’t help but take in the foyer. There’s an F1 car in the middle, memorabilia, postcards, books, model cars, and old rally videos playing on loop to prep you for what awaits inside.

Visiting the Collection

There’s a cinematic quality to how the automatic doors open to present the collection. I haven’t had a proper, jaw-dropping “holy shit” moment for a very long time, but when I first laid eyes on the cars and the presentation of this museum, my chin hit the ground and profanity slipped from between my lips.

The quality of cars is paramount but the way they’re spaced, the lighting, and the sense of tranquility inside was peak zen. The first car you notice, and it’s hard to ignore, is a DeLorean DMC-12 made into an exact replica of the one from Back to the Future films. There’s a movie poster mounted behind to drive the point home—and of course it’s an original print. The owner had this replica made after seeing the BTTF movies and becoming a fan.

Next to that was an original Shelby Cobra 427. I’ve seen a few 427s over the years, but all have been replicas. It’s simply one of those models where there are so many replicas around you just forget to look out for a real one; the caretaker assured me this one was 100 percent authentic. That’s the case with the car next to it, too, a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Competizione. Okay, there aren’t as many replicas of these running around, but there are a couple road cars that have been converted to Competizione spec. This car is one of the 15 originals from the factory. (The keen-eyed will notice the ‘Burrari’ badges on this example, a joke within the museum. It’s rather refreshing to see owners having fun with cars of this caliber.)

There are more Italian goodies. Next up was a Fiat Abarth 2000 Sport Spider, an oddly pretty-looking prototype sports car that used to share space with a Porsche 906. To the left of it, a Fiat Dino 2000 Spider. It shares the same 2.0-liter V-6 engine as 206 Dino but in a front-engine configuration. Styled by Pininfarina, built at the Ferrari factory in Maranello, and sold with a Fiat badge, it was truly a powerhouse of Italian motoring. This is one of the few Dino Spiders to end up in Japan, as these weren’t officially sold to the Japanese market.

Perhaps my favorite car was the Alfa Romeo TZ2 Zagato. I love Alfa Romeos and I love Zagato, and the TZ2 was one of the many projects to result from the two brands’ close relationship in the ’60s. While more than 100 TZs were made, there were only 12 TZ2 ‘ultimate versions’ created. The chassis remained largely the same, but the aluminum body was subbed out for a more striking FRP body. Of the 12 TZ2s, 2 are factory prototypes, four TZ2s share the same styling as the TZ1, and roughly five or six are a similar spec to the one here. It’s the only one in Japan, and is considered by many to be Alfa Romeo’s 250 GTO.

The owner clearly loves Alfas, as there is more legendary stuff wearing the marque’s trademark grille with, including an Alfa Romeo GTA1300 Junior Group 5 racing semi-works car. There’s also yet another Alfa-Zagato creation in the form of a SZ, just one of around 1000 based on the humble rear-wheel drive 75. Finally, there’s also an Alfa Romeo 155 V6 TI in full race livery. One of the most successful DTM racing cars, in 1993 the Alfa Romeo 155 won 12 out of 20 championship races, with Mercedes cars taking the balance. This No. 7 car was driven by Alessandro Nannini and took the final two races of the season.

One particular Ferrari 246GT was acquired by the owner after it had sustained damage to the body and interior after an accident. The seat and dashboard couldn’t be replicated or repaired, so instead he converted it to race-spec, with including a re-skin in aluminum that left it 440 pounds lighter than the original. The 206 S on display is among one of 12 prototype open spiders created (there were five hardtops).

The main attraction of the museum—at least for me—has to be the Cizeta Fenice TTJ Spider. Of the 20 Cizetas made, this is the only Spider in existence. Originally commissioned by Nakamichi Audio as a demo car for its premium sound systems, the Spider was acquired during the bankruptcy sale of Nakamichi more than a decade ago. Now, the open-top sibling of the Moroder V16 can only be seen in a small Japanese town.

More wild, mid-engined exotics abound, including a yellow Lamborghini Countach LP400—the purest interpretation of Marcello Gandini’s original Countach design—and a Lancia Stratos. No good collection is worth its salt without a Gandini-penned Stratos, and there are also a couple of Martini-livery Lancias here to keep that design and competition icon company: a Pininfarina-styled 037 as well as a Delta S4. Another mid-engined WRC car housed in the museum is a red Ford RS200, the first I can remember ever seeing in Japan. It’s a rare car everywhere, of course, with only 200 made. It never got the chance to prove itself in WRC, competing for just six months and four races.

I could go on and on—and don’t prompt me, because I will—as few museums have impressed me to this degree. The Shikoku Automobile Museum is truly a special place, and from its three-car roots has now grown into something so much more. The goal was to share the owner’s passion for his cars, and he’s certainly done that—emphatically. Which prompts the question: What else is hiding in remote parts of the Japanese countryside?