Travel | ON THE ROAD

Low and slow — Nagoya's slice of Southern California

Second of two parts

Nagoya is the sister city to both Los Angeles and Mexico City, so it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that its people are also nuts about Southern Californian car culture.

Since the early 1980s, several noteworthy custom-car garages in Aichi Prefecture’s capital, on Japan’s Pacific coast, have studied the nuanced and highly specialized stylistic vocabulary of L.A. lowrider cars, with many there purchasing American cars from the 1960s and ’70s and refashioning them into eye-catching Japanese Mex-Am car cultura.

As is the case in the United States, Chevrolet is the marque of choice for Japanese lowrider builders. Mexican-American lowrider tastes have always considered Chevy looks to be more stylish other car builders’. Particularly popular are ’70s Impala and Caprice models, and also mid-’50s 210 two-door or Fleetline four-door models powered by straight-six, 235 three-speed engines.

Nagoya builders follow the L.A. approach, fitting the cars with front hydraulics and rear air suspension, and then dropping them to the street. Lowriding sensibility is all about the “scape” — a reference to the landscape or streetscape. Bodies are repainted in super thick, multicoat candy or flake colors accented with a complex of stenciled graphics. Lowriding car culture focuses on the cruise: Style and presentation take precedence over speed.

Several custom-car builders in Nagoya have contributed to the area’s lowrider mystique, including Hideki Kato’s Border’s “King of Kustom,” Hisashi Ushida’s Cholo’s Custom and Yoshitaka Imai’s Good Fellows Garage. The highly stylized cars sitting in the driveways of these garages have looks connected to the particular aesthetics of the shop. These cars are not the byproduct of random choices; combinations of bodyline, form, color, stance, engine package and muffler percussion noise represent different lineages. The perseverance of some forms over others reflects a mysterious conventionalism and a privately appreciated sense of beauty and harmony.

The lowrider sensibility traces its roots to 1930s Mexican-American culture in Southern California and the southwest of the United States. In Mexican-American neighborhoods from East Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas, young Mexican- American men distinguished themselves by dressing radically and dropping the stance of their cars to the pavement. In a visual revolution of ethnic pride, L.A. zoot-suiters of the ’40s and ’50s, who called themselves “Pachucos,” created quite a show — openly antagonizing mainstream white Californian middle-class culture.

They slicked back their hair, buff-shined their black pointed shoes and calmly sauntered the evening streets wearing top-heavy oversize zoot suits with pinned legs and fedora hats with exaggerated, wide brims. On weekend nights they cruised the streets in artfully restored Chevys, not Fords, from the ’30s and ’40s in a show of ethnic validation and pride. Business coupe Fords of the day were associated with the white establishment and therefore were passed over.

In the first examples of dropping cars to the street, young Pachucos filled the trunks of their Chevys with sandbags or clipped off a few leaf springs from the suspension, forcing their cars to ride low. They slowly cruised East L.A. barrio streets in a show of exaggerated style that mirrored the traditional Pasao dance of sexual flirtation once practiced between young men and women in the central plazas of Mexican villages. These early lowrider cruises articulated distinct statements of class, ethnicity and style very different from the unhinged, volatile speed of ’50s white teenage SoCal hot-rod car culture.

Paradise Road is located in the Meitou-ku district of Nagoya. The garage is owned by Junichi Shimodaira, who has been building lowrider and custom cars since 1987. Shimodaira is known for customizing less popular American car models and styles. His shop celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and its reputation attracted a visit from American Kustom Kulture icon Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in 2001.

Interest in lowriders started in Japan during the ’80s, according to Shimodaira. At that time most car freaks were bosozoku-type bad boys. They had bike and car clubs that originated during the ’50s and were often recruiting grounds for the yakuza mobsters.

“These guys were the first to get interested in the super-low look of cars,” Shimodaira said. “The low stance of a car was important for young guys in Japan. First they customized the suspensions to drop the car way down. They retuned the engines and used new paint colors.

“I first saw American car magazines back in 1981,” Shimodaira continued. “That’s when I first saw lowriders. I had no idea they were based in California- Mexican culture. I liked the look of those low cars, so I started digging around for more information about the culture of it.

“I went to L.A. for the first time in 1987 when I was 27 years old. I couldn’t speak much English but I found a Pep Boys auto-accessories shop. There were cars parked there with very low stances, amazing wire wheels and very slick paint jobs. I took a lot of photos. When I got back to Japan I showed these photos to some bosozoku guys. They were completely shocked. They had no idea about this Mexican lowrider scene. They had their hands on their chins looking at the photos. I could see their gears grinding.”

Seeing the beauty in these exotic foreign machines had a profound effect on Shimodaira and the bosozoku. Here were new forms of visual prestige from a far-off place.

“Japan lowrider culture first started in Nagoya,” Shimodaira said. “The car people here are proud of this fact. All the shops in Nagoya are friendly with each other. We often have cruise nights together with many different cars from different garages. The car culture here is different from places such as Tokyo. Tokyo and Osaka are big cities; Nagoya is smaller and people here have different attitudes. The Toyota, Yamaha and Honda companies are here, and this adds to the car-culture feeling.”

Anthropologist and photographer Michael McCabe traveled with a group of enthusiasts of American cars in 2007. His book “Kustom Japan” is published by Hardy Marks (2008) ¥3,750. Available online at www.lastgasp.com; Mooneyes, Yokohama

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner