Few are aware that Japan is a Mecca for classic car enthusiasts worldwide. Boasting a world-class national road network of blacktop roads, bridges and tunnels, the country is the perfect place to cruise around in a 1950s Rolls-Royce limousine or a 1970s Nissan Skyline GT-R, which fans dubbed “Hakosuka” in a nod to its box-like design.
The country is home to some of the rarest and best-maintained classic cars on Earth. Japan’s auto industry is one of the largest industries in the world, with 9.20 million vehicles manufactured in 2016 accounting for 9.47 percent of global production.
As a result, there is an abundance of support from both domestic and foreign manufacturers, not just in providing heritage parts for their own cars but also through events, sponsorship and patronage of the hobby.
At the same time, the country’s classic car culture is at risk of falling into obscurity. The rapidly aging population of owners, high cost of taxes and maintenance, and lack of interest among young people are key factors behind the decline.
Nonenthusiasts also question whether Japan should continue to allow these machines of yesteryear on public roads, as they often lack emission controls and safety features, consume a large volume of fuel and are prone to breakdowns.
What constitutes a “classic car”? Many in the industry would agree the definition would apply to any car that is more than 30 years old, meaning any vehicle manufactured before 1987 would meet this classification.
If cars manufactured in the 1980s don’t quite conjure up the classic image you might have in mind, you’re not alone: A number of leading competitive classic car rallies continue to limit participation to vehicles that were manufactured before 1969.
However, an increasing number of events allow cars manufactured before 1990, as certain models of the 1970s and ’80s have become increasingly rare. Some events in Europe make a “young-timer” distinction that includes pre-classic collectable models that are 20 to 30 years old, making vehicles manufactured before 1997 eligible.
Many collectors seek out vehicles they either owned or admired in their youth. For instance, cars manufactured in the ’90s have a special appeal to younger enthusiasts who remember them as children.
Japan’s auto industry has a rich history that can be traced back to the dawn of motor vehicles.
In the years before World War II, car ownership was primarily a passion of the elite, especially popular among those who traveled abroad to study. Famous enthusiasts of the prewar era include former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and businessman Jiro Shirasu, high-society contemporaries who shared a passion for British motorcars of the highest caliber.
As economic opportunities spread to the middle class in the postwar era, car ownership and car mania in Japan grew exponentially. During Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, classic examples of exotic marques — among them, Rolls-Royce and Ferrari models — were imported by the boatload.
Current notable classic car owners in Japan include TV personality and comedian George Tokoro, director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and performer Masaaki Sakai. Arguably the most famous proponent of Japan’s car culture, Tokoro often discusses his passion for vintage American cars on TV and he hosted a long-running variety show in the ’90s that focused on the country’s car culture.
One factor that is helping to keep Japan’s classic car culture alive is supply. For one thing, vehicles have to stay on the road and out of the junk yard long enough to achieve classic status.
A 2016 survey by the Automobile Inspection and Registration Information Association showed the average car in Japan is used for 12.76 years, which is similar to averages in the United States and Europe.
The same survey found that 0.64 percent of cars on the road in Japan are more than 30 years old. Out of 39,354,645 total car models on the road in 2016, 250,661 could be categorized as classic in Japan.
Since most vehicles continue to depreciate in value until they are deemed classics, most are scrapped before they reach this status. This diminishes the overall stock of classic models significantly, although it also creates cult classics such as the mass-produced Morris Mini. More than 5 million Minis were produced between 1959 and 2000, making it one of the most-produced vehicles in U.K. history. However, popular as it may have been, classic Mini models are now extremely valuable because most older models have been scrapped.
Japan actually boasts a strong stockpile of vintage cars, but the story is less promising when it comes to demand, making the future of collecting such vehicles uncertain.
A variety of demographic and social factors are currently contributing to the dwindling number of classic car owners.
There is an apparent lack of interest in old cars among younger generations in Japan, and many Japanese in urban areas don’t own any vehicle at all. Many prefer to live in city centers and utilize public transport, giving up on car ownership altogether. In addition, the main population base of classic car enthusiasts in Japan is rapidly aging.
Owning a vintage car in Japan is expensive. The annual road tax and mandatory shaken inspection every two years weigh heavily on the wallets of those who maintain a classic vehicle they don’t drive daily.
There is also no tax dispensation for owning a vintage car in Japan. Other countries with similar rich automotive histories such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States offer a “classic car” registration status that carries benefits such as lower tax rates and an exemption from certain inspections. In Japan, however, registered gasoline-powered cars that are more than 13 years old are taxed at a 15 percent higher rate than younger models.
Only registered car owners are required to pay this tax, with an unknown number of owners letting their registration lapse to save money. Some of these unregistered classics are driven illegally but the vast majority are left untouched.
Priceless cars left sitting in the open typically deteriorate beyond repair, and a stroll through a variety of Tokyo neighborhoods will reveal carport queens long past their prime.
The lack of domestic demand for vintage cars has already led to a rise in exports of rare, sometimes one-of-a-kind cars overseas. This strikes fear into the hearts of domestic enthusiasts, who do not want Japan to lose its classic vehicles.
However, there is still a glimmer of hope for classic car ownership in Japan. The Diet has shown an interest in preserving the country’s classic car culture. In 2016, a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers established an entity called the Parliamentarians’ Union to Consider Automotive Culture to develop a broad policy to protect Japan’s car culture and discuss reversing the tax rates levied against older vehicles.
Other saviors are the internet, social media and international logistics, which together have made being a classic car enthusiast easier than ever before.
Flying Spares, a U.K.-based parts supplier for Rolls-Royce and Bentley, has responded to the uptick in tech-savvy customers by releasing a parts catalog via iPhone app. Systems such as this allow enthusiasts worldwide to find the vehicle or auto part they need and order it online.
Also available online is an endless amount of troubleshooting advice, tips on the characteristics of various classic models, buying guides and forums where owners trade maintenance tips.
Amid the recent surge in events related to vintage cars and various efforts to reduce the hurdles of ownership and maintenance, there is still hope that Japan’s classic car culture will continue to grow.
That said, it’s actually quite difficult to assess the current state of play in Japan. A multitude of leading collectors shy from the public spotlight, and the only way you can confirm the existence of these individuals is by talking to their mechanics.
Hirofumi Igarashi, owner of Garage Igarashi, is one such mechanic. Located in a nondescript site next to a family restaurant in Saitama Prefecture just north of Tokyo, Igarashi Garage is one of the country’s largest independent repair shops, boasting a team of more than 20 mechanics.
Igarashi established his operation in 1983 after serving as head mechanic for Cornes Motors, official importer for Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Ferrari, among others.
“It goes up and down with the economy,” Igarashi says, speaking on the state of vintage car collectors. “Of course, nothing can compare to the activity in the bubble era, and there was a fall from grace coinciding with the lost decade. Now, however, the gradual economic uptick has resulted in more new enthusiasts coming out of the woodwork.”
Igarashi calls for the tax system on vintage cars to be reformed.
“The existing tax system was designed to encourage people to buy new cars and dispose of their old ones,” he says. “This essentially punishes classic car owners and increases the cost of entry to an already expensive hobby. This is unfair and should be changed.”
Igarashi is optimistic but skeptical about any uptick in events.
“It’s great to have more places for enthusiasts to gather and enjoy the hobby, but it has become very commercial,” he says. “Entry to several of these new upstart classic car rallies is unreasonably expensive, which limits participation to the wealthy. It is important that the culture stays true to its fans and has an open nature that encourages more people to get involved.”
He also wishes reclusive collectors weren’t so difficult to get hold of.
“It’s no secret that repair shops such as mine owe a lot of our business to mega-collectors, who often have collections of more than 10 highly prized collectable classic cars,” Igarashi says. “They keep a low profile, but their machines require constant maintenance and care. This is good for business, but it would be better if these collections were less of a mystery.”
Igarashi believes many collectors choose to remain in the shadows, away from car shows and vintage rallies, to avoid accusations of conspicuous consumption and being targeted as high net-worth individuals.
However, he says, “Japanese people should know about the amazing collections that exist in Japan and be able see them for themselves. That would really contribute to our hobby.”
Catch these vintage car events on the road near you
In recent years, Japan’s auto magazines, car clubs, classic dealers, prominent collectors and others in the industry have been making increased efforts to court new classic car enthusiasts through various events and rallies.
If you head to Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, you will find Wakui Museum, which boasts the country’s largest collection of Rolls-Royce and Bentleys. Among the cars on display is the 1927 Bentley 4.5 “Old Mother Gun” that won the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race in 1928.
Tsutaya T-Site in Tokyo’s Daikanyama neighborhood has become a popular spot among enthusiasts. On most second Sundays of the month, Tsutaya hosts Morning Cruise car events, each time based on a different theme: One week it’s “red cars,” another week is “Aston Martin.” Organized by Tsutaya’s car and bike section, the event has become a mainstay among enthusiasts of both new and classic cars.
Automobile Council is a new convention that was launched last year with the stated goal of “sparking a renaissance of car culture in Japan.” Running through Aug. 6, the 2017 iteration is expected to attract more than 70 exhibitors at Makuhari Messe and feature an interesting mix of classic car dealers, automakers and owners’ clubs.
Billed as “the first competitive U.K.-organized rally ever to visit Japan,” Samurai Challenge 2017 took place over three weeks in April, covering 4,600 kilometers from Fukuoka to Hokkaido. Among the 53 participants were automotive masterpieces such as a 1929 Bentley 4.5 and a 1953 Jaguar XK120, which are more likely to be seen at a Las Vegas auction or car museum than tooling through winding roads in the Japanese countryside.
Earlier this year, car nuts of the speed-hungry variety flocked to Asama Hill Climb in the mountains of Karuizawa, where a stretch of road was closed off to the public for two days in May to host speed limit-breaking competition races among classic cars as well as race-tuned modern cars.
Tour de Michinoku is a two-day 400-kilometer rally that is held in the northern Tohoku region. Established in 2007, the event took a three-year hiatus due to the March 11, 2011, triple disaster, but returned in 2014 and has rebounded to surpass pre-3/11 participation. This year’s rally sets off Sept. 9 with more than 70 participants in Shiwa, Iwate Prefecture.
Historica GP, a hybrid rally and car show where more than 200 vintage and classic cars go on display by the seaside in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, takes place on Sept. 23-24. (Parker J. Allen) Continued from page 11