Singer-songwriter and comedian George Tokoro is no stranger to vintage cars. A self-proclaimed “car guy,” he is famous not only as one of the most familiar faces on Japanese television, but also for being one of the country’s most high-profile evangelists of automotive culture.
“I don’t like American cars because they’re great,” Tokoro says, perching between a circa 1950s Ford F1 truck and a 1970s-era Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. “I like American cars because they’re interesting.”
While he plays a funnyman on TV, Tokoro takes his motor vehicle passion seriously, with a personal collection of American muscle cars, motorcycles and memorabilia large enough to fill an Alabama antique mall.
Tokoro is giving The Japan Times a tour of his expansive Setagaya Base compound, a massive man cave nestled in the prestigious Seijo neighborhood among some of Tokyo’s most prestigious homes, including his own.
A creative way to mix business and pleasure, Setagaya Base also serves as the office for his production company, TV Club, and the set of his BS Fuji late-night show “Tokoro-san’s Setagaya Base,” which gives fans an insight into his myriad hobbies.
Tokoro certainly doesn’t mince his words when it comes the crisis facing the country’s vintage car culture. “Unlike kids in Japan, who are given some free license to act without thinking, adults tend to focus on the risk and the potential for disappointment if something goes wrong,” Tokoro says. “Japanese adults simply don’t know how to have fun.”
He says vintage cars are inherently unpredictable and prone to mechanical failures, which doesn’t jive with the average Japanese consumer’s high expectation of perfection and reliability. “This type of person isn’t able to enjoy an experience with a vintage car,” Tokoro says. “Like kids, (fans of vintage cars) have to be the type of people who won’t hesitate to play in the sandbox and get dirty.”
Tokoro laments how this also affects vintage car events. “They are generally not cool or fun because the people involved in planning are too obsessed with risk and safety,” he says. “For this reason, I haven’t felt compelled to participate.”
Tokoro became enamored with vintage cars at an early age. “When I was 20, I bought a Chevrolet Corvette that was about 10 years old,” he recalls. “Ever since, my interest has been focused on cars of that era. I don’t really consider them to be vintage cars, though. In my mind they’re just cool cars.”
Asked to point out his favorite vehicle, Tokoro says he has always been attracted to Corvettes. Purchased 20 years ago, his current Corvette is a Series 2 of the same vintage as his first car.
While Tokoro is best known for his love of Americana, he is also the owner of a 1970s “Hakosuka” Nissan Skyline, which he likes “because, like many vintage Japanese cars, it looks American and even smells like America.”
Tokoro also owns several modern European cars, including an Audi S6 sports sedan and a Mercedes SLS supercar.
The Mercedes SLS has been customized to look like a vintage American car. A modified Chevrolet Camaro-style grille has been added to the vehicle, while custom American Racing alloy wheels have been fitted to make the car look like it has come straight out of Detroit.
The Audi S6 is Tokoro’s daily driver. It is more subdued in appearance but has one caveat. “Audi’s standard logo has four rings, the Olympics has five rings,” Tokoro says. “I customized my car’s rear badge to have six rings!”
Tokoro gets poetic about the value of owning a vintage car. “It is less about convenience and more like a folk tale,” he says. “For instance, you buy an old car, put in a new battery and crank the engine but it does not start. Finding the root of the problem, fixing it and then figuring out what else isn’t working properly is part of the charm and the mystery.
“An unreliable vintage car will teach you patience. It is an experience that makes you feel alive,” Tokoro says. “I think people young and old can learn and benefit from this experience.”
When asked why a growing number of young people in Japan didn’t appear to be interested in owning a vintage car, let alone any motor vehicle, Tokoro blames the high tax rates levied on the vehicles. He also criticizes the strict regulations mandating semiannual vehicle inspections and dedicated parking spaces, as well as recluse collectors who keep their collections out of the public eye.
“Japan wasn’t always like this,” Tokoro says, recalling the golden age of the 1980s where “it was OK to be flashy. There were plenty of people who could afford and were encouraged to purchase and customize their own cars, and the rules weren’t so ridiculous.”
Even a celebrity such as Tokoro is not immune to the societal pressures of modern-day Japan, something the TV personality is certainly aware of. “I try to adjust the way I enjoy my hobby so that it does not ruffle any feathers,” he says. “Vintage cars need to be warmed up, but I typically drive off without doing to avoid any noise complaints.”
Fans who expect to see Tokoro hurtling around Fuji Speedway at top speed in his souped-up 1969 Plymouth Road Runner will be disappointed, however. “I’m not really interested in track days,” he says. “Actually I’d rather just take one of my cars out when traffic is less congested.”
Tokoro readily admits to preferring early morning cruises, a popular pastime among Tokyo’s gearheads. As far as Tokoro is concerned, the future is far from bleak for fans of vintage cars in Japan.
“Various obstacles make it difficult to expand vintage car culture in Japan. However, the infrastructure is here,” he says. “Due to Japanese ingenuity, craftsmanship and attention to detail, we have world-class restorers and repair shops. Some of the most pristine and best examples of vintage cars exist in Japan.
“Japan is truly a magnificent country to see by car. Traveling by train or bus certainly requires less effort, but with a car the places that you travel through and stop by become part of the story of your trip.”