To be a car enthusiast in Japan takes a lot more effort than in America or the UK. First of all there are hardly any parking spaces. You have to prove you have a space before you can buy a car and most of the guys wind up doing their work outside on the street because garages are only for the most privileged or wealthy.
In America, if your car is more than 30 years old you can register it for next to nothing. In Japan, the older your car is, the more you have to pay to keep it. You show up at the shop for the equivalent of an inspection with a car from the ’70s and they go over it with a fine-tooth comb, and it takes hours and hours. All for a car you might drive only a couple of thousand miles a year.
So when you run into these enthusiasts in Japan, they are hardcore kind of guys. There are a lot of enthusiasts who don’t even have driving licences but they drive on Nintendo and PlayStation. They know all the tracks, they know all the cars, but they just don’t have any hands-on experience with them.
There’s a snobbery about Western car enthusiasts, that we have the heritage, we own the heritage. But Japanese cars have been around long enough to have a heritage of their own.
In America, when we make a mistake we come back and blame the other guy. When the Japanese make a mistake they blame themselves, they throw themselves on their swords and they come back harder and faster with something better.
The Honda NSX is the car that made Ferrari better. Ferrari was quite content to put out 220bhp cars in the early ’70s and ’80s that were really not up to Ferrari’s standards. Then the NSX came along and just embarrassed everybody and made everybody up their game. The NSX was the car that Gordon Murray felt the F1 should emulate, but the trouble was that at the time the Japanese had a gentleman’s agreement not to produce any car with more than 276 horsepower. We did not appreciate the finesse of the NSX; the jewel-like quality of the build, the handling, the fact that Senna himself played an active role in its design. We thought it was OK, but without ever driving it and (for most people) without ever seeing it, we dismissed it as some sort of Japanese wannabe. Which of course it wasn’t.
I drove the Lexus LFA Spider while in Japan, which is very cool. The LFA is proof that the Japanese believe a car should be able to perform every purpose well. Westerners like flaws. You get some of these Japanese supercars and they don’t break. They’re bulletproof and they don’t require a lot of effort from you as an owner, so consequently there’s nothing for you to brag about. You can’t say, well they originally weren’t able to do this, but I modified it. That adds a certain cachet. The LFA does everything really well.
I would say that the Mazda Miata is the most globally successful British car that the Japanese sort of reinvented and did correctly. The British were there first with the Lotus Elan and the MGB; if only they had put a little bit more effort into it and ploughed money back into development instead of whatever they did – when I was a kid they were everywhere and everybody had problems with them. The diehards worked the problems out and the regular people just said ‘Forget it’. I remember a quote from a British motorcycle company executive saying the average motorcycle enthusiast enjoyed decoking his head on a Saturday morning. No doubt some did…
When the Miata came along it was a hard sell. It was a secretary’s car and a hairdresser’s car. And then people drove it and discovered that it was as good as the Lotus or the MG – maybe better. I had one and the battery lasted 13 years. It handled, it was fun to drive, and I would say to myself when I drove it that this was really kind of a perfect car.
I also drove the current GT-R in Tokyo. You buy a car like that and by rights it should cost a million dollars. Technically it does things that are just unbelievable.
I’m always suspicious of these tuners who claim to double the horsepower of your GT-R. Well, no, you can’t. The guys who built these things are real engineers. I’ve been in the clean room where they make these GT-Rs and the level of detail is amazing. They wear gloves and hairnets. And yet you’re supposed to let some guy in some filthy garage in LA take your engine apart in order to try to get more horsepower? I don’t think so.