SHOP LIFE: A visit to Rocky Auto, Nissan resto-modder extraordinare

Rocky Auto Sign

Today’s guest writer is David Lovett of Classic Car Nagoya, who recently went on a little field trip to Rocky Auto. The famous tuning shop’s founder, Yoshiya Watanabe, will make a rare American appearance at Vintage Auto Salon this weekend so come by and meet him. —Ben

Rocky Auto is one of Japan’s most famous, not to mention most outrageous, Nissan tuners, known for swapping completely modern Nissan RBs and Lexus V8s into Japan’s iconic nostalgic cars. Some might call the creations blasphemous, others might say they’re wickedly cool. No one can deny, however, that founder Yoshiya Watanabe has made a huge impact in the nostalgic car scene in Japan. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the shop in person.

Hako GTR Parking Lot

Rocky Auto has been featured in numerous magazines, and videos, including the Retro Car Kings documentary.

As we pulled into Rocky Auto’s parking lot, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a genuine hakosuka GT-R sedan. Remember, the GT-R started out as a four-door, and the hardtop coupe we’re more used to seeing came later. It was likely a customer’s car, but it’s often that you see a real PGC10 just chillin’ in a parking lot.

Indoor Engine Picture

We took a step inside to introduce ourselves to Watanabe-san and, being the engine lover that I am, I was immediately drawn to a collection of engines on stands. In the group were three RBs, three L-series, and one genuine S20, the motor that powered the hakosuka and kenmeri GT-R and Fairlady Z 432.

2013-06-22 13.56.01

Of course, the engines were a bit overshadowed by the two genuine hakosuka GT-R hardtops and one of 197 kenmeri GT-Rs ever built. I do believe that between the main shop and his three other facilities (which unfortunately aren’t open to the public), Watanabe-san has the largest collection of Nissan Skylines and Zs in the entire country of Japan. 

791_Kenmeri_Skyline

However, Rocky Auto is mostly known for its insane resto-mods, where classic bodies are thoroughly modernized in all aspects — engine, suspension, wheels and interior. To that end, their black kenmeri is the perfect example of what the shop specializes in.

795_Kenmeri_Skyline

The first thing you notice is its beautiful engine, an RB30 with an RB26 head and a row of six individual throttle bodies. Its throttle response was absolutely insane. The sound it emanates as it revs to the moon and those six trumpets pull air has to be heard to be believed.

794_Kenmeri_Skyline

Helping the engine breathe is a set of wonderfully subtle, equal length headers. There’s also a set of camber-caster plates for the coilover suspension and an aluminum radiator used to keep everything cool.

792_Kenmeri_Skyline

Its entire rear suspension, which is usually a semi-trailing arm setup, was replaced with a full multi-link setup out of something much, much newer. This was one of Watanabe-san’s favorite cars because of how well it handled.

793_Kenmeri_Skyline

Inside you’re greeted with a very different view. I’m not particularly a fan of the R33 dash, which was fitted with a full digital race instrument cluster, but there’s no denying that it’s expertly installed and the fit and finish is without a doubt, OEM quality.

797_Kenmeri_Skyline

He was busy tinkering with it and trying to get some final adjustments hammered out so I never got a chance to grab a picture with the hood down. Regardless, aside from the beautiful black paint, the best part about this car is what’s under the skin.

600 HP S30 1

Behind the kenmeri was this absolutely wild S30 Z, rocking a T04Z ball-bearing turbo on an RB26 with big cams and a very trick manifold. It’s a kyuusha-turned-wangan brute, and it put down a surprisingly usable and torquey 600 horsepower.

600 HP S30 Engine

The madness didn’t stop at the engine either, the suspension had been completely reworked, there were enough bars in the roll cage that it could pass for a jungle gym, and the tires were so wide that you could turn them in homes for small animals. The interior even got the full works with a dizzying array of instruments, a flocked dash and full carpeting.

Shop

Aside from a trio of Skylines and parts like you would not believe, it seemed that all the excitement was, oddly, outside of the shop. So we headed back out into the daylight to wade our way through the field of cars.

V8 Skyline 1

We stopped to take a look at this Skyline, which from the outside appears to be a normal, lowered hakosuka.

V8 Skyline Engine

But peek under the hood and you’ll discover it’s none other than the V8 hakosuka that made such a big splash at Nostalgic 2 Days. We actually had the pleasure of hearing this Lexus 1UZ-powered Frankenstein run for a bit and it sounds like God bellowing with laughter.

Fairlady Getting New Panels

Hidden around the corner of the lot was a sad looking S30 Fairlady Z. You can see that rust had taken its toll and that the car is in the process of getting new panels, it has apparently taken a back seat to some more pressing projects.

S130 1

Elsewhere on the lot, I found a beautiful and rare 2-seater S130 Fairlady Z. What made this one unusual was that it did not have T-tops. It had obviously been restored, and whoever worked on it did a great job, I might add. I was never a huge fan of S130s, but this car, for some reason, is ranking very high on my want list.

Z31s

The massive lot also housed a row of  Z31 300ZXs, many in fairly sad shape. I desperately wanted to save them because there’s a very special place in my heart for Z31s.

Skyline Under Junk

As we ventured back in to say goodbye, I noticed that one of the genuine GT-Rs in the back was under quite a lot of stuff. I asked Watanabe-san about it and he told me to go take a photo of the license plate. Who was I to refuse?

Skyline License Plate

To most, this picture means nothing, but the license plate is actually something quite special. In Japan, whenever a car changes owners or is de-registered its plates are sent in to the rikuunkyoku, or vehicle registration center, and subsequently destroyed, whereupon new plates are made and re-issued. This plate, however, was the original plate, with only one digit on top rather than three, from when the car was brand new. That means that this KPGC10 GT-R is a one owner car!

S20 Engine

After drooling over the S20 engine on the stand one last time I had to ask about its price. As it turns out, it needs a rebuild, but if you buy as-is, it can be yours for the easy price of ¥3,000,000 ($30,000 USD)! Not exactly cheap, but considering its rarity and place in history, it’s not that bad either. Sadly, I had to decline and politely said goodbye to Watanabe-san.

However, American fans of Rocky Auto will be able to meet the legend himself this weekend at the Vintage Auto Salon in San Leandro. He’ll be signing autographs for fans, so be sure to come by and say hello!

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20 Responses to SHOP LIFE: A visit to Rocky Auto, Nissan resto-modder extraordinare

  1. Nigel said:

    Awesome story…wish I could buy one of those 300Z’s.

    • Nakazoto said:

      You and me both! I currently own an 88 SS and seeing those Z31s in that state just makes me sad. Hopefully, someone someday will start saving them!

  2. invinciblejets said:

    Wow 30000$ for the s20… that’s crazy

    The One owner hakosuka has me drooling…. I hope it doesn’t have some Lexus v8 in it tho….

    • Nakazoto said:

      The one owner Hako GTR was indeed 100% original. Watanabe san likes crazy resto mods, but he knows that Hako GTRs need to be kept original!

  3. goki said:

    Met Watanabe-san twice at Rocky Auto and is a really cool guy. He’s friendly and let me walk around his shop freely and take a bunch of pictures. Unfortunately I won’t be able to meet him when he comes to the San Leandro :(

    David did an awesome job of describing what Rocky Auto is all about. GOOD JOB, my man!

    For those with facebook, my pics can be seen here:
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.484580571630159.1073741838.119618854793001&type=3

  4. Kevin Truong said:

    One owner with a bunch of junk on top of the trunk? Lol. That car would be gold over here!

    • Nakazoto said:

      That car is gold over here too! It’s easily a 100 grand car. I found it a little strange that he had a bunch of stuff stacked up on it, but considering that he had 4 more genuine GTRs and a Kenmeri GTR hanging around the shop, I’m guessing he’s getting a bit jaded, haha.

  5. John M said:

    Love It! (no pun intended) As Goki mentioned, David did a great job with the write-up! I was fortunate enough to be along for the ride and recorded a couple of the engines running. If you want a listen, check out our facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/InlandEmpireZ#!/photo.php?v=224441084375505

    • Nakazoto said:

      I’ve been keeping up with your posts on the Empire Z Facebook page, you got some fantastic photos! I was impressed at the quality of photos that little smartphone/media thing you had took, haha.

  6. Bart said:

    Sucks, I was invited to this weekend’s event. I would be going for sure in the Impulse, but alas, I have a work trip out of town this weekend that cannot be avoided. :(

  7. GEN2TWINCAM said:

    For those who have not seen this, here is a great Discovery Chanel program that features a segment about Rocky’s.

  8. Ryan said:

    Sweet write up. The 26/30 in the C110 looks fantastic; no chance of a video was there??

    I’m pretty interested to know what a genuine KPGC10 trade for, both in need of resto (are there even any?) or ‘complete’? What about a Z432?

    I heared figures of 6,000,000Y for a 432 a little while ago (in need of a good barbeque rebuild), but it’s all hearsay..

    • Nakazoto said:

      I did take a video of it running, but the shear noise put out pretty much maxed out the mic on my camera, resulting in a loud video rife with awful noise. It didn’t do it justice in the slightest.

      KPGC10s tend to trade for around 10,000,000 yen, give or take a bit depending on the quality of restoration. One’s in need of a resto go for a bit cheaper. PGC10s also go for a bit less as well, around 8,000,000 yen.

      Fully resto’d 432s and KPGC110s pull slightly bigger numbers than KPGC10s, but I reckon that’s due to the rarity.

      The 432 Z you heard about priced at around 6,000,000 yen in need of a rebuild is actually a car owned by Classic Car Nagoya! It’s still there and still priced at about 6,000,000 yen pre resto!

  9. Very nice and cool cars.
    But MAZDA RX3 have it?

    • Nakazoto said:

      Rocky Auto focuses mainly on Nissans. He occasionally gets another car in stock (like the S800 seen peeking out from behind the black S30 monster), but it’s pretty rare.

  10. Taylor said:

    I’m Came’ing

  11. Tyler said:

    The R33 dash in the Kenmeri really confuses me… why buy a 70′s car if you’re going to retrofit the entire interior, engine, suspension, undercarriage? To me that would be like ordering a cheeseburger then substituting all the ingredients until you come out with a beef taco. Why not just order the taco in the first place?

    • kouper said:

      I disagree with the analogy for one. It’s more like enjoying the look of a classic car without actually wanting a classic car. I’ve owned a couple cars from the 60′s and 70′s, I still think they’re among the best looking cars on the planet but at this point I’m not sure I’d want to own another just because of little things like the seats or stereo (or lack of) or maybe even just wanting a newer engine. I love resto mods that are done well because they are always so unique and different.

      Would I do a resto mod like that to a kenmeri? Probly not but I can appreciate it. However I would totally do a resto mod like that to an R-30 or R-31, and I fully intend to once I get out of my financial slump.

  12. Jose alvarez said:

    Hello i would be making a trip to japan for the first time this coming up year and this would be one of my stops. Does any know there adress in japan making list of shops to visit thanks ! Vistecrimports@hotmail.com for info