Japanese Nostalgic Car profiles cover


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Wagon Masters
The Maehara Brothers' Crown Wagons run in the family.

W agons have always gotten a bum rap in the United States. Originally nothing more than oversized buggies that shuttled passengers and luggage from train stations into town, in time these beasts of burden evolved enough utility and comfort to be called into duty as baby ferries. Early wagons had rear panels made of wood but the high maintenance required of these "woodies" faded them from fashion after World War II, replaced by all-steel bodies that, nonsensically, still sported faux wood paneling. Tragically, the more they surged in popularity amongst moms with a flock of kids in tow, the quicker their coolness factor plummeted in the eyes of mainstream America.

If Chrysler had continued on its toboggan ride to bankruptcy in 1984, that stigma may have stuck. Thankfully, they released the minivan instead. That year saw the debut of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager twins and as a result, a cursed new conveyance inhibited the visibility of sports car driver everywhere, little league soccer membership immediately quadrupled, and wagons were granted a small chance of being hip again.

Elsewhere in 1984, a young Katsuyuki Maehara stepped off a plane at LAX to attend the Summer Games of the 23rd Olympics. As an unpretentious high school student and car enthusiast from Japan, the sight of swarms of Japanese cars cruising the streets of Los Angeles surprised him to be sure, but there was something else in the picture didn't look quite right. The lights, the colors, the door-mounted mirrors: these cars were USDM!

Inevitably, rarity begets desirability. In no place could this statement ring more true than in our beloved Japanese car scene. Debut a nice-looking JDM part and by the next season half a dozen knockoffs sold by companies with vaguely Japanese-sounding names flood the adverts of the tuner mags. Not that the nostalgic community, ourselves at JNC included, are completely guilt free either. We all know and love people who desperately hunt down parts like fender mirrors, flush bumpers and four spoke rims as if they were starving lions stalking the last antelope in Africa.

On the other hand consider Japan, where although vintage rides aren't common, vintage rides built for the export market are nonexistent. The cars may have originated in Japan, but the preferences of overseas customers and the byzantine layers of government bureaucracy quickly conspired to spawn a mountain of tiny variances that would, decades later, create enough confusion among enthusiasts to rival the destruction of the Tower of Babel. In fact, these differences have created a movement known as hokubei siyou, or North American style, in which our Japanese counterparts obsessively chase down the alternate minutiae of their cars available only on our side of the Pacific.

For nostalgic hokubei enthusiasts like Maehara, the sine qua non is the good ol' Toyota Crown, second through fourth generations. That's not to diminish the first generation's significance in any way. After all, the chrome-decoed suicide-doored machine was top shelf stuff in Japan. Its (relatively) luxurious features and ornate details suited a nation with narrow streets and a yet to be developed expressway system just fine, but the same formula tanked it in the US circa 1958, thanks to its paltry 61hp and handling, or lack thereof, at high speeds.

In September 1962 the second generation debuted, and though its 89 horses still made it an underpowered alternative to American land yachts at the time, the huge departure in styling meant that at least it didn't have to look that way anymore. No longer staid, upright and seemingly shaped without any concern for aerodynamics, the new sedan was composed of broad surfaces and lines that extended down the full length of the car, giving it a low, long and sleek silhouette. Ripe for a sun-drenched sojourn down a distant stretch of highway, the S40 Crown set free the imagination of vintage hokubei nuts everywhere who longed for life on the open road.

The design of the next generation further expanded on this notion, sharpening its fluid character lines and streamlining the profile. It was September 1967 and by then Japan did indeed have actual open roads one could drive on, but Crown sedans for the most part remained the chariots of the elite. While the rest of Japan got by on miniscule tin econoboxes, smooth and steadfast Crown saloons prowled any turf marked by monolithic office buildings and besuited businessmen. Most of these luxury town cars served as chauffeur-driven limousines, almost always finished in black or some similarly dark color, steering wheels handled only by gloved hands.

In an effort to get more regular folks on board, Toyota embarked on a wide-reaching advertising campaign to distance Crowns from the image of executive coach and came up with the novel idea of dipping them in the color white. The blitz worked, and to this day observing rush hour from a Tokyo skyscraper is like peering down at an endless parade of mahjong tiles.

By 1971, it became apparent that Toyota had gotten a little too carried away with the ostentatious styling of the fourth generation Crown and gave up much of its market to the Nissan Cedric and Gloria. Although the kujiras, or whales, sold poorly at the time, nostalgic interest in modern times has given them new life, boosted in no small part by the superstar popularity of the previous generations.

Oddly then, that even in its heyday Toyota sold decidedly downscale variants of the Crown meant for commercial duty: an El Camino-like pickup, a short-bed double-pick complete with rear seat, and of course, vans. To clarify, what we recognize as strictly wagon - four doors, elongated roofline over a rear cargo area that ends in a vertically sloped stern, chassis and front end shared with a sedan - the Japanese might call a van if intended for commercial use, while a vehicle with an identical outwardly appearance would carry the wagon label if privately used. Got that? Well, in post-war Japan they were almost all vans. Early wagons were about as cool as a white Ford Econoline.

Except that that would be the conventional view, and hokubei fans tend to fly in the face of that. An MS52 Crown Wagon, like the one Katsuyuki's young father Katsunaga Maehara purchased new back in the day to cart his family around in, may have resembled a humble work van initially, but it didn't say that way for long. Paying tribute to the American style wagons that had managed to shed their utilitarian roots, Maehara-san senior customized the nondescript vehicle with fat five-spoke wheels, roof rack, wood paneling and, last but not least, a bonnet-cloaking flaming chicken a la Trans Am in grand seventies style.

A truly dedicated enthusiast, he never sold this car and eventually it became a catalyst inspiring a love for all things nostalgic. Along with his sons, the clan has, over the years, amassed an astounding 30-car collection of vintage automobiles that most of us would defile a holy man for, nearly all Toyotas and mostly Crowns. Katsuyuki and younger brother Katsuo now reside in Tokyo and continue the tradition. Hokubei freaks to the core, they reserve a special place in their hearts for third-gen wagons like their father's.

As luck and eBay would have it, one day back in 2000 the brothers unearthed a 1968 MS53L Crown Wagon, sans engine, halfway around the world in a place called Colorado. Naturally, RHD cars hold a Cindy-Crawford-in-a-Pepsi- commercial-like spell over hokubei aficionados, and this USDM model, with its bucket seats, floor-mounted shifter, unique taillights, and a tailgate hinged on the left, was no exception. A few clicks and a couple of faxes later, a truck was lugging it over the Rockies towards Los Angeles, where the Maeharas would meet it in person for the first time.

If any lesson can be learned from the drama that soon unfolded, it's this: it takes cojones to buy a used car sight unseen on the opposite side of the globe and if you ever attempt something like this, prepare yourself for the unexpected. The first clue that the previous owner may have been less than forthright was the abominable waft that immediately initiated large-scale combat operations on the brothers' nostrils. If the condition of the interior gave the impression that it had only recently served as the primary residence of a medium-sized animal, that's because it did. The subsequent cleaning of the former doghouse got the Maeharas unceremoniously booted from the garage that they had just gone through considerable trouble, having no US mailing address, to rent.

Both brothers work in the medical profession, and the five days of vacation they have available each year can only be described as inhumane. Having used up a comfortable chunk of this time cleaning up after an unfastidious canine, they left the car with a shop that promised to fill the gaping void in the engine bay.

Instead of another 2-liter straight six M-series that formed the basis for the legendary Toyota 2000GT's mill, the Maeharas opted for a custom-fitted 350 cubic-inch Chevy V8 and accompanying 700R4 four-speed automatic. "When in Rome..." was the concept. Sadly, this plan failed to progress without incident either, and soon the Maeharas, after another trans-Pacific flight, found themselves overheating on a Los Angeles highway. At least they were accumulating frequent flyer miles.

The situation looked grim, but then, the brothers were almost squashed flat by the miracle that dropped. By chance while searching for a mechanic willing to take a look at the Frankensteinian hybrid, the Maeharas stumbled across an old greasemonkey that asked, flatly, "I have a car like that. Know anyone who might want it?" and showed them his one-owner, garaged, all original, post-facelift 1970 Toyota Crown Wagon.

From nadir to instant summit, that's how it goes sometimes. Over time, the Maeharas slowly brought the wagons back to life, spending their holidays in America turning wrenches instead of seeing sights and bringing any necessary parts from Japan in the belly of a 747. The finished products, the beige V8-powered sleeper and the blue museum piece, lowered with Mooneyes coils up front and '92 Crown Wagon springs on the rear, are not only beautiful but make for a brilliant pair of rolling homages to their father's first car.

It's a pity that the V8 will probably never return to Japan, because the labor of love would look right at home as part of Maehara-san senior's incredible collection. The 350hp motor has less hope of passing Japanese emissions tests than a bucket of burning coal. The stocker might, but for now it resides in America to keep the other company. However, if you'd like to gaze upon some of the rarest Toyotas ever made, you can visit the Maeharas' anthology yourself. The collection now lives in a museum in Gunma Prefecture, housed in - what else - a restored, historic, 70-year-old building once an important local textile factory. Admission to Maehara 20th Gallery and Museum is free, and it's the only place where you can see such gems like a 1960 RS21, a 1960 RS26V Masterline wagon complete with suicide doors, a 1968 Crown pickup, and of course, the wood paneled MS52 wagon that started it all. END

A very special thanks to Katsuyuki Maehara, Katsuo Maehara, Satoshi Fruuchi, and Jungwha Lee for making this possible! Thank You!
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