Everyone knows the Tokyo Auto Salon, the massive annual car show where the big brands and tuning houses of Japan’s automotive aftermarket goes all-out to show its wares. But, there’s an equally big show that’s not quite as well known, the Osaka Auto Messe, which was on from 9-11 February this year.
We’ve been attending the Tokyo Autosalon since 2004, and over the years we have noticed some steady changes, as the car landscape changed in Japan. Two decades ago, it was all about performance and drift. Every tuner workshop had a drift car and the show was a sea of brightly coloured and stickered-up AE86s and Silvias.
Then things started to change. Drift cars began to disappear, replaced by more and more VIP cars each year. Then the VIP cars started to dwindle, as a wave of Wagonists took over, trotting out heavily modified kei cars and minivans.
Where does that leave us today? Well the traditional JDM hero cars of the 90s like the Skylines, Supras, and RX-7s were notable by their relative absence. There were just a handful of more “traditional” hot tuner Skylines, and only a couple of RX-7s.
However, there were an equal number of totally stock, mint examples which reflect that 90s JDM royalty are very much becoming collector cars today. Present were a pair of super-rare NISMO special editions. The R33-based NISMO 400R, for example, was good for 400PS, a top speed of over 300 kph (186 mph) and a 0-60 time of 4.0 seconds. At the time, it was the ultimate GT-R and just one of 44 produced by Nissan’s Omori tuning shop.
There was also an R34 Z-Tune, the last of the RB-engined Skyline GT-Rs. With an advertised (but likely under-reported) output of 500PS, and a stroked 2.8-liter inline-six, each one was bought back by NISMO and rebuilt to be the ultimate Skyline GT-R before the model ceased production. Only 19 were made. Both are extremely valuable and not for sale (I asked).
It would have been easy to predict the 400R and Z-Tune becoming collector’s cars, but in another Skyline GT-R lineup sat a bone-stock white R32 VSpec-II. Created to mark the undefeated Group A R32 streak in the Japan Touring Car Championships of 1990-94, it was the last of the R32 GT-Rs and easily a six-figure car today.
But if 90s JDM supercars were notable by their relative absence, instead we had a veritable ocean of new Suzuki Jimnys. As a kei car, it is not to be taken too seriously (even though it is a serious off-roader). Zillions of new brands have seemingly sprouted, offering modifications and kits to make your mini-4×4 look like a Toyota Land Cruiser, Defender, or AMG G-Wagen, pictured here with a real Benz for scale (hi, Liberty Walk!)
And while it isn’t released yet, the other car of the moment is the new Toyota Supra, which really is gorgeous in the flesh. So tight and muscular, it’s got great proportions and it sits just right. I can’t wait to have a go in one.
Also receiving a reveal at the show, was the Supra TRD, which for now is mechanically unchanged, save for some outre carbon-fiber body additions and wheels.
And one of the changes we’ve noticed is that more and more nostalgic J-tin seems to creeping in. Specifically, what might have been considered the less reputable end of the JDM car spectrum years ago is suddenly becoming respectable as Japan’s car enthusiasts age, and now have the means to indulge in the sort of cars they liked when they were younger.
So kaido racers like A wild butaketsu Laurel from Kyoto-based workshop Hello Special now take pride of place in the middle of the show, and draw heaps of attention.
Even the more extreme ones, like the awesome pair of Toyota Soarers from our new friends at Team Vivid Luster, enjoy a respect and admiration as part of Japan’s rich car culture.
Bosozoku-style bikes are becoming the subject of extensive builds and are receiving some awesome craftsmanship, with vintage dress-up gear like Beet becoming sought after.
And there’s always classic Skylines, like the gray C210 with “Datsun” badging and the God Speed You Hakosuka in Advan livery.
With Osaka being the hometown of Five Mart, Honda heads would have had plenty to drool over at their big display. Run by kanjo-racing legend Kazuhiro Furukawa, the workshop formerly known as Osaka JDM only deals in 80s and 90s Honda Civics and CR-Xes.
Nowadays Kaz-san and his chums are respectable businessmen and no longer terrorize the Osaka highways. Kaz-san now races an EG Civic in the Suzuka Clubman series. But, there are plenty of enthusiasts who yearn for the hot Hondas of their youth, and Kaz indulges them by building them cars that would have exceeded any Honda fan’s dream back in the day.
We had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Kaz-san a few years ago, and he said that even in Japan, 80s Civics like the AT and EF are getting almost impossible to find. But just the same he still sources them for his hungry clientele, and he always seems to have a stock of all the rare goodies.
The kei car sector is now sometimes the best-selling one, so it’s no surprise that there are a lot of kei-car brands, like Kyoto-based Hello Special, who clearly have a lot of fun doing extreme things to kei-trucks. Yes, those rear wheels are an insane 14×9.0-25, which need a set of Testarossa-esque flares to cover them.
While Hello Special tends to take a nostalgic angle to their styling, most of the kei cars were done in more of a modern style, like this slammed and very teal Suzuki Lapin.
And naturally there are huge displays from all the major aftermarket brands like Work Wheels and Rays.
Years ago I remembered despairing as the era of JDM performance seemed to be dying out and replaced by vans and limos. But now I find myself really liking the variety. Where there was once were drift machines as far as the eye could see, there are now Advan-liveried kei trucks nestling near things like Akio Toyoda’s skunkworks GRMN Century, which looks absolutely gangster in person.
Arguably the sexiest Japanese car on sale, the Lexus LC500 saw a few nice examples on display.
There have been more and more European cars in recent years as well, and it’s a nice balance to see them, in lots of different styles. The Lamborghinis outnumbered the Silvias by a factor of 8 to 1.
The car I’d like to take home may sound strange, but I really liked the Toyota GRMN Mark-X which was on display at the Toyota stand. It’s a rear drive sports sedan, smaller than the Lexus IS, has the high output version of the 3.5 Toyota V6, a tight slam on 19-inch BBS wheels, deep body-hugging seats — and a manual stick. It’s very possibly the last of its kind.
Plus, you might be able to get an exhaust like this Maestro Sound unit, which is currently hooked to a S200 Toyota Crown.
So if you’re ever planning a trip to Osaka early in the year, spare a thought to going around the time of the Osaka Auto Messe. It’s a huge show, and to see it all you’ll have to walk pretty fast through all seven pavilions if you want to catch everything. At the end of the day, you can collapse in the food court (there’s awesome grub, don’t worry) and ponder the state of Japan’s car scene.