The Monterey Historics car week is one of the world’s great automotive events, and 2014 was a milestone year for Japanese classics. After all, seminal Nihon steel made strong showings at auctions, iconic Japanese cars raced at Laguna Seca, and Japanese automakers even held news-making unveilings there. All of that, however was merely a blink-and-you-missed-it blip on the larger radar of the traditional classic world.
Though there’s a lot of non-Japanese content in this article, we think it’s important to show some of our younger readers the larger scope of what goes on at an event like the Monterey Historics and how the J-tin figures into the big picture.
For 358 days out of the year Monterey is a sleepy little piece of land jutting into the Pacific and known mainly for its aquarium. Then for one crazy week in mid-August, the world’s richest car collectors descend upon it like top hat-wearing locusts and the entire peninsula is overrun with exotics. Ferrari 458 Italias become as commonplace as Altimas, so ubiquitous that no one even gives them a second glance.
Our steed for the week was the flagshippiest car you can buy from a Japanese automaker today, a Lexus LS in tricked out F Sport trim. When the Lexus brand debuted, the idea of a $40,000 Japanese car was unfathomable. Now, 25 years later, we were driving around in an $87,000 Toyota while classic ones traded for over $1 million. Times have changed, but there’s still a long way to go.
One of the keystone events of the Historics is The Quail, a gathering of rare classics and race cars. On the way there, a few miles out of Monterey, we tailed a bone stock and completely mint Lexus SC 400 for a bit, driven by a hotshoe lady who’s probably owned it since new. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful Toyotas ever built, but we wondered if it would ever find a place inside the gates at a Monterey show.
The parking area of The Quail is located on what is normally the resort’s golf course. The grass is softer and its fibers finer than the carpet in our own living rooms. We parked way in the back, but if we had known Lexuses were allowed to crash the Bentley Reserved Parking area, we would’ve saved ourselves a long walk.
Any car you could imagine was present at the Quail, as long as it didn’t hail from Japan. Everything from a Porsche 906 to a 1970 Chrysler Barracuda originally raced in France was parked on the lawn, and there were enough old Formula One racers and 1950s Ferraris to fill a dozen museum galleries.
Our friends from the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles brought a one-off 1954 Plymouth Explorer Concept, resplendent in green and penned by Luigi Segre at the famous Italian design house Carrozzeria Ghia. It’s a pity it was never produced, as it is even more stunning than Segre’s most famous creation, the VW Karmann Ghia.
Though the show was smaller than Toyotafest, Every European automaker you can name, plus Infiniti and Lincoln, had a display in hopes of courting the well-heeled clientele. Porsche built a makeshift structure nicer than many luxury homes, while Bugatti showed off one of each Legends Edition Veyrons arranged in a six-car semicircle, $18 million’s worth of VAG machinery.
In that elite company Nissan displayed the Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge concept, a Skyline sedan with an R35 GT-R engine. The company swears it’s going into production, but the date is unknown. They also showed a QX80, the SUV formerly known as the QX56, in a deep plum metallic reminiscent of the midnight purple R33s that once haunted Japan’s expressways. To woo the one percent, Infiniti even distributed branded chocolates.
The only properly classic Japanese machine in all of this was a Honda bike, which wasn’t even on display. It was being used to ferry supplies to and from a tent, probably because they couldn’t get into the Bentley Reserved Parking area.
Now, Japanese classics have been shown at The Quail before, but they were all there on account of one man, Tom Knudsen. Tom showed his Honda S800 and Toyota 2000GT in previous years but this year we brought his hakosuka to the Rolex Motorsports Reunion instead, and without him there was no J-tin at The Quail.
There are Japanese classics in Monterey, but they’re usually on outside looking in. While accompanying Tom to a gathering for Ferrari dealers that evening, we saw a beautiful Datsun 240Z relegated to a row of parallel parked cars outside the Quail Lodge. Turns out, it belonged to Jim Daniels whom we met over prancing horse hors d’oeuvres. The rims are ultra-light BBS racing wheels so rare that, according to Jim, even BBS USA couldn’t believe he had found them.
A wrong turn in downtown Monterey led to a chance encounter with one of the finest BRE 510 replicas we’d ever laid eyes on. It was built from loads of NOS parts and looked exactly the part (We’ll have an in-depth article on this car in the coming weeks). Like Jim’s 240Z, this 510 would be a shoe-in for an award at JCCS, but there was no Monterey event that would host it.
You never know who you’re going to run into at Monterey, and a chance encounter with Adam Carolla and his entourage led to an invite to a screening of Winning, Carolla’s documentary about Paul Newman. He showed only about 15 minutes, but from what we saw it looked fantastic, with buckets of old Nissan racing footage. Outside the theater sat another Datsun 510, opposite a slick 1970 Mustang parked across the street.
Such is Monterey. An evening stroll turns up a stately British Jag wearing Japanese Riken Turbo wheels, a Hilux-based Chinook camper (there’s a pretty good chance it was not part of the festivities), and the only NSX we saw all week, a gleaming chuuki specimen. Considering their affordable supercar appeal, their absence was surprising. Likewise, go to any typical Cars & Coffee meet and R35 GT-Rs will abound, but our informal tally noted far more Italian bulls than Godzillas, which had a grand total of one.
Outside the Gooding & Co. auctions a festively colored Honda Z600 mingled with Porsches and Range Rovers. We received quizzical looks while drooling over a kitted out, quasi-VIP Toyota Sienna on HRE 943Rs. Why the drool? Because a venue where multi-million dollar Maseratis trade hands like Van Goghs is the last place we expected to see something that stepped out of the pages of Wagonist.
The main event of the week, the one that started it all, was the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance. Translated from French, it means simply a “competition of elegance” and this particular one is considered one of the most prestigious car shows in the world. If you think the new JCCS rules are stiff, the PBCD’E’s are — to steal a line from the great Armando Iannucci — harder than a diamond dildo.
Cars are judged on not only style, rarity and authenticity, but and history as well. If a car is missing a period correct Magneti Marelli sparkplug or rocks an accessory belt from, God forbid, Pep Boys, then you might as well set it on fire in front of the judges. All cars must cross the award stage under its own power, and if you have trouble getting a 1970s Japanese car to run properly, imagine an Italian twice as old.
Since there is no parking at the Concours proper, spectators must first park at the beach of pebbles itself and catch a shuttle from the most scenic bus stop in the world.
The coach then drops you half a mile away so you can run a gauntlet of huge luxury car displays encompassing everything from McLaren to Cadillac. Unlike The Quail, there are no actual automaker booths inside the show, so forcing attendees to march through a village of pavilions is the only way to appease the automakers. Infiniti’s presence could not be missed, as they had built a massive two-story dealership atop a pile of wood chips.
Lexus had a similarly impressive setup overlooking Carmel Bay. Keep in mind that the structures are temporary and will be taken down as soon as the show is over.
Lexus used the opportunity to debut their Crafted Line, which takes all the F Sport models and slathers them in Ultra White paint. Contrasting Obsidian highlights finish the exterior mirrors, door handles, wheels and grilles while interiors get flashes of red across normally black leather. The overall look evokes traditional Japanese art and minimalism rather well.
Once we arrived at the grounds, we were assaulted with even more manufacturer displays at what has come to be known as the Concept Car Lawn. The Toyota FT-1 Graphite was the sole Japanese car, and it took less than 30 seconds before we overheard someone saying, “It doesn’t look like any Toyota I’ve ever seen.”
The PBCD’E is a strange place. The combined value of the machinery on display is more than some nations’ GDPs, but the food stand’s $8 hamburgers taste worse than a McDouble. To get the best seats some spectators arrive at 4:30am, a club that has informally been dubbed the Dawn Patrol. Some years ago, classic car insurance company Hagerty got the bright idea to arrive before sunrise to distribute free coffee and a limited supply of “Dawn Patrol” caps. It is amazing what lengths millionaires will go through to score a $10 hat.
Aside from Montgomery Burnses in golf pants, the field is flush with OMs, Ruxtons, Voisins, and a dozen other marques no one’s heard of. These are intermixed with more commonly known nameplates like Rolls Royces and, this year, 18 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas. Racing provenance is prized, as are coachbuilt one-offs, and the competition is fierce. To put the show in perspective, 2014 was only the second time a post-war car took the top award since the event began in 1950, and a first ever victory for a Ferrari.
The sole Japanese car was a brand new Infiniti Q50 that was raffled off by Shiro Nakamura. It was painful to see how hard Toyota and Nissan try to get a foot in the door, and the truth is they have no seat at the table.
It has nothing to do with rarity, price, quality, or even style. If Toyota had skinned a car like the Alfa Romeo Pinin Farina 6C 2500 Cabriolet or the 1964 Lancia Sport Prototipo Zagato, they’d be ridiculed incessantly. Change the badge and it’s hailed as a hero.
With the right emblem comes all the history and pedigree accumulated over decades of engineering, motorsports, and design. Unfortunately, the heritage of Japanese cars is all but unknown to the Ralph Laurens of the world.
When the festivities were over we headed back to Laguna Seca to pick up Tom’s car. It was then we realized that perhaps the Japanese car that made the most impact all week was the very Skyline we were going to pick up. And as we learned from the Nissan PR team, the hakosuka was quite the hit. It received more attention than anything else they had on display, including a brand new 595hp GT-R NISMO that’s not in showrooms yet. Even a talk show host or something stopped by to check it out.
As we were leaving we ran into Jim Froula and his tribute to Motoharu Kurosawa’s Works GT-R. The opportunity to photograph two hakosuka, one in street trim and one in race livery, on the hallowed tarmac of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca proved too tempting to resist.
It’s strange, though. A car like the GT-R should technically check all the boxes with the Monterey set. It’s got a proven battle record, rarity, killer good looks, and even a modern supercar-killing successor. But few at Monterey knew of its existence prior to seeing one in the flesh, and even then it’s easy to dismiss as “just a Nissan.” Really, the primary thing holding it back is an utter lack of awareness of Japanese motoring history.
The task of educating naysayers is not a small one, but we here at JNC hope we are doing our part. And as for the automakers, they can set up all the pop-up showrooms they want, but this is the kind of thing that will ultimately move new Nissans and Infinitis. It may look like an old Datsun, but a dab of heritage is worth mountains of branded chocolates.
For more coverage of the Monterey Historics, see Part 01 — Bringing a Skyline GT-R to the NISMO display, Part 02 — The Auctions, Part 03 — Rolex Motorsports Reunion, Part 04 — Running a vintage IMSA 240Z, and the Toyota FT-1 Graphite debut.