This past Saturday a group of select cars and their drivers gathered in Thousand Oaks, California for the inaugural running of JNC‘s Touge California. Named for the hallowed Japanese roads where racing heroes honed their skills and where drifting was born, the event was a 120-mile touring rally through some of the nation’s most scenic and renowned driving roads, through the Santa Monica mountains and along the Pacific Coast.
The starting point was the Malamut Automotive Museum in Thousand Oaks. Its owner, Michael Malamut, a former Porsche mechanic turned Honda dealer, has amassed a fantastic array of fine and eclectic automobiles over the years, from Messerschmitts to muscle cars, and he graciously opened his private museum for us to serve as the rally’s staring point.
However, his collection isn’t limited to just old cars. Walking through the museum’s doors sends you back in time into a Willy Wonka land of automobilia, from post-war tin friction toys (including a rare Mazda R360!) to neon signs that once adorned Googie dealerships.
The Boys of Pep and Bob’s Big greet visitors in plastic form as well, but Malamut has even gathered a stockpile of the stores’ branded wares, such as 1960s oil cans and dinnerware from when Austin Powers’ escape pod was still called Elias Brothers.
And then there are the cars, which comprise every marque you can name from Abarths to Volkswagens. Perhaps most relevant to JNCers, though, were his cars from Japan. Parked next to a gullwing Mercedes 300SL were two of his prized possessions, a 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport and a 1967 Toyota 2000GT with less than 5,000 miles on the odometer.
An entire row is devoted to cars of the Showa Era — a Subaru 360 in both ladybug and van form, one of the first 10 Datsun trucks imported into the US in 1959, and a rare Canadian-import LHD Publica — while nearby, off-roaders great (Land Cruisers) and small (Suzuki Jimnys) stand guard.
Amidst these classic cars, vintage jukeboxes, Philco televisions, and Kelvinator refrigerators — all seemingly straight from the set of Mad Men — lunch was provided by Yokohama Tire. We felt the 98-year-old manufacturer of both street and racing tires as well as Advan wheels was the perfect brand for the occasion, as we would soon be pressing rubber to some of southern California’s most formidable blacktop.
Soon it was time for the driver’s orientation. Rallymaster Patrick Strong (also proprietor of Carriage House Models) laid out the rules: Each driver would receive a magnetic roundels from Yokohama Tire, a route book made possible by Koyorad Cooling, and a sealed envelope.
The day’s route was not revealed until the Koyorad route books were distributed. Included were four Touge Stages, challenging strips of winding asphalt with up to 3,800 feet of elevation changes, just like the Japanese roads of lore. For those who doubted their cars’ abilities to stay cool or otherwise, the envelopes contained bypass instructions to the next checkpoint.
However, when we collected the envelopes at the finish line, if the seal was broken then the driver would not be eligible for a gold “I Survived the JNC Touge California” decal.
And with that, the drivers were off to make history in the first ever Touge California! If there is any sight more beautiful than a fine vintage automobile, it is that of a fine vintage automobile in motion. And if there’s anything more beautiful than that, it’s a whole line of them, in motion together.
The first checkpoint came 28 miles in, at a picturesque rural area near the Ventura County line. With the first (and easiest) of the Touge Stages complete, enthusiasm was running high as the drivers lined up along a gleaming white fence. Julius Metoyer’s Hakosuka Skyline was just one of many imported cars to participate.
Even ominous storm clouds that had formed did nothing to dampen the mood (or thankfully, the roadway). Smith McGehee’s Mazda RX-7 was the perfect car with which to tackle the back stretches. We already knew its minimalist profile and lightweight design looked at home in the canyons, but it fit surprisingly well on a country two-lane as well.
The next leg took drivers through a serpentine downhill Touge Stage, each hairpin revealing a ribbon of road twisting away below. Unfortunately, the roads were so narrow there was no place to pull over for photos. However, we did catch Sebastian Hill’s Datsun 510 and Adrian Garcia’s RHD Bluebird Coupe emerging from the end of the stage.
If you’ve ever wondered why some drivers prefer small, this event illustrated the reasons. Japanese cars such as Victor Ansari and Francis Jones’ RHD TE27 Sprinter Truenos took the thin lanes with perfect precision. 500hp engines would be a liability on these roads, not an asset.
As the rally circumnavigated the west end of the Santa Monica Mountains by Oxnard, the storm clouds gave way to the beautiful blue skies California is known for. The cars returned to sea level and the route picked up the famous Pacific Coast Highway, where cliffs towered on one side of the road and tides swelled on the other.
Checkpoint 02 stopped drivers at Point Mugu, an oceanside overlook perfect for photos. As it happens, a family of Japanese tourists stumbled upon the rally and were amazed at the collection of J-tin that had amassed.
After photos were snapped the cars embarked on southeasterly direction for a coastal drive down the PCH. With the Pacific on the right, only two oceans — one of water and one of time — separated these cars from the land where they were born. It was a treat to watch the twin orange Celicas of Mike Foertsch and Mike Malnick move in synchronicity throughout the day.
Checkpoint 03 gave drivers a chance to refill both their fuel tanks and their stomachs before the most challenging (and most fun) of the two remaining Touge Stages (there was no checkpoint in between). The next leg would be the most daunting, but no one had yet to crack open their alternate route envelopes.
Kirk Hubbard certainly didn’t, even though his Toyota Century weighed in at the two ton mark. Instead, the ultimate in JDM VIP, with 5-lug SSR Reverse Mesh and factory air suspension raised, handled itself like a yakuza boss.
Nor did Chris Green open his envelope, showing impressive devotion to unlocking the “I Survived the JNC Touge California” decal achievement by hustling his 2-speed Hondamatic Accord up the mountains.
However, the honors of both furthest traveled and riskiest endeavor go to Myron Vernis, who shipped his ultra-rare Mazda Luce R130 all the way from Ohio to drive in the event.
Not only is it one of two R130s known to exist in North America (the other is owned by Mazda and is missing an engine) out of 976 built worldwide, but it’s the only front-wheel-drive rotary Mazda ever created. Parts are impossible to find or even borrow from like models, because there are none. If anything had gone wrong with this car, we would have felt very, very bad.
Cars like the TE27 Sprinter Trueno — ancestor to a machine almost synonymous with the word touge, the AE86 — were made for these roads.
A trio of Toyotas from three different strata of society chase each other down a series of S-turns on the final Touge Stage.
After 38 miles of curving tarmac and two back-to-back Touge Stages since the last stop, Checkpoint 04 took place atop a peak in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Drivers and cars gathered for a photo op for a job well done and to catch a breath. The vantage point afforded an amazing panorama of mountain ridge after mountain ridge in every direction. It’s easy to forget such vistas exist so close to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.
Cars not of the chrome bumper era included Chris Hoffman’s first-gen Honda CRX Si and a first-year MX-5 Miata piloted by Mazda North America PR man Jacob Brown. Though opposite in wheels driven and hardness of top, traversing the types of roads that dominate Japan’s landscape shows how two such disparate cars could have been built to serve the same purpose.
As the sun ducked behind rocky crests, the drivers headed back down towards the coast, snaking through one last breathtaking valley before hitting the PCH.
Dusk fell upon the group at the final checkpoint at Dockweiler State Beach. It had been a long day, longer than expected, but the hard driving was over. But the rally was not done yet. One more quick jaunt down the 405 remained, to the Toyota USA Museum.
By the time the convoy arrived, over 120 miles of road had been covered. Toyota generously provided a delicious Hawaiian style dinner of salad, teriyaki chicken, kaluha pork and brownies — a much-needed feast after a day of vigorous motoring. In the end, we were proud to report that not a single envelope had been unsealed. All Touge roads had been driven! A small ceremony took place awarding “I Survived the JNC Touge California” decals to each driver.
The last surprise of the night came when Lexus executive Paul Williamsen gave everyone a tour of the Toyota USA Museum. We viewed the whole of Toyota’s history in the US, from the 1958 Toyopet Crown to concepts built and unbuilt.
From Crowns to Cressidas, the Toyota USA Museum is physical record of everything the company has sold in the US. Like most manufacturer museums, it is not entirely complete, but the collection is nonetheless amazing. In the early days the company sold what it could make, and so today they rely on finding cars to fill the gaps either through sale or donation.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the museum is the motorsports section, which houses everything from Ivan Stewart’s Baja 1000 trucks to the last of the racers in the unlimited-class IMSA series, a league which Toyota dominated. There is currently a petition going around trying to keep the museum in California, but it’s likely moving to Texas along with the headquarters.
Mothers Polishes, Mattel, Koyorad, Yokohama Tire and JNC provided gift bags that included some much-needed cleaning and detailing supplies after a long drive. Each driver also received a poster with the Touge California artwork (soon to be available in the JNC shop). We hope those who received the “I Survived” sticker wear it proudly, for it was not easily earned. And with that, a day of putting hard miles on irreplaceable cars came to an end, but based on the success of this running, we think there will be many more to come.
Special thanks to Patrick Strong of Carriage House Models, Joe Batwinis, Michael Malamut, Paul Williamsen of Lexus, Toyota USA, Yokohama Tire, Koyorad, Mother’s Car Care, Mattel, and our checkpoint staff Dave Yuan, Carrie Brzezinski, and Jill Green.