Ryu Asada, beloved designer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, has passed away after a hard-fought battle with cancer. He was 42 years old. Ryu was immensely talented and instrumental in bringing a multitude of well-loved cars to the Hot Wheels and Matchbox canon. With his perpetually upbeat personality, he garnered countless fans and friends in the local Los Angeles-area car community and all over the world.
Ryu was born in Osaka and was told that he loved cars even as a baby. His parents would say that the only thing that stopped him from crying was being in his father’s 1970 Toyota Corolla. Cars may soothe a lot of babies, but Ryu was calmed even if it wasn’t in motion.
Growing up in Japan, Ryu was influenced greatly by Japanese cars he saw on the road and by the Tomica, Tamiya, and other Japanese toys he was privy to. By kindergarten, he was already a talented artist. While most kids drew cars as boxes with two circles underneath, Ryu was illustrating his real-life favorites in perspective.
In the 80s Ryu’s father brought the Asada family to Maryland, where he worked temporarily for one year. Though only in grade school, the experience would inspire Ryu to attend college in the US when the time came.
That led to an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Oregon, where Ryu met his wife Hazel. The pull of car design was great, though, and so Ryu went on to attend southern California’s Art Center College of Design, one of the top automotive design schools in the world. His classmates included many other Hot Wheels alum, including Jun Imai.
After a brief internship at a Peugeot design studio in France, Ryu returned to the US and used the money he earned to buy one of his dream cars, a Subaru SVX. In fact, Ryu has owned three of them (the dark red one above was his third).
In 2004 Ryu kicked off his nearly two-decades long career at Mattel, responsible for turning many of the Japanese cars we know and love into beautifully proportioned and highly detailed 1:64 scale cars. His work began on the Matchbox side of things, where he injected a much-needed dose of Nihon steel into the lineup with castings like the Scion xB, Toyota FJ40, Lexus GS, Subaru Impreza, Mazda 2, and Infiniti G37. During his eight years in the Matchbox division he worked on over 200 cars, highlights of which include a Mini panel van, Hummer H3, Alfa GTV, Lotus Europa, Citroen DS, Jaguar E-Type, Ford GT, Tesla Model S, and V16 Dakar race truck.
However, those who know Ryu personally will tell you that his first and true automotive love was Honda. It all started in 1983 when Ryu’s father brought home a brand new second-generation Honda Prelude. With retractable headlights, digital dash, and signature electronic sunroof, Ryu was smitten, and called it his first love. It helped him cement his motto, “Honda for life!”
Sadly, the Asadas couldn’t bring it to Maryland, but when they returned to the Japan they owned a succession of Honda cars, including a Quint (first-gen Integra), fourth-gen Prelude, fifth-gen Prelude, CR-V, and more. At one point, Ryu matched his parents’ yellow S2000 in Japan with another one from this side of the Pacific.
Ryu put his love of Hondas into many Matchbox castings, including the Honda Element, Insight, Ridgeline, and FN2 Civic Type R. When he moved to the Hot Wheels side of the business in 2012 he continued to spearhead their inclusion, transforming the roster from a mere handful of Hondas to the point where an entire special edition series could be assembled for the actual car company’s 70th anniversary.
Beyond castings that include both generations of the Honda CRX, Monkey, City Turbo, EF and EG Civic, FK2 and FK8 Civic Type R, Integra, S2000, and NSX, Ryu played a pivotal role in the recent infusion of true enthusiasts’ cars into the lineup. Sure, he designed standard fare like Lamborghinis and Corvettes, but Ryu also got into deeper cuts with the Lancia Delta Integrale, Porsche 934 RSR, Volvo 850 Wagon, Ford F150 Lightning, and others.
Of course, Ryu will likely be best remembered for bringing to life the best of the golden era Japanese cars. His recent efforts spanned the J-tin spectrum from a humble NA Miata to the Nissan R390 GT1 supercar and everything in between — Prelude, FC RX-7, DR30, R33 Skyline, Subaru 22B, R35 GT-R, just to name a few. Even his fantasy design cars like the Manga Tuner, Roller Toaster, and ‘Tooned Baja Bug were inspired by the cartoon style of cars prevalent from his childhood in Japan.
He proved an indispensable force in bridging the car cultures of Japan and the US through diecast. Being bilingual opened doors to expand the Hot Wheels brand and family, and his work helped welcome a new generation of collectors into the fold — ones whose turbocharged, twin-cammed aspirations were every bit as deserving of being included in the diecast canon as traditional street rods. Ryu’s work was prolific and poignant, making our dream machines if not life-sized at least tangible.
When he wasn’t designing toys, Ryu lived the enthusiast life in 1:1 scale as well. He often autocrossed his S2000, took his SVX to car shows, road-tripped in the IS300 SportCross he owned with Hazel, and spent his spare time building incredible models. Eventually he was able to acquire his unicorn, an Acura NSX, which he modified to match a little known Suzuka Circuit pace car.
On a more personal note, we had the privilege of working with Ryu over the years and in the end we became great friends. This loss is particularly hard on the JNC family. It was a pleasure to know Ryu thanks to his easy-going attitude and natural charm, and anyone who met him would agree.
At a car event a few years ago, Ryu signed autographs at our booth. Fans formed a line so massive we ended up having to double the allotted time to accommodate everyone. Of course, Ryu was happy to oblige and spent some time with all the people that had come out to meet him.
In fact, Ryu was the most positive person we’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Yes, that’s a sentiment often uttered when someone dear has passed, but in Ryu’s case it was absolutely one hundred percent, without exaggeration, true. Even in the face of his four-and-a-half-year struggle with a painful and terrifying illness, he maintained his trademark cheer and optimistic spirit, always happy to chat about cars.
Whether it was walking a car show together, hitting up his favorite curry spot before a cruise, watching Game of Thrones (for which he required much convincing because it lacked any motorized vehicles), or getting yelled by an angry lady in Osaka for photographing cars, we always had a blast with Ryu. And even though he’d been ill for a while, it’s still devastating to know that we will won’t be able to see him anymore.
It’s only fitting that Ryu spent his life bringing happiness to so many with his work. Ryu’s legacy, impact, and spirit will endure whenever someone finds a glimmer of joy when they hold one of his designs in their hands. He may have immortalized our favorite cars in diecast form, but it’s Ryu that will be immortalized by all the lives he touched.
We will miss you, brother.