If you grew up in the pre-internet age, “buff books” like Road & Track were your bible. Magazines of its ilk were the only reliable sources of automotive news, but they were mostly concerned about cars that came fresh off a showroom floor, not from the grungy garage of some mad scientist with a socket wrench. If you did find a story about modified cars, the names Saleen or Hennessey inevitably crowded the title. That all changed in March 1995, when Sam Mitani penned the seminal piece “Distant Thunder,” about top-end tuners from Japan. We spoke to Mitani about his years as International Editor for R&T and his experiences in Japan.
Mitani was born in Tokyo, but his family moved to the US when he was just two years old. He had always loved cars, and drove a 1968 Mercury Cougar as his first. While attending Cal State Fullerton, Mitani landed an internship at Road & Track, which turned into what most would consider a dream job — traveling the world at the behest of car companies to drive their cars before anyone else.
Mitani arrived just in time. It was 1990, and the Japanese sports car boom was about to become a Big Bang. As the first Asian American writer at any of the big three buff books, and being fluent in English and Japanese, he was well poised to bridge the gaps that had prevented most US-based writers from fully grasping the nuances of Japanese cars.
And what cars they were. The Mitsubishi 3000GT, FD3S Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo and Toyota Supra would soon take the world by storm. Mitani described the era in the most understated way imaginable: “It was kind of exciting.”
Mitani soon became an indispensable part of the R&T staff. He was the only American journalist to drive the Nissan R390 GT1 supercar — at Fuji Speedway, no less, with F1 driver and team owner Aguri Suzuki by his side. He crossed Malaysia in the Trans-Peninsula Rally behind the wheel of a Toyota Land Cruiser. He was held at gunpoint in west Africa while racing a Nissan Patrol in the Dakar Rally.
For those of a certain generation, however, “Distant Thunder” was the piece that introduced a universe of turbo kits and touge driving to the mainstream. The opening spread’s image of Tuner Era stars — RE Amemiya RX-7, GReddy R32, Veilside Supra — before a panoramic view of Hakone, one of the famed mountain passes where drifting was born, said it all. One look and you suddenly understood: there was a whole other world out there beyond Callaway Corvettes and Lingenfelter Firebirds.
We asked Mitani what inspired the story. “Being the only Japanese American on the staff, I followed companies like GReddy, HKS, and RE Amemiya,” he explained. “I was the only so-called import enthusiast, and I just said, ‘Hey, there’s some crazy cars out in Japan. No one’s really written about this.’ It was a story only I could do.” He pitched it to editor-in-chief Thos L. Bryant, who told him, “Go for it.”
Mitani gathered nine Japanese tuner cars in all. The aforementioned were joined by a cars like the Mugen Accord and Integra, Eunos Roadster-based M2 1028, R32-based HKS Zero-R, and Mazda-powered Mitsuoka Zero1 roadster. No gathering of Nihon steel like this had appeared in a mainstream magazine before. Such machines went unacknowledged in Motor Trend and Automobile. A couple of years later, Car and Driver published an article on a Mitsubishi Eclipse tuned in the US and wondered if modified Japanese cars could potentially become a trend. You think?
Mitani had gone straight to the source. “It was tough putting all those cars together. We had to find a scenic spot for the photo, but they bent over backwards to help me,” Mitani said. “We didn’t have much time to shoot photos and drive the cars.” Sadly, the weather was even less cooperative. A drenching rainstorm cut their time short, a phenomenon one of the company representatives jokingly attributed to the gods reacting to the raw power that had amassed in one spot.
At a time when official Japanese performance numbers were limited by the Gentleman’s Agreement to 276 horsepower, the cars Mitani drove cranked out supercar stats. The Supra, for example, generated 540 horsepower. GReddy claimed a top speed of 207 mph. Either R32 could kill a 0-60 test in 3.1 seconds, numbers that production supercars only began touching this decade. For comparison, a Lamborghini Diablo VT that R&T tested three months prior made 492 horsepower and took 4.7 seconds to reach 60 mph.
“Each had their own personality,” Mitani remembers. “RE Amemiya was devoted to the rotary engine. The HKS R32 was almost a fully built production car [it could be purchased turnkey for $160,000]. Veilside was all about the style [winning the Grand Prize at the Tokyo Auto Salon]. That’s why I thought that group was really cool. Each one was a different take on what a tuner car was.”
Car enthusiasts in the US were of course familiar with many of the cars these tuners were based on. “We always had good Japanese sports cars here, like the Zs and RX-7s,” Mitani said. “But the story showed how enthusiastic the Japanese really were about their cars. These cars were really over the edge.”
After the article was published, the magazine began to cover more tuner stories. Mitani was sent back to Japan again and again, going there four to seven times annually during his 22-year tenure at R&T. He covered Honda tuners like Spoon, drove a Nissan GT500 car at Sendai, and slung the Mazda RX-01 concept around the company’s Miyoshi test track. When Gran Turismo came out, he was the first to compare an in-game track to its real life counterpart, piloting an NSX around both the virtual and actual Fuji Speedway.
With decades of experiences like these, we had to ask Mitani what Japanese cars he would own. “For pure collectability, I would choose the Toyota 2000GT. To drive and enjoy, I’d get a first-gen NSX or FD RX-7 because I like lightweight sports cars.” Mitani then pondered a sedan. “It’s hard, because they’re always improving. A Lexus LS from a few years ago isn’t going to have all the gadgets. So I’d go with a Toyota Century. And, I’d have to have a Skyline — Hakosuka or Kenmeri, R32 or R34. I’d be happy with any of them but I’d have to have a Skyline.”
Mitani left Road & Track in 2012 when its parent company abruptly announced it was moving headquarters to Michigan. By then, though, the glory days of Japanese cars had ended. Mitani wrote about plenty of non-Japanese cars as well, but his departure allowed him to pursue another dream, that of authoring a fictional thriller.
Mitani’s first novel, The Prototype, was published this year. It tells the tale of a young auto journalist whose life is turned on its head when he stumbles into a conspiracy involving auto companies, Russian bad guys, and the CIA. Much of the story takes place in Japan, and Mitani’s details about the country, its landscape and, most importantly, its cars, are like no other in the world of spy stories.
By the late 1990s, a bad economy, unfavorable exchange rates, and the SUV boom ended stateside sales of many of the Japanese sports cars Mitani had written about. “It turned depressing when they were discontinued,” he recalls. Then Mitani got introspective. “Maybe that’s why I was in Japan. By 1996 they were gone or on their way out. I went to Japan to find tuner culture there thriving, and I wanted to let the world know.”
Sam Mitani will be at our booth at the Japanese Classic Car Show this Saturday, September 15. He will be available to sign autographs starting at 12:30 pm. You can buy a copy of The Prototype at Amazon.com.