PROFILES: Tom Knudsen, Nihon Classics Ambassador

7531_Nissan Fairlady Z432

“Japanese cars will never be classics.” That was a sentiment commonly expressed by traditional collectors when we founded JNC in 2006. Despite huge strides in recognition made since then, there are people who still think so. Tom Knudsen is not one of them. 

7621_Nissan Fairlady Z432

You may not know him by name, but you’ll surely remember his cars. Knudsen made a splash at the Japanese Classic Car Show in 2011 by showing his trifecta of legendary S20 Nissans. It was the first time all three machines — a genuine Fairlady Z432, hakosuka GT-R and one of only 197 kenmeri GT-Rs — had been seen together outside of Japan. We recently had the opportunity to visit his collection after the Vintage Auto Salon.

7608_Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10

Arriving at Knudsen’s garage, we were greeted by Road and Track‘s Jason Cammisa, who was cleaning his personal Mercedes 190E 2.3-16. A flurry of activity surrounded the Cosworth-tuned engine as he and professional detailer Tim McNair meticulously scrubbed every nook as if they were disposing of DNA evidence.

In actuality, they were prepping the Merc for the Monterey Historics, and the very fact that there was zero overlap between the all-Japanese Vintage Auto Salon and the highly acclaimed Historics illustrated perfectly how far Japanese cars still have to go.

7622_Toyota 2000GT-Nissan Fairlady Z432

For decades, Japanese cars have been relegated to the ghetto of disposable transportation. Some of it was due to the fact that Japan was once viewed as nothing more than a producer of cheap widgets, but there was also a tinge of racism involved. Most of its exported cars were small and basic compared to our grand domestic yachts, but even cars like the Toyota 2000GT were summarily dismissed as a Jaguar E-Type ripoff without a second thought.

7538_Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC110

It took many years and some high-profile collectors like Jay Leno to bring a modicum of respect to Japanese cars. Knudsen is no Leno, but he is a self-made man who appreciates fine Italian exotics as much as the next blueblood. The difference is that Knudsen’s on the forefront of a new wave of collectors who don’t hold old money biases against Japanese cars.

7617_Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10

His humble beginnings meant that he grew up admiring the reliability of his first car, a 1978 Honda Accord. A hand-me-down from his father, and Knudsen drove the silver-on-maroon  until it he donated it to charity in 1998. He replaced it with a 1991 SW20 MR2 Turbo, which he sold in 2001, though he says he has regretted ever since.

7697_Nissan Fairlady Z432

After building a successful tech business, Knudsen began collecting Ferraris and other similarly spicy Italians in the early 2000s. A few years later, he discovered his first piece of classic J-tin, a 1967½ Datsun 2000 roadster. Then one day another collector, one of rare pre-war automobiles, told Tom that he was “playing it safe” with Ferraris. Knudsen took that to mean he should collect what he loves, not what others love.

7541_Toyota 2000GT

By 2010, Knudsen began in earnest to divest the Fezzas from his stable and follow his true passion — Japanese nostalgic cars. Obviously, the first machine on the list was a 1967 Toyota 2000GT, which he acquired in Belatrix Yellow for about $200,000 (and not the $1 million similar cars would go for just a few short years later).

7679_Honda S800

Next came an esteemed predecessor of Knudsen’s old workhorse Accord, a 1968 Honda S800. His holy grail, however, was always a Nissan Fairlady Z432, the sports car powered by the triple-carbed twin-cam of the GT-Rs. The goal was never to assemble a trio of S20 legends but the Z432, with an estimated 100 surviving examples, proved elusive. During his two-year search, Knudsen came across a genuine KPGC110 1973 Nissan Skyline GT-R and a 1971 hakosuka GT-R.

7583_Tom Knudsen

Though they only cost a fraction of what his Ferraris would be worth now, they bring Knudsen infinitely more joy. As one of the few JNCers who’s run with both Euro-loving upper crusters and us J-tin-driving plebeians, he’s in a unique position to identify the difference between the hallowed halls of traditional collecting and the up-and-coming enthusiasts of Japanese classics.

7602_Nissan Fairlady Z4327567_Nissan Fairlady Z432

First up is the language barrier. European classics have been traded by the uber-wealthy for so long that go-betweens specializing in making deals between speakers of Italian and English (or other languages) are, like art dealers, well established. The thought of anyone outside of Japan wanting to trade in Nihon classics is so new that those businesses simply don’t exist yet.

7536_Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10

On the bright side, that newness affords Japanese car enthusiasts the chance to get the cars we want. Some highly desirable Europeans had production runs in the low double digits, and at any given moment there might be one for sale in the whole world. The network of dealers with access to them is so established that it can be hard to break in. By comparison what we think of as a super-rare kenmeri GT-R, with only 197 built, means that there are about three or four on the market at a time — easy pickings, relatively speaking, with far fewer middlemen.

However, Knudsen’s also noticed less cross-pollination in the JNC world. Datsun guys will remain Datsun guys with no interest in Toyotas, and he thinks that needs to change.

7652_Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10

Knudsen has also attempted to share his love for Japanese nostalgics with the aristocratic establishment with mixed results. He occasionally brings his rare machines to the Quail motorsports gathering at Monterey and occasionally there will be badge snobs who take one look at the marque and walk on by. More often than not, it’s the younger generation who zips past the classic Alfas to check out the hakosuka.

7648_Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10

Let’s face it. We can cry all we want but no amount of RB-swapped 240Zs or drift-spec Corollas will lift Japanese cars out of that collectability ghetto. If Japanese nostalgic cars are garner the respect we all know they deserve (and the benefits that come with it), it’s ambassadors like Knudsen who will bridge the gap between our world and the universe of collectors.

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25 Responses to PROFILES: Tom Knudsen, Nihon Classics Ambassador

  1. Gene says:

    Honestly I don’t think what other people think of JNC’s, To me they are classics and I will continue to treat them as such.

    BTW: Nice Z432!!

  2. What a great collection… all that is missing now is a 1968 PGC-10…

  3. gypsy says:

    Who honestly cares about bridging the gap between collectors and guys like myself. Prestigious car shows are full of tossers to be direct. “Oh look at my car, it’s a gold warrior survivor class !”…. do you drive it mate ? you kidding each km I put on it devalues it $1000 ….. did you build the motor mate ? you kidding, why would I do that ….. did you do any body prep ?…. you kidding !

    Most collectors collect because of dollar value and investment, myself and the other 50 or 60 Mazda nuts I choose to associate with are in it for the love. 95% of those people would still be in it even if their cars were only worth $200.

    Me being interested enough to buy either an old Toyota or Datsun ? Highly improbable, I don’t collect cars for value. I grew up with Mazda rotarys and that’s all I’m interested in from a nostalgia view. An old Datsun is just an old Datsun to me, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them, I just wouldn’t own one. My connection to my past is with 70’s Mazda’s, I’m not interested enough or rich enough to buy other marques at the expense of letting my Mazda’s go.

    • Jim-Bob says:

      I agree with most of what you have to say, but am not a brand loyalist myself. I actually prefer to own cars that are mass produced because for me the joy comes from putting them together, not from being able to play the game of one-upmanship the collectors of low production cars play. If they gain in value or rarity then I usually lose interest since the cost barrier becomes too high. Give me something I can assemble from cheap, junkyard parts. I care not what the moneyed crowd thinks as I consider their opinions and lives irrelevant. The farther they stay away from the things I want, the more of those things I can afford to accumulate.

    • dan says:

      Why i drive my preserved 510, it could be one of the lowest milage 510’s in the world, but the original owner just like myself felt its meant to be driven, its meant to be enjoyed, it can be preserved and all original as the day it came off the show room while still being driven to shows all along the pnw. Its just boring to trailer a car everywhere, and never sit behind that wheel and enjoy it, to me theres no point when you do it that way. I dont care if my car is getting devalued for every mile i put on it, i love driving it, i love the looks i get in her, and i just plain love her 🙂

  4. Black_ma61 says:

    I too have noticed the gap in marque loyalty. You go to shows and the Datsun/Nissan guys hang out, Mazda guys hang out, Toyota guys hang out, etc. No one really walks around and truly appreciates all the cars. I always try to appreciate everything, and someday hope to own a piece of lots of different jnc marques. If you limit yourself to one brand, you miss out on so many amazing cars, builds, and people. I hope more and more people break out of their “brand shell” and make the entire jnc community more tightly knit.

  5. Sedanlover says:

    Nice write up Ben, as always! (I envy your job, and the great photography skills!)

    Firstly, I will agree with some of what Gypsy said,
    “Most collectors collect because of dollar value and investment, myself and the other 50 or 60 Mazda nuts I choose to associate with are in it for the love. 95% of those people would still be in it even if their cars were only worth $200.”

    The beauty about collecting Japanese Nostalgic Cars is that its accessible, for all of us pedestrians. We can go out and pick up a great find for the price of a carton of beer and bring it back to its former glory with TLC. The other side of it is that anyone else can pay the same price and take that sweet old J-Tin ‘bush-bashin’ for shits & giggles.

    Us JNC enthusiasts need to band together and save these endangered species. At least we would know that they could be passed around the group without the extreme price inflation that Euro trash attracts. I think that even people like Leno don’t buy all those cars because they know some day they can make a huge profit. No doubt they do it for the love of it.

    We are all here (on this site & forum) because we love cars, more specifically J-Tin. I think anyone of us has the dream of owning a handful of our favorite vehicles, stored in a super clean garage, with polished concrete floors, a hoist or two, and the entire catalog of snap-on tools… all tucked away neatly. Well, that’s me anyway

    I also agree with Ben in that;
    “However, Knudsen’s also noticed less cross-pollination in the JNC world. Datsun guys will remain Datsun guys with no interest in Toyotas, and he thinks that needs to change.”

    I’m a die hard Toyota guy! Always will be. But I have an appreciation for other marques. Especially anything Japanese, I would even own European and American stuff if I had a crop of money trees.

    Ah, the passion! How it runs thick through our veins.

  6. E-AT_me says:

    so strange to not see an orange Z432. hahaa. So envious of his collection. i love it.

  7. dankan says:

    The only places that neglect J-tin, and which I think would benefit from including JNCs (and which we as enthusiasts would benefit from seeing their inclusion in) would be the Goodwood Revival and the Monterrey Historics. If the concours crowd never gets it, it’s their loss, and probably our gain…

    • Rande says:

      You’ll wait a fair amount of time before Goodwood Revival welcomes Japanese classics, because they didn’t have the sales presence in the past that they do today, least of all in the UK. The Monterrey Historics, probably more participation from Trans-Am era cars like the 510, Datsun 1600/2000, Celica, and the rare Toyota 2000GT race cars. Probably not so much presence at the concours events, with the possible sight of a very nice 2000GT.

      • KPGC10-001218 says:

        The Goodwood Revival has a theoretical pre-1966 cut-off date, and tends to focus on cars that raced at the Goodwood circuit in the period before the circuit was closed down as a current race venue. It’s also pretty much invitation-only as far as race cars go, and tends not to stray too far from its comfort zone.

        Nevertheless, a lone Isuzu Bellett takes part quite often, and was seen again on track this year.

  8. Power Tryp says:

    Knudsen is an excellent ambassador to our shared hobby/passion and is in a position to become a legend in his own rite by doing exactly what he’s doing now. However even if he didn’t do it the change he wants to see is going to happen and he said it himself

    “More often than not, it’s the younger generation who zips past the classic Alfas to check out the hakosuka.”

    It’ll take a few years but because the younger guys have had “access” to the Italian and German cars that the older generation didn’t. The only exposure that most people my age and younger have had to a Kenmeri or a Hakosuka is through games like Forza and Grand Turismo and with the internet. As these kids grow up and get money they’ll start hunting for the cars that they’ve only seen online and some will hold them to a degree of factory perfection seen on classic Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

    We shouldn’t be in a rush to make JNC into Hemmings because eventually it will happen through exposure. Enjoy being at the forefront of the next wave of classics.

    • Rande says:

      First, hooray to Mr. Knudson for his interest in older Japanese cars. It’s about time that folks other than the manufacturers showed off their past products.

      Second, the one thing I’m always impressed about Jay Leno is his accurate sense of automotive history. When he explains the history of any car in his collection, he’s extremely knowledgeable.

      Which brings me to the statement from ‘Power Tryp’ that the younger generation has had more access to German and Italian cars than, presumably, their parents. Respectfully, who do you think bought all of the Datsun 510’s, Toyota Celica’s, BMW 1600 and 2002, 320i’s, Fiat 124’s and 850’s, and Alfa Romeo 1750’s in the 1970’s. My first paying job was as a gofer for a Porsche, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Shelby dealer when I was 19. Of my friends in college, three of us drove 2002’s, and one drove a Peugeot. I should point out that I grew up in southern California, where if any car made it to the States, that’s where you would first find them available. Please don’t keep the impression that the only cars we were interested in were Mustangs, Camaros, Road Runners, and GTOs.
      And, I’m not going to rant on about the good old days. If you really think about todays cars, ones that you younger guys can afford, in most ways , today is a pretty good time to be into cars, as well. Think about the Toyobaru coupe, the WRX, the Mazda3 and Miata, the Focus, the new CLA, the 3 and 4-Series, and Audi. And, these are just the affordable ones. Make your own list, these are still good times.

  9. Geoff says:

    Personally I see it us as early-to-market, ahead of the curve 🙂 I hope to establish my dream collection before values go up too far. I’m torn though, as much of the “Collector” scene seems to be anti-upgrades or modification. I suppose it depends on how good of original condition the car is in. if i’m resto’ing it, dam straight its getting better-than-oem replacement parts (or engines haha)

  10. Darryl says:

    Congratulation to Mr. Knudsen. You can say you have a collection that is unmatched. There are more diverse, larger, more expensive, etc, etc collections, but to have this specific collection of what I consider to be very signifigant cars is a feat to be recognized, even if only in our relatively small group of fans. If he makes a few extra bucks in the process, good on him. If not, good on him still.

    Regarding brand loyalty: Opinions and preferences are what they are. I am an old school rotary person as well, but I also own a 71 510, and 240Z, and if the right early Celica crossed my path, I’d add a Toyota to the mix. I own a 66 Mustang convertible with a 5.0, 4 wheel discs, and a fuel cell, a long-roof Caprice wagon (looks like a 95 Impala SS), a Honda for commuting, and my wife drives a BMW 540iT wagon. Obviously, I like CARS. I don’t care who made it. I’ve learned to see the different engineering and design styles of each, and enjoy all the quirks of them. I never understood the ‘I’d rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy’ (insert any set of marque’s into that quote) crowd. Seems like I’d be missing out if thats how I felt.

  11. Nigel says:

    Great collection, hope to see some of Tom’s cars at JCCS.
    (Got a few empty memory cards at the ready).

  12. gypsy says:

    Brand loyalty can go out the window when you have the luxury of having more money than you can possibly spend. Yeah sure, if my wallet was a little fatter and money was no object I’d probably have a lot more other toys, who wouldn’t.

    If you are like most people who live within 30 or 40 min of a major city for work reasons you’d struggle to have space for 1 old car let alone 2, 3, 4 or more. If you’re married you’ll most likely have 2 everyday cars, if you have teenage kids, there’ll be an additional 1 or 2 daily drivers. What normal person has space for 4 cars and multiple classics ?

    So what’s being suggested here, sell either my Rx3 sedan or coupe that I’ve worked on for years to buy a Datsun ? Sounds stupid to me, for starters there is no connection to Datsun or other marques and second of all where am I going to store them without paying $60 or $70 a week for basic storage where I can’t work on them ? If you own multiple marques, that’s fine by me but most people will only ever own one or two classics at any one time.

    Hands up to all the JNCer’s who have personal warehouse storage….

    Most car enthusiasts are open minded however I don’t feel the need to buy multiple marques. Last year I attended 3 car shows, I pretty much looked at everything there. Later this year I’ll be restoring a Mk1 Escort for a friend, I don’t feel the need to buy one of these, I can drive one of his whenever I like. I don’t get what Knudsen is getting at.

    To maintain a 70’s car you generally need a collection of spare parts, I’d like to see the face of a Toyota owner who buys an Rx2 or Rx3 then needs to try and find a set of new NA 12a Rx2/3 rotor housings that go for the $3 – 3.5K mark. Keeping these cars going gets expensive.

    A question for you Ben, why do you think we need an Ambassador to justify what we do to people with a completely different mindset ? Do you really care what others think ?

    Here in Australia we already have a more appropriate Ambassador, this guy has just won a senate seat in federal politics and will be negotiating with our PM 😆 he’s the roo poo slinging senator who likes running around and pantsing his mates :tu”

    • KPGC10-001218 says:

      You ask why we need an ‘Ambassador’, but I think the answer to that is clear; Actually it’s the cars, their history, the people behind them and all the rest of that which needs to be put in front of certain people, at certain times and in certain places. It’s not about ‘us’ necessarily…

      I’m probably not diplomatic enough to be any kind of Ambassador, but I’ve shown my KPGC10 twice infield at the Goodwood Revival Meeting ( an event where it would ordinarily not be allowed on site, because of their 1966 cut-off date ) as well as one of the Press Days for the Festival of Speed, and my feeling was that it put the car in front of people who would not normally go out of their way to look at it. The reaction was very interesting. Some of the usual “Jap crap” closed-mindset comments, but also a fair smattering of recognition and joy at being able to see a real one in the metal rather than just in a video game or on YouTube. In between were the incredulous ( “that’s a modern engine, and why does it say ‘Nissan’ rather than ‘Datsun’?” ) and the curious / ready to learn.

      It would be nice to think that a few people had their minds opened a little and that a few people were inspired to find out more. Just by being there with the car, answering questions and showing those interested around it, I felt like I was making a difference. It’s a privilege to be able to give a Hakosuka fan a seat in a real GT-R, and I would have liked to do more. I’ve had the same done for me in the past, and it’s something that can inspire. Yes it’s essentially a three-box saloon car from the early 1970s, but the mechanical spec of the KPGC10 ( like the PGC10 before it, the KPGC110 after it and the PS30 & PS30-SB alongside it ) is rather special for the market sector considering when and where it was made. If this was an Italian, German, French or British car it would be respected and talked about in a whole different way.

      Sure there’s snobbery to overcome, but we have our own problem in our ‘scene’ with inverted snobbery and I can see some of it in the comments above. We really need to break those chains.

      So if Mr Thomas Knudsen is putting ‘our’ type of cars out there in front of the Pebble and Quail crowd, is doing them justice and getting the story straight, then I’ll cheer him on from the bleachers. More power to him!

    • Darryl says:

      Your points are valid, to be sure, and perhaps I’m interpreting your tone incorrectly, but I’m getting the ‘I’d rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy’ feeling from you. I missed where anyone was saying you should sell your Rx3 to buy anything else. You are FREE to have those feelings of course, and you don’t need to explain to any old school rotary fan how much of a struggle finding cars/parts/pieces can be. That and the rotary’s ‘negative history’ has always put us (I own an Rx2, Rx4, and 1st gen Rx7) into a category. As much as we need those who are brand loyal, we need those who are not. It’s all about sharing these cool old pieces of automotive history. The anti-anything attitude in the car world just never made any sense to me. ‘You’re into _____? Cool. I’m into _____. Enjoy!’

      Oh, and yes, I’m putting my hand up for the personal wharehouse space. It was a decision I made years ago to have a piece of property that I could put up a large shop on, knowing my (semi-unhealthy) love of cars would make it a neccesity.

      $3-3.5K for an NA 12a housing? Let me check my shelf. I may be able to make you a screaming deal!

  13. Dennis says:

    Knudson’s cars at JCCS were breath-taking. I felt so honored to see all of them in person. I always wondered who owned those cars; thanks to your article, now we know.

  14. Otso says:

    All car enthusiasts should be more open to other marques. Off course u can benefit from having one marque car. After all u probably get better expertise while putting together for example old Datsuns. And u can also gather a big lot of spares while toying with one brand. Well I love all cars. When I was a small boy I dreamed about old 50’5 Chevys etc. I even put together several plastic models. My first real car was Russian Lada 1200 when I was 13 yrs old. Those Ladas were reliable rally cars that were driven hard on our gottage road. 🙂

    I have had my share of different Brands from a-to z… i have had BMW 02, and other BMW’s. I even had one Mustang 65, some Mazda 1300 famialias. There has been some quite exotic cars among those 50 or so cars that I have had..

    But my point is actually that all motormaniacs should stick together. There is so much common things all over the world, that needs unity between motorists. Atleast here in Finland the goverment is trying hard to rise taxes etc. Even here on areas that do not have good public transport.

    At the moment I try to keep my japs on move. I have 260Z, 280ZX turbo, 1980 Skyline 240 GT, 510 sedan and wagon, Toyota Land Cruiser BJ45 and even a sad mazda 1200 familia project.

  15. pstar says:

    I don’t look forward to the day that Japanese classics do nothing but get trailered into golf courses (like the hyper-inflated European exotics) or do nothing but tour the auction circuit (like American classics).

    The people who actually put their classic in the street, where it belongs, are practically heros. Show some appreciation to the guy driving an E type, Mustang fastback, or classic 911 on the road. They are brightening the world for everybody (except “enviromentalist” and “consumer safety” douchebags).

  16. Michael Lowe says:

    pstar, I completely agree with your “heroes” comment. And people love to see these old classics. Once I had the privilege of driving a Jaguar Mark II in the UK and had all sorts of favourable comments and gestures from other motorists. And using those old cars is helpful to the environment in some ways, as its better than digging up our planet to make new ones.

    I think on the general points there’s a place for both one marque enthusiasts and those with more varied taste. Personally I suppose Honda are my favoured marque, but I appreciate everything from 60s Isuzu coupes to Toyota MR2.

    Above all as noted, motormaniacs should stick together. Amen to that.

  17. pete240Z says:

    I just want to know; where do you FIND a Z432 to buy?

  18. Josh says:

    Z car and 86 feature in the cartoon series Archer. S03 E04 17 minutes in for a bit of drifting

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