The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Tokyo Auto Salon 2018

Near the top of the bucket list for any Japanese automotive enthusiast involves taking a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. The very temptation of visiting any number of legendary tuning shops in person to see the workspaces, products, and demo cars is what dreams are made of. Intertwined into this dream trip is a stop at the behemoth gallery of Japanese tuning known as Tokyo Auto Salon.

Originally named the Tokyo Exciting Car Show to attract the likes of custom car gurus throughout their nation, this past Tokyo Auto Salon (TAS) reached its highest attendance numbers ever. Now in its 36th year, the show seeks refuge in eleven massive convention center halls of the Makuhari Messe, in the Chiba prefecture of Tokyo, Japan. These halls housed over 4,300 booths, and more than 319,000 attendees over the course of just three days for the biggest and best TAS yet.

Among the 880 vehicles on display, an onlooker could expect to see anything from a vintage-styled American hot rod, to something as wild as a retired Mazda 767B, and everything in between. It is one of the most eclectic collections of vehicles I’ve ever seen on display in one place.

I have dreamed of attending the Tokyo Auto Salon for years now. Since starting my current position, the question I am asked most is whether or not I’m going to TAS this year. It’s a question I’ve become used to returning with a somewhat roundabout answer about how it would be a dream come true, but no. Mostly because I never really thought it would happen, and also because it would be a dream come true.

Well, that dream became a reality this year when I was offered a seat on the DSPORT Magazine Tokyo Auto Salon Tour. It’s an eight-day tour of Tokyo, Japan, which stops off at heaps of interesting places each day, including the famed Tokyo Auto Salon. Having only one day—media day—to scour the entire floor in an attempt to see everything on display, I did my best to capture as much as I could. To start the day, I was told to begin with the furthest halls, as they house the tuning legends from the famed RH9 automotive group. Among them was “Smokey” Nagata, present with a large booth for his company Top Secret, which contained countless Nissan Skylines modified for top speed runs on public highways—Nagata-san’s specialty. (Fun fact: I named my cat Smokey Nagata after him when I was pretty young.)

Moving from the booth of a company I idolized as an adolescent, to one I now idolize as an adult, I made my way to the Top Fuel stand. Within it their incredibly aggressive Honda S2000RR time attack monster—and current Fuji Speedway 2WD S-tire lap record holder—was guarded by restrictive chains. If the design of the aerodynamic bits doesn’t please you, if it seems over-the-top, then you have to understand this car is purpose-built to break records. Its aero was not created for looks, it was designed and assembled using wind tunnel testing by Voltex in Suzuka, Japan, so that each and every piece increases downforce and decreases drag. These are vital ingredients when you’re aiming to break lap records on some of the most famous tracks in Japan.

Twin T88H-38GK turbochargers powered the unique Nissan Patrol with Volk Racing TE37 wheels in one corner of the TRUST/GReddy Performance booth. While a fully liveried Suzuki Alto Works, also equipped with Volk Racing TE37 wheels, boasted a blue TRUST oil cooler outside of its front bumper occupied the other end.

Many times, large automotive manufacturers will choose highly sophisticated tuning shops to aid in their racing team development. These shops usually become synonymous with the larger company, once their name is plastered all over different vehicle models (think AMG, Mugen, Nismo, etc.). In the past few years, Toyota has partnered with Gazoo Racing for all of its professional racing programs, and the bond has carried over into limited-edition production cars as well. In this instance, a concept was created to showcase what the pair is capable of achieving. The whole car and its guts were on display for the entire TAS crowd to enjoy. Judging by the amount of people swarming the platform all day, I think the entire crowd did. The GR Super Sport Concept is essentially a Toyota LeMans Prototype (LMP1) built for public roads. As a base, it utilizes an extremely safe—and cool looking—carbon fiber monocoque beneath its Pearl White skin. While a twin-turbocharged 2.4-liter hybrid V6 power plant generates a staggering 986 hp at the wheels. It may still only be a concept, but Toyota released an exciting statement saying, “The GR Super Sport Concept will give you a taste of what we aim to achieve with our next-generation sports cars.”

Recaro Japan had one of the most unique booths throughout any of the halls. A completely enclosed room filled with lights, a DJ, and 30 examples of their newest production seat. Unveiled in both fiberglass and carbon fiber construction, the new Pro Racer RMS model is set to release globally in April. I, of course, had to take off my bag and take a seat in them. They are rigid, Spartan in their padded luxuries, and presumably very lightweight no matter which construction material. I asked the Recaro representative on tentative price at release, and I was told approximately ¥150,000 for fiberglass, and closer to ¥500,000 for carbon fiber. That’s about $1,500 and $5,000, respectively. Sign me up!

Not to be outdone, Bride exhibited their Hyper bucket in carbon fiber construction with bright red padding. The new trend in seat creation must be to leave the carbon fiber uncovered, as both seat manufacturers opted to showcase their build material in the open.

Now, one thing you need to know about me, is my obsession with Formula 1. I’ve discussed it in the past—it’s a problem. I didn’t really start watching religiously until the 2006 season. This was a relatively good year for Honda in the championship, finishing sixth overall, out of eleven constructors. Me being the eager motorsports enthusiast I was decided to root for Honda, as it is a brand that has always resonated with me. Their star driver that year was Jenson Button, an Englishman who qualified on pole position in the third race of the season in Australia. In that time since 2006, I rode the rollercoaster of results alongside him—well, watching them on TV. From Honda’s lackluster 2007 and 2008 seasons, his World Championship winning stint at Brawn GP, through his transfer to McLaren, and finally his retirement from the sport in 2016. It wasn’t until recently that he became interested in professional racing again, posting test sessions in Super GT cars, and even guest driving one in the Suzuka race last year. With the Super GT championship based in Japan, I figured he would be at TAS if he were making a driver announcement for the upcoming season. Sure enough, as I walked through the halls of the show, a familiar face walked by me, surrounded by a sort of PR entourage. It was surreal to see an athlete I had followed so closely for so long in real life. Obviously, I ran to catch up to him, took a selfie, and told him I liked his book. He was happy to pose for a picture, appreciative of the compliment, and went on his way. Minutes later on the stage at the Honda booth, he made his announcement to the world that he would be driving the Team Kunimitsu NSX in the 2018 Super GT season.

Okay, so that was a lot of nerd nonsense to take in, but I wanted to illustrate how I felt at that time. To really drive the point home, if you told 18-year-old me that I would meet Jenson Button while I was in Japan absorbing the wonderful sights of Tokyo Auto Salon, I’d never believe you, but it happened.

At the RAYS Engineering booth, the umbrella responsible for such companies as Gram Lights and Volk Racing, the Japanese auto styling shop Dort’s BMW M2 occupied prime real estate. Its bright white paint and German flag livery perfectly contrasted the deep gunmetal color of the newest Volk Racing wheel, the TE037 Dura. Constructed of 6061 aluminum, this wheel features a very unique collection of pockets and holes, with the reduction of unsprung mass as its main byproduct.

In order to correlate that to the company’s competition efforts, RAYS also displayed the centerlock motorsport version of the very same wheel. I personally love this new take on such a classic design.

Established Japanese tuning juggernaut HKS brought two vehicles clad in candy red liveries, aptly named TRB-03 and TRB-04. Short for “Tsukuba Record Breaker” each vehicle was built with a specific mission in mind, to dethrone the current lap record holders of the illustrious Tsukuba Circuit in Japan, and firmly plant HKS where it has grown so accustomed to being—at the top of the ranks. TRB-03 started life as a Toyota 86, but currently doesn’t contain a shred of its original makeup. Now enveloped in dry carbon body panels formed by AMB Aero using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software, it has been rebuilt for one purpose. Although, since debuting at HKS Premium Day nearly a year ago, it has yet to eclipse the current record. I’m sure the new chassis is still being dialed-in and will soon present a worthy adversary to those currently holding onto the quickest lap.

Fresh from its Climbkhana video release late last year, Ken Block’s 1,400 hp Hoonicorn V2.0 Ford Mustang was an absolute hit at TAS. Perhaps it’s because the Japanese automotive public doesn’t get to see this car as much as those in the American industry, but there wasn’t a spec of open room surrounding the car throughout the day. I guess the Japanese attendees were excited to see the unfamiliar car in person, just as I’d been excited to see the rest of the show’s display vehicles in person. Grass is always greener sort of thing…

Keen on single-handedly influencing the next generation of automotive enthusiasts from a young age, Nissan opened the (half) door of their GT500-spec Motul Autech GT-R for children to sit inside of. Someday one of those kids will be speaking in an interview after their race recalling the first time they sat in a Super GT car and how their world changed.

Okay, I definitely wasn’t supposed to be down here, but I’ve learned something over the years of covering events: Visual confidence and quick hands are the best tricks for attaining access to otherwise private areas—a non-intrusive security guard helps, too. With a brisk walking pace, very casual wave, and the seemingly unmotivated lifting of my day pass around my neck (purposely facing the wrong direction), I was granted entrance to the lower level of the BH Auctions hall at TAS. I believe this level was reserved for those actively bidding on the cars, as the auction’s spectators were ushered into the stadium seating above. Anyway, BH Auctions held a one-off auction of some extremely rare, extremely sought after vehicles, all of which hold a special place in the history of Japanese automotive tuning and I meandered my way down amongst them.

The aforementioned “Smokey” Nagata from Top Secret, owner of this twin-turbocharged V12 Toyota Supra, is known for blasting across Japan’s famed Wangan tollway, Germany’s Autobahn, and other notable roads at ridiculous speeds. This particular car is said to have done 197 mph during a top speed run on the A1 highway in the UK… in the rain. Although that particular run was performed when the car was still utilizing the inline-six-cylinder engine, the history remains. The gavel smacked, and the car sold at ¥9,900,000—just shy of the $100,000 mark.

Another of the historic cars offered for auction was the Spoon Sports/Type One Honda NSX-R GT. This car was built for, and competed in the Macau GP Sports Car race. During which it famously crashed into the wall during a practice lap, and was subsequently fixed prior to the start of the race the following day. Evidence of the unfortunate wreck is still visible where the headlight meets the fender. Regardless of faults, the car still sold at the auction for ¥18,700,000—roughly $171,000. Not a bad deal, considering there were only five production NSX-R GT models ever sold, with this particular one having been modified and driven by Ichisima-san of Spoon Sports himself.

A total of twelve other vehicles were sold to bring the grand total of sales to ¥450,670,000 (about $4.1M), with this 1990 Nissan R90CK bringing home the highest single tally of the day at ¥190,300,000 (around $1.8M). Penny change in exchange for owning the history encased in this 1990 24 Hours of LeMans pole sitter, and current trap speed record holder on the track’s Mulsanne Straight nearly 28 years later.

With the auction in the history books, I made my way outside to return to the bus for my ride back to my hotel. Well, I would have, had I not remembered how cool the parking lot cars are at Tokyo Auto Salon.

Of the many found randomly along the aisles, one of my favorites was this Nissan Stagea wagon with a BNR34 Skyline front end. It was also equipped with white Nismo LMGT4 wheels, and Nismo bucket seats. The Skyline wagon that never was…

This lifted Toyota Land Cruiser was a standout amongst the regular cars of the parking lot, and for good reason. It stood several feet above me, thanks to a large lift kit and off-road tires. It was pretty wild to see this in a country known for a surplus of miniature Kei cars, and extreme taxation of large vehicles.

As the sun set over the remaining rows of parked cars, I decided to head back to the bus before it left without me. The event was an absolute blast, and more manageable than most had described it. Although I did end up missing a few of the booths I really wanted to see, I managed to fit nearly the entire show into one day. I even caught the tail end of the D1 Grand Prix drifting showcase, however I don’t have any pictures to prove it—you’ll have to take my word for it.

This day was only a very small portion of my overall Japan experience on the DSPORT Tokyo Auto Salon Tour. I’ll have another detailed article in the coming weeks highlighting my favorite parts of my week in Japan with DSPORT Magazine. Until then, there was too much to talk about so, please look through the colossal gallery below for more TAS goodness!