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Japanese Graffiti : While Imports Jam U.S. Highways, the Hottest Wheels in Tokyo Are Big, Brawny American Beauties

May 29, 1988|JANIE SPENCER | Janie Spencer is a Tokyo-based economics writer

ELVIS PRESLEY'S voice croons "Love me tender, love me true . . . " and electric guitars wail from the speakers of Yo Nakamura's 1955 Cadillac as he runs his chamois over one final spot on its flawless finish. The chrome grill reflects his arms, tattooed with images of Elvis that move into life as he works the cloth across the paint. Finally satisfied, he stuffs the rag into the back pocket of his cuffed, straight-leg jeans, re-rolls the sleeves of his white T-shirt and bends to tie his black, high-top sneakers. Throwing his varsity jacket in the back seat, the 25-year-old stops one last time to check his greased pompadour and Elvis sideburns in the side mirror, then slides into the leather interior.

Tonight, in the car he has dreamed of owning since he was 16, Nakamura will pick up his girl. Like youths of the '50s, Nakamura and his buddies will cruise in their hulking cars. But they'll do it in the narrow, crowded streets of Shibuya, a youth-oriented area of Tokyo--and despite their pure '50s style, it is almost 40 years later.

Nakamura is one of a growing number of Japanese who own vintage American cars, most of which are imported from Southern California. "The best cars come from there," he says emphatically. "Southern Californians care for their cars, and they appreciate old cars," explains Hideki Kusano, manager of a Tokyo's '50s Network Co., a memorabilia firm that sells about 40 American classics a year in Japan. "Parts are in good supply and, really important, there's no rust."

Japan Automobile Importers Assn. statistics show that American car sales in the Japanese market have actually declined every year from 1979 (when 16,739 autos were imported) to 1985 (1,816 imports). But in 1987, when the value of the yen rose, sales reached 4,006 units. Ken Kano, a public relations officer of JAIA, says because of the strengthening of the yen, known in Japan as endaka, 1987 sales of American cars increased to 4% of the Japanese foreign car market, up from 3.4% in 1986. Two years ago, a dollar traded for 250 yen. Today its value has dropped to less than half that--120 yen--doubling the buying power of Japanese currency for American goods.

"Since endaka , the Japanese are buying anything. So everything is rising in price--not just cars, but everything. If the Japanese buy it, the price goes up!" Kusano laments. "Still, today it is cheaper to buy an imported vintage American car, which has a great deal of class, than a new and very ordinary Japanese car."

Of course, the big American car, which cannot even be driven through many of Japan's rabbit-warren streets, is not as convenient as a current Japanese model, and the costs of upkeep, parts, garages and parking and gas for the less fuel-efficient imports are much higher. Nevertheless, some Japanese cannot be dissuaded from the virtues of the American behemoth.

David Tomlinson, who owns a greasy restoration shop specializing in big-engined, big-finned muscle cars in East Los Angeles, says that the American cars of the '50s and '60s offer style, size and luxury, but "the Japanese seem to buy them for their brute power. While the Swedes and the Germans are buying style, the Japanese are buying power and speed. These cars provide a strong, outspoken power statement with plenty of luxury."

Tomlinson says the Japanese are buying what he calls "winged beasts" because it gives them a chance to "relive the times when you could walk down to your local dealer and buy a Hemi engine, a 500-horsepower elephant motor, in stock form. It never happened anyplace in the world except America." Kusano notes that the '50s, in particular, and the '60s, to a lesser extent, were not very pleasant times in postwar Japan, so Japanese look back with longing to America's "golden age."

"The Japanese," Tomlinson says, "are definitely buying images. They buy cars that look like something more. A shiny, freshly painted Camaro with a small engine feels the same as if they had bought a $20,000 Hemi-car."

Bill Takagi drives a jacked-up, wide-tire 1973 Camaro complete with seven-color paint job, CB, fuzz-buster (an electronic radar device for detecting police cars), Grant steering wheel and Trans-Am rear-end posi-traction (to limit the amount of wheel slippage and give the car more power and speed in the turns). Six or eight mirrors line the windshield, and red fuzzy dice complete the decor, along with garter belts on the steering column and dashboard instruments encircled with red glitter.

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