Home » Japanese Tuners Are Obsessed With Old American Cars And The Results Are Rad

Japanese Tuners Are Obsessed With Old American Cars And The Results Are Rad

Not A Buick Ts
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The United States came out of World War II as a dominant superpower, and has played an important role in shaping the world order ever since. In parallel, American clothing, music, and movies have travelled around the world in a way few other cultures could match. When it comes to cars, classic American automotive styles are often seen as an aesthetic ideal, particularly in Japan. That’s inspired a Japanese workshop to adopt those tropes for its own line up of modified Japanese automobiles.

Cal’s Motor is a new project split off from established custom car dealer Alpine Style. Its tagline is “California Dreamin'” with the company looking to trade on an image of sun, surf, and good times. When it comes to cars, the company leans heavily on 1950s maximalism, 1960s surf culture, and1970s/1980s Malaise. We’re talking bold colors, gorgeous two-tone paint jobs, and shiny dog dish wheels. Oh, and don’t forget the big rectangular grilles that are just dripping with chrome.

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The company offers four major models. The Sonova, the Carica, the Havana, and the Beas make up the lineup, each designed to appeal to a different kind of customer.

Sonova
The Sonova from Cal’s Motor. Sharp, huh?
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The interiors, by contrast, are pretty standard.

The Sonova is a minivan based on the Nissan NV200 Vanette. It comes with 1.6-liter engine and an automatic gearbox in a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive configuration. Where the NV200 is a humble thing, though, the Sonova is anything but. In place of the original rounded front end, it wears a forward-slashed sharknose over a huge chrome bumper.  You get old-school rectangular headlights as part of the package, along with bright shiny chrome wheels wearing whitewall tires. The rear end has been suitably trimmed in turn, with a chrome on the bumper, trim and tail lights. It’s available in a stack of great throwback colors, most of which are part of a two-tone design.

If you want something that feels just a little more Japanese, though, consider the Carica. It’s available in both US and Euro Style versions, and is based on the Toyota Hiace van. You can have it in a variety of combinations with either two- or four-wheel-drive, and a selection of gasoline and diesel engines. Cal’s Motor then dives in to do its customization work, installing rectangular headlights and a gorgeous chrome grille to match. There’s something almost 1980s about the front-end design, even if the two-tone paint and wheel choice are still firing on strong vibes from American Graffiti.

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The Carica US Style.
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The interior can be trimmed to better match the feel of the exterior.
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It’s hard to get over how much I love those headlights.

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The Carica Euro Style has a different but similar treatment on the front end.
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The Carica is available in a range of finishes.

Perhaps the most modern of the lineup is the Havana. It’s based on the Toyota Raize, also sold as the Daihatsu Rocky and Subaru Rex in Japan. It’s kind of amusing to name a California-inspired model Havana. Cuba is far closer to Florida, after all, and the nation has had a historically fraught relationship with the United States. No matter, though. It still evokes feelings of cruising on a beachside boulevard at sunset, and that’s what it’s all about.

As with the other models, it comes with whatever stock powertrain you want, which in this case covers 1.0-liter and 1.2-liter gasoline-powered models with two- or four-wheel-drive. Similarly to the Sonova, the Havana has a forward-slanted chrome grille that almost says Malaise Era to us. It’s mounted above a big chrome bumper that would surely be an unfair advantage in most collisions. It wears a sharp set of slotted chrome wheels with white-lettered tires, and the chrome motif continues across the rear bumper and tail lights, too.

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The Havana. Imagine this thing with an LS swap, smoking the rear tires. That’s what the chrome bumper demands.
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The front end screams “early 1980s cop movie” even as the rest of the body is living in an altogether different century.

Finally, the Beas and Beas+ are based on the beloved Suzuki Jimny. These models are built with a grille vaguely reminiscent of the rectangular sealed-beam layout seen on the Ford Bronco II. It’s paired with a chrome rear bumper and old-school wheels to complete the look. Ultimately, the modifications here are a little subtle, and it’s harder to forget you’re looking at a Suzuki. It still looks cool, but it feels more like a bodykit than a unique design of its own.

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The Beas and Beas+. Still handsome, but less striking than the others.

So what do these enjoyable reskins cost? Naturally, there’s a premium to pay above the stock vehicles. Prices start in the range of 4 million to 5 million yen, or roughly $27,000 – $33,000 for models like the Havana and Sonova. Both come in around 2 million yen above their base vehicles, or around $13,000 USD. The Beas comes in a little cheaper, the Carica a little more. Either way, it’s a reasonable price to pay for a nice bodykit and a paint job.

Of course, Cal’s Motor isn’t the only player in this game. Mitsuoka has been at this for a while, building cars like the Dodge Challenger-lookalike M55 Concept and the exquisite MX5-based Rock Star. Japanese audiences can’t get enough of those old-school American good looks. Having them wrapped around a modern, reliable JDM car underneath is a nice bonus.

The American automotive industry has produced innumerable classics over the years. It’s telling, or almost weird, even, that the music videos of today are still being made with the same vintage cars as they were 30 years ago. The fact that Japanese companies are still setting out to rework those same old design cliches is just further testament to their enduring value. Art deco lasted maybe ten years. Meanwhile, the golden age of American cars still holds influence today.

Image credits: Cal’s Motor

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Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
26 days ago

Carica US Style, please! I have a big soft spot for Hiaces, having driven one as a service van for nearly 15 years, and mourn the end of production of the traditional cabover design Hiace. And that white over blue paint scheme is perfect!

Greensoul
Greensoul
27 days ago

It scares me that I think these are so very cool. The face on that Havana almost apes a 78 Malibu Classic to a T.

StLOrca
StLOrca
27 days ago

Yeah, I’m gonna need you to leave that red Havana in my driveway…

Ford_Timelord
Ford_Timelord
27 days ago

The Carica Euro-style has a very Vanagon – VW T3 feel to it.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
27 days ago

I think I like this a lot more than I should. These look amazing.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
27 days ago

Those are ok, but I much prefer the oddly named Dream Factory Blow doing retro Kei vans. David Tracy would appreciate this Jeep FC recreation. https://www.blow-net.co.jp/custom-gallery/14430

Chronometric
Chronometric
27 days ago

I lived through the square jaw, square headlight era. I guess the youngsters who grew up with jelly bean Tauruses and bumper dimple Camrys want something a bit more structured. Not for me.

Jdoubledub
Jdoubledub
27 days ago

Crazy how much heavy lifting wheels, grills, and headlights can do stylistically.

Fantastic article.

Industrial_design_guy
Industrial_design_guy
27 days ago

I’m a big fan of this. I think we should make retro front and rear clips for all modern cars! Injecting some much needed character into some boring nondescript designs.

John Beef
John Beef
27 days ago

I want a LHD Hiace so bad. I should be able to sign a waiver clearing anyone of any wrongdoing which allows me to bypass safety regulations. There aren’t any good bricks-on-wheels options in the US market.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
27 days ago

I want to see that Sonova in A-Team livery.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
27 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

If you have a problem.
If no one else can help.
And if you can find them…

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
27 days ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

You’d think a full sized van in that livery would have been easy to find.

OTOH even the CIA and NSA of 80’s TV were incapable of finding a stolen attack helicopter that was always hidden inside the same hollowed out mesa lair, even though they knew who the thieves were, where they worked and that they always drove their own cars straight to the lair from LAX.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
27 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Yeah, the holes in not just the plots, but the entire the premises of TV shows back then, were big enough to drive the Knight 2000’s support semi truck through (I can’t remember if that truck had it’s own special name). I still loved it though. I actually just fired up my DVD collection of the full series of the A-Team this past weekend, and watched a few episodes with my 8-year old daughter. I can’t say it “holds up,” but I still enjoy them, and my daughter enjoyed them too.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
27 days ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

“I can’t remember if that truck had it’s own special name”

Kinda:

https://knight-rider.fandom.com/wiki/F.L.A.G._Mobile_Unit

The wiki article helps plug the holes in Airwolf:

“To obtain access to Airwolf, Archangel offers Hawke protection from other government agencies who might try to recover Airwolf; in return, Hawke and Santini must fly missions of national importance for the Firm.”

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airwolf

Good old official plausible deniability. That would also help explain how they were able to get arms, fuel and replacement parts for The Lady. Still doesn’t explain how they were able to drive from LAX to Monument Valley in 5 minutes though.

Last edited 27 days ago by Cheap Bastard
StillNotATony
StillNotATony
27 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

There was also a villain truck named Goliath, wasn’t there?

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
26 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Yep.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
27 days ago

The Sonova looks soooo much better than the NV200 it is based on. Granted, that is a pretty low bar to step over.

OCS-BN
OCS-BN
27 days ago

The look of the Havana reminds me a lot of those ZipZaps micro RC cars they once had at Radioshack.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
27 days ago

Regarding the Havana, I’m just surprised that people are that interested in making their Toyotas look like Chevy Citations. For irony reasons, I guess?

Slower Louder
Slower Louder
27 days ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Havana screams uncanny valley to me.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
27 days ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

I was thinking Malibu – but okay.

Drh3b
Drh3b
26 days ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Yeah, I was thinking Citation too as soon as I saw it… A squished one maybe.

Aaronaut
Aaronaut
27 days ago

What is, and hear me out here, there were a single photo of any of these cars from the back?

Aaronaut
Aaronaut
27 days ago
Reply to  Aaronaut

*what if

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
27 days ago

I actually sort of dig the Carica. Not usually a fan of chrome, but in this case it’s a nice bit of flash for a passenger fan where the two tone paint job typically has to do a lot of heavy lifting.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
27 days ago

I like the Carica, but feel they missed an opportunity by not including the last four letters: -ture
And, having recently seen a really nice one*, the front fender, A-pillar, and door of the Havana strongly remind me of a Chevette

  • yes, I know one doesn’t normally associate those modifiers with that object—but it was downright sweet: new 70s brown paint with chrome spoked wheels. Someone loves that thing in true car-nerd fashion
Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
27 days ago

This is truly the adult equivalent of taking a baseball card and attaching it near the wheel of your bicycle so that it goes rat-a-tat against the spokes and you thinking you have an actual motorcycle. Thanksbutnothanks™

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
27 days ago

When the Sonova doesn’t start, do you pound the steering wheel and shout its name, self censoring so the kids don’t hear you curse?

Last edited 27 days ago by StillNotATony
Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
27 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

It’s the perfect work vehicle for Mother Farms.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
27 days ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

Turn key. “Click”

SONOVA…

You MOTHERFARMER!!

10001010
10001010
27 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

I hear it’s a sonova to parallel park that van.

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
27 days ago

I really really like these.
Especially, strangely for me, the US Carica

William Eby
William Eby
27 days ago

Is it bad I want a Havana? I want a Havana.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
27 days ago
Reply to  William Eby

Don’t you wanna wanna Havana…
https://youtu.be/F614uU3DsqM?si=OIb49JxGJfqtkA9H&t=15

Last edited 27 days ago by Rad Barchetta
Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
27 days ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

MmmHmm

SAABstory
SAABstory
27 days ago
Reply to  William Eby
Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
27 days ago
Reply to  SAABstory

Aw yeah… keep em coming.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzFlPdHt1Gk

SlowCarFast
SlowCarFast
27 days ago
Reply to  William Eby

I agree. That is the one I think looks most interesting.

David Escargot
David Escargot
27 days ago
Reply to  William Eby

Half of your heart is in Havana…

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