A typhoon the size of Texas is battering the city of Nagoya. Tree-toppling wind gusts, monsoon-like downpours, and frequent lightning strikes remind me that a boosted K20 isn’t the only awe inspiring force in Japan. Many seek refuge in the underground shopping malls and food bazaars that spread out for miles beneath the busy streets of the city. But not me I want to watch the storm rip through the city.
I find solace nestled in the corner of the 12th floor of Nagoya Station, and from this vantage point I watch the tempest rage outside my window. Fortunately, a Starbucks is within reach--its caffeinated creations fueling my every word. These last few days have been just as intense as the weather, and I’m trying my damndest to recollect as much as I can without jumbling it all together. Perhaps starting with day one would be best.
I’m up at 6:37 a.m. to start my first day in Nagoya, Japan. Coffee and pastries, with a side order of jet lag and aloe vera yogurt are my breakfast. My friend Naoto to shows up at 8:00 a.m. He tells me that he has a few leads on tuning shops in the area and that we should get a move on because there’s a typhoon approaching this side of the island. Knowing that photo shoots in the rain are never fun, we hastily punch an address into the GPS and head out. My first question was in regards to the name of the shops we were going to see. He smiled sheepishly at me, and said that he couldn’t remember the name of the first place. All that he had was an address and he was certain that I had never heard of the company. Tiny tuning shops are everywhere in Japan, so I was not surprised by his statement. Content with his company, I leaned back in my seat as we caught up on all of the events that had transpired within the last year.
After an hour of conversation, our GPS declared that we were nearing our destination. I looked out my window and quickly realized that we were in the middle of a damn neighborhood! Naoto frantically checked the address again, and sure enough it was correct. Neighborhoods like this are home to grandmas working in their flower gardens and kids playing with the family dog in the front yard. There’s no way that turbocharged dyno pulls are conducive to local noise regulations in areas like this; so we must be lost. We were also running out of time. Ominously dark clouds were beginning to loom in the distance, we didn’t know the name of the shop we were looking for, and it appeared that we were now hopelessly lost in suburbia. Perfect. But just as we began to fret, our car rounded a bend and there was that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Dead ahead of us sat a quaint two-garage shop, and above it in big letters was a sign that read Back Yard Special.
After I got over my initial disbelief, I snapped pictures of the building, slapped my friend on the back with glee, and walked inside. The typical Irashhaimase! that one comes to expect in Japan was nowhere to be found in this place. Instead, an armada of barking dachshunds and a thick cloud of cigarette smoke greeted us warmly. Once my eyes adjusted, I glanced around the tiny shop to get my bearings. I suddenly felt a little like King Arthur stumbling into Merlin’s lair. This place had a museum feel to it, though it was indeed a place of business on a daily basis. Parts were everywhere, and most of the components were polished, priced, and organized across the shop in sections. Amongst the countless photographs and framed awards on the walls sat headers, wheels, camshafts, valve covers, and every other imaginable car part. My attention was drawn to the rear of the lobby. In the corner, behind a worn desk and a wall of cigarette smoke sat an older, mustached Japanese man. Behind him a mountain of trophies and awards towered over all else in the room. With a single word the man silenced his hounds and then he turned to us and asked our business. I found myself uncontrollably grinning from ear-to-ear as Naoto explained to him why we were in his shop. I kept thinking, Having the CEO’s office in the shop’s lobby is down-home Japanese tuning at its very best!
Dogs normally don’t like me very much and the Dachshunds started barking at my gaijin ass again. After reigning in the tiny beasts a second time, the mustached man politely turned to us again, bowed, and offered his business card. His card read: Hatsuo Suzuki CEO Back Yard Special, thus making him the man responsible for it all since day one. After listening to Naoto’s explanation as to why we were pestering him, Suzuki-san nodded his head in a serious manner, stood up, and left the room. He soon returned with three cans of hot coffee and proceeded to slide into one super-slick Recaro office chair. As he fired up another cigarette, Suzuki-san mentioned that we had better get to it if we were going to beat the weather. So, I opened my pad of paper and we started firing questions his way.
Few people know the history behind the companies that create their favorite products, so I am always sure to touch upon this subject first when interviewing tuners. Suzuki-san chose Back Yard Special as his company’s name back in the day because European racers would often tune their track cars in their backyards over a cold beer and conversation. These types of race cars were called Backyard Specials, and to immortalize this type of tuning lifestyle, Suzuki-san fashioned his own Japanese version of this trend in the backyards of Nagoya. While Backyard Specials are still fabricated around the globe daily, I find it interesting that this man made a name for himself out of the name itself.
He never intended to have the shop turn into what it is today. Designing and building custom parts were never on the agenda because in the shop’s early days, Suzuki-san felt tuning Hondas would merely provide sufficient income. Sure, tuning is still a daily routine for the shop 27 years later, and if it were not for tuning Hondas, a lot of bills would go unpaid. This was especially true in the business’ early days and it was Suzuki-san’s tuning skills that garnered him praise. But there was also a growing demand from customers for custom performance racing and aero parts. Supply and demand are forever key, so after a few years and some serious thinking, BYS started manufacturing custom parts in-house. Already the business was beginning to morph into something poles apart from the original vision Suzuki-san had in the early ’80s. Suddenly the shop was changing on a daily basis and it was a sure sign that its owner was ready to grow the business.
When Hatsuo Suzuki first started his shop in 1983, it was supposed to be nothing more than a showroom to feature the granddaddy of the S2000: the Honda S600. An uber rare, fire engine red, mint condition, ’60 S600 to be exact. Suzuki-san loves this car in stock form and the only customization he has ever done to his model is a set of 100 percent custom alloy rollers. A nicer classic collector car would be hard to find, and Suzuki-san was thrilled to find that we both share this sentiment. To this day, the S600 is still the apple of his eye, and this super clean micro-machine can often be found on premises at the shop, if not on display at a car show. I must have crap for timing because the car was not around when I visited the shop. It was making its annual rounds at car shows across Japan and wasn’t due to be returned to its owner for a few months.
By 1987, racing had taken center stage in Hatsuo’s life and tuning was now the driving financial force behind his weekend track runs. His love for racing, adoration of aero design, newfound interest in custom-built exhaust parts, and affinity for Hondas produced a powerful concoction. Before long, Suzuki-san found himself buying the car that would make him famous: an ’87 CRX. After the car was purchased, he quickly got around to replacing everything. The usual list was all there: completely custom frame braces, an interior stripped down to nothing, stiffer suspension, and a completely built engine. There are also some unexpected additions, like the powerplant being relocated to a mid-engine position, the custom frame that’s made out of reinforced piping, and that fiberglass body that oozes old-school. Once this stunning composition was complete, the race invites came flooding in, and with them came countless trophies, car shows, and awards. Back Yard Special had officially come into its own.
There are several other Japanese car companies out there that make very good automobiles. So the question is, Why had he chosen Honda above all others? Suzuki-san scratches his head at this question. I could tell that he was not expecting this one. Good. These are always the best type of answers. He tells me that Honda has the most interesting racing history out of all the other Japanese car companies. BYS works on Hondas only to this day because their cars remain dependable and exceedingly easy to tune. He’s quick to admit that he couldn’t have done it by himself, and I admire this humble Japanese temperament. All of the Honda aftermarket support that’s been around since the 1980’s in Japan has made Back Yard Special’s staying power that much more secure. Many car enthusiasts in Japan continue to ride that weird wave of oversized body kits, negative camber, vinyl cartoons on quarter-panels, and neon lights in the doors. Suzuki-san doesn’t give a damn about these trends. He wants to make parts for Hondas that are simple, timeless, and functional. His factory pumps out a few hundred parts a year, and guess where 95 percent of these goods head to? If you just guessed America, you hit the nail on the head. Americans can’t get enough of this man’s creations, while only a dozen or so parts are awarded to the lucky pre-chosen Japanese clients annually. Remember, tuning still pays the bills for BYS domestically.
As for the piece of property where the shop sits, well, it’s never changed. From day one the shop has been in the same building, snug in the heart of the suburbs. Suzuki-san says that this building is another reason why he chose the name Back Yard Special. If one were to live behind his shop they would quite literally be in his backyard. I asked him if there had been any noise issues with neighbors. He says that everyone around him is fine with his raucous presence because, well, he’s been in the neighborhood longer than anyone else! And while they may be in the suburbs, the interstate that courses through the center of Nagoya is only a couple of kilometers away. This convenience kept clients coming back to Back Yard Special in the days before GPS, and without it, Suzuki-san admits that he would have had a much harder time bolstering his career. He told me that being easy to find has been a blessing since day one, and to this day it continues to bring in customers. You can’t have regulars if they can’t find your shop in the first place. Location, location, location. But location isn’t everything. Superior craftsmanship is what makes a product desirable, and let’s face it, Back Yard Special is at the top. They make carbon-fiber and Kevlar aero pieces so strong, they seem like they could stop a tank shell. Every year BYS produces aero that is simple and stylish; all while retaining that classic, old-school demeanor that effortlessly catches a car enthusiast’s eye. Oh, and let’s not forget their exhaust parts, which are a fusion of these two mediums. Extensively engineered, timelessly handcrafted, and very quiet, BYS exhaust systems continuously deliver the goods. Plus, they are individually handcrafted out of the world’s finest stainless steel, and that is what makes BYS parts such a thing of magnificence. These men are engineers, mechanics, and artists all rolled into one. Interdisciplinary skills manifested in Japanese tuning culture. Suzuki-san and his two sons/kohais, are a shining example of how a family business should be run in Japan. It’s amazing to me that a small, family-owned company like Back Yard Special has shaped the past, present, and future of Honda’s appeal to the masses.
And exactly where is mass car appeal headed you ask? Hybrids. When I visited, their modified CR-Z was unavoidable because you had to walk around it just to get in the front door! The car is incredible, with its combination of racing white exterior, bronze wheels, and body lines to die for. The new CR-Z aero was literally finished the week before my arrival! With the prototype model completed, Hatsuo-san is currently driving the piss out of the thing to see how it handles abusive daily driving in Japan. All of his aero prototypes are tested this way because it’s the preeminent way to see if a product will actually hold up over time. There have not been any problems thus far, even at high speeds on the interstate.
While I was ogling over the CR-Z, I noticed something lurking on the grounds behind me. It was raspberry purple, and upon closer inspection I found it to be a Honda Beat Kei car! Being the funkiest looking thing on the lot, I had to give it my complete attention for a moment. Roadsters are another one of my weaknesses, and the Honda Beat is an option that is often overlooked due to its apparent lack of power. As we walked up to the car I began to wonder if it was boosted like the one I saw in Tokyo years ago. I had no idea that this little monster was actually far more menacing than anything else in the entire yard. Honestly, I thought that this was just a fun project for the boys in the shop. I was flabbergasted when Suzuki-san told me that this tiny roadster was his greatest achievement. Apparently, he had swapped out the entire suspension and then when that was done he dropped a B18 engine and tranny in the little bastard! Suzuki-san says that it was perhaps the most challenging and yet rewarding project he has taken on during his extensive career. At first he said that nothing wanted to fit in the tiny frame, and that they really were skeptical about the whole project a few times. Mercifully, his toil paid off, and with the help from some sturdier suspension and custom mounts, the engine finally sat just right in the car. Naturally, custom exterior goods soon followed, along with one-off wings, lips, and diffusers. There is also that beautiful hardtop, and one crazy-stiff underbody to keep everything tied together properly.
So what’s next for these guys now that the CR-Z aero prototype is completed? Where does Suzuki-san see the hybrid market as a whole going in Japan? Does hybrid tuning have a future? These questions warranted a long moment of contemplation from the shop’s owner. After a minute or so of thought Hatsuo looked over at me and agreed with my statement about hybrids being the next generation of automobile. To him this is what will ultimately secure the future of his business. The continuous tuning of these vehicles, along with the creation of new body parts are what will make his sons their fortune when he passes the reins one day. So should we as American tuners start looking at hybrid racing and try to catch up with the Japanese? Staying ahead of the curve has always been Suzuki-san’s style, and by doing this he successfully puts capital in the bank every day. Financial stability rests on his every move and sometimes it just takes one poor decision to bankrupt a tuning shop. So when I asked him about boosting the CR-Z to get it a little closer to the vivacity of a Type-R, he shook his head. While force-fed hybrids are becoming a large factor in Japanese racing culture, Suzuki-san believes that the CR-Z’s transmission needs to be severely beefed-up to withstand that kind of abuse. I took his word for it. It is best not to doubt a man who has already spent god knows how many dollars on developing aero parts for the CR-Z sitting outside his shop.
We began the elongated ritual of good-byes that the Japanese utilize every day, when one of Suzuki-san’s sons told me he had something to give me. He then ran into the building, and reappeared holding a little silver bag. He handed it to me and bowed deeply. I peeked inside and within the confines of its plastic layers sat several stickers, some business cards, and an extremely rare Back Yard Special brake reservoir cover! You never know, maybe next time he’ll give me a front lip for my CB7.
As I left the shop I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed. Did I really just hang out in Back Yard Special’s headquarters? It sure did feel like an obscure dream that one might have after drinking a six-pack of micro-brewed Imperial IPA while reading an issue of Honda Tuning. Or maybe it was the jet lag talking? Hell, all I knew was that I just had a wonderful time talking with the one and only Hatsuo Suzuki of Back Yard Special, and learning about his interesting life. From what I gather, this is a man of few words, but many thoughts. He is a design engineer, artist, mustache enthusiast, Honda fanatic, racer, and founding CEO of Back Yard Special. He has seen Mugen’s beginnings, the Japanese economic bubble pop, several severe earthquakes, gas prices skyrocket, the advent of two kinds of hybrid racing, and an uncountable number of race cars. He is a humble man, and would never admit this himself, but to me, Hatsuo Suzuki is the perfect example of a guy who will always weather the storm.