Japan is a nation of traditions—and nowhere is this more evident than in the theater. We’re not talking about that new-fangled avant-garde 17th century kabuki stuff. Retreat further into history back to the 14th century and the Noh form. Yeah, Noh: the highly-regimented form that incorporates dance, costume, chanting, the jo-ha-kyu (or “beginning, break, rapid”) slow-to-fast stage movements and even the highly-polished floor surface that allows characters to appear to glide in their long costumes. But the best-known facet of Noh theater, to Westerns like most of us reading? The masks.
Masks were part of the Japanese theater tradition as far back as the early 7th century, starting with the now-defunct gigaku and introduced during the 20th year of Empress Suiko’s reign, and survived through the centuries. The Noh mask stems from the form’s all-male cast, necessitating anyone playing a woman, god, child, demon or ghost, pretty much everyone who isn’t a male in their ‘30s, to cover their face. Masks not only show what you want others to see, but hides what you don’t.
In the world of cars, masks are important as well. There’s no other way to explain the continued success of Mitsuoka, coachbuilders who try to turn Nissan Marches into early ‘60s Jaguar sedans, Nissan Cedrics into ersatz Rolls Royce Silver Shadows, and Mazda MX5s into swept-fender Jaguar XK roadsters from the mid-‘50s by switching a new front end (and sometimes other body panels) and plush interiors onto a perfectly good, existing, built car.
We bring this up because... well, look at this car. What is it? How old is it? It belongs to Sean Shokouh of JDMPalace in Folsom, CA and although it’s a fresh build, it’s a fresh build intending to look vintage. The Miata is old enough to be considered old school—summer of ‘89 puts it at 23 years-old, and seems older still when you realize the car it was modeled after—the Lotus Elan, which showed up in 1961. And enough time has passed that we all know the whole hairdressermobile image is so 1993. But the nose? That front end is serious vintage style: the exposed P700 headlamps, the open oval-mouth intake. It’s homage to a character type, something like a ’64 Ferrari 250GT Lusso Berlinetta, but it’s meant to be eye-flatteningly quick and dead sexy, whatever it is. It is not the face that this car was born with. It is...a mask.
And so we come full circle, with so many nods to the past it looks more like headbanging. Is carbuilding (on this advanced level, anyway) not theater? Are not theater events and the capabilities of a particular car both referred to as performance? And is it therefore any surprise at all that cars are occasionally given masks as well?
Traditional Noh masks are very light carved from blocks of Japanese cypress or hinoki, then given a base of crushed seashell and glue, which is finished with detail-painting in such a way that lighting and a tilt of the head can express a variety of emotions. Similarly, the Pit Crew Racing nose is a boutique outfit making Miata noses in Japan. It’s made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic and, like the Noh face coverings, it too is very light.
But the disguise goes beyond the mask: the costuming plays a role as well. Owner Shokouh reveals that the idea behind making a Miata that looks nothing like a Miata: it started with the roof. “The theme started as the vintage-look,” he tells us, “and then I wanted to have a little of both vintage and new—especially after I found the hardtop in Japan. Only five were made by the company in the mid-‘90s, and they’re no longer in business. This is the last one, and I picked it up from Top Secret in Japan.”
From there, his game plan shifted. “My goal was to make a car which no one could recognize. I think the only giveaway is the door handles. The trunk is made by Garage Hundred One who is very popular around the Miata racing circuit. This one was specially made to accept the locking mechanism, and is the third one they have built so far,” Sean explains. Similarly, the rockers, the taillight treatment with a single round light replacing the Miata’s standard-issue flush cluster, the flush rear treatment that eliminates the bumper area, the Garage Vary hood...even the wheels, huge though they look, are fifteens all around. Never mind the camber angles: bigger wheels have been crammed into smaller spaces. All different pieces, all meant to give a Miata a splash of individuality, but together creating a far larger whole. It reminds us of the Noh theater tradition of rehearsals: do it once. (“One chance, one meeting,” the saying goes.) This way, a more organic whole is created, though the result is hardly improvised.
And rather than covering it all in the latest iridescent day-glo flip-flop chromatragic hue, Shokouh opted for basic black. Think he wussed out? Hardly: black is about impossible to make look good and right to the naked eye, much less in pictures. Much like a theater in the round, it shows everything, and hides nothing. A two-stage PPG basecoat/clearcoat with five layers of clear come as close as a black car can come to glowing, and with the aftermarket bits make it look all-of-a-piece. Five layers of clear? “It was my daily driver for a while,” Shokouh says. The interior, meanwhile, is remarkable for the relative restraint and lack of any single component standing out; all work together to create a harmonious whole.
And look at the result. You’d be hard-pressed to ID it as a Miata right off the bat, but it takes that car’s basics—lightweight, rear-drive twin-cam fun and creates a whole vintage-style backstory for it. It’s a story that practically tells itself with one masked actor playing the titular role. The JDMPalace Miata project is not just theater. It’s (a) play.
1996 Mazda Miata
Owner Sean Shokouh
Hometown Folsom, CA
Occupation Owner of JDMPalace
Engine Mazda B6ZE(RS) with ARC air crossover box; A'PEXi filter; JDM stainless header; Pit Crew Racing dual exhaust
Footwork & Chassis Endless Zeal Coilovers (12K springs front, 18K springs rear); Racing Beat sway bars; Pit Crew Racing strut bar
Brakes Endless six-piston front and four-piston rear brake calipers; custom e-brake
Wheels & Tires 15x8.5" front and 15x9.5" rear BBS RM wheels with custom gloss lips and black satin centers; 195/45R15 Toyo T1R tires
Exterior Pit Crew Racing front bumper with P700 Tri bar headlights and foglights; Garage Vary Ver. I hood; Trap front lip, rear bumper and taillight housings; JDM Mazda porter taillights; Garage Woolery Porter rings; Garage Hundred One flat trunk; Zerbinino (Top Secret) hardtop; Runabout Inc S800 side mirrors; ProjectG side diffusers; Zoom fuel lids
Interior Conversion to pre-airbag instrument panel and steering column; custom door panels and speedometer hood; Nielex stainless vintage dash center, center console and stainless seat brackets; JDMP custom stainless shifter and knob; IL Motorsports bullet air vents; RS Products stainless vintage climate control panel, switches, vent rigs and pedal covers; AWD speedometer faces and stainless speedometer panel cover; Fabulous black wood steering wheel; Works bell short steering hub; Techno Toy hub extender; Nakamae aluminum M2 inner door handles; InJoy inner door pulls; JDM Roadster door scuff plates, speaker covers and checkered floor mats; Lotus passenger foot rest; Hard Dog Deuce polished stainless rollbar; M-speed vintage Skyline seats; Simpson Racing vintage harness belt; BeatRush stainless hard top brackets; Alpine stereo head unit; Carrozzeria 6.5" door speakers, satellite rear speakers and 8" powered subwoofer
Thanks You The guys at ProjectG and Garage Star for their support