60 years of restoring the charm innate in good old-fashioned classic cars.
A small auto shop stands secluded within a residential area in the suburbs of Higashikurume, Tokyo. The first floor of the two-story building shows its age with its rusty railings and aluminum window frames; crammed to the brim with parts and tools along with the strong scent of oil that can be smelled when opening the door.
Inside, workers ranging from young to older seasoned ones are dressed in their coveralls working tirelessly. This scene upon first glance depicts an image stereotypical of a "small factory". However that is only if you remove the rows of breathtaking classic cars parked inside.
A 1957 Lotus Eleven Gull-wing "Le Mans" Coupe, 1964 Ferrari 250LM, 1964 Shelby Cobra 289MK2... A list of cars worthy enough to be seen in museums are found inside this quaint shop. This place known as "Naito Auto" is a shop that specializes in the restoration and sales of rare classics with a focus on sports cars.
Founded in 1952 by Shinichi Naito, a skilled engineer from the dawn of the automobile age in Japan, and father of current owner Masao Naito. Today, Masao runs the company with his two sons So and Kei, along with Shigeru Naito and Koji Nakagawa, two veterans who have been with the shop since his father's time.
It's not unusual to see some very rare cars from all over the world, some that are only produced in extremely limited numbers, being worked on inside the shop at Naito Auto. Each worker's vast amount of experience and knowledge is applied in the restoration process, however these cars are not simply brought back to be showcased in a museum.
The ultimate goal is to get them back onto the road. Additionally they are bound by a principle and common interest to, "restore each car as close to its original condition when it was first delivered,"explains So Naito, "We all place a priority on originality."
"Because we deal with old rare cars, manufacturers don't have replacement parts in stock and they can be very difficult to obtain sometimes, but my grandfather and father have long been associated with this work, and I also have experience participating in races throughout Europe, so I'm often able to source valuable parts thanks to the relationships that I've cultivated throughout my life. We are very grateful for the environment we are able to work in. Even if we aren't able to find the exact parts, we seek out the best methods using our very own approach while adhering to fundamentals based on sound knowledge."
Having developed trust for their knowledge and experience gained over the 60 years since the company was founded, cars are delivered for restoration and orders for their purchase are received from all over the world. For the brothers So and Kei, who enhanced their experiences by studying overseas, everyday is still a learning opportunity to build upon the skills already acquired as they work with their father and the veteran engineers.
The reason why they are so committed to "originality".
"We're attracted to cars from the 1960s to the 1970s because they were made with such a high level of technique. For example, cars with aluminum bodies from this era were all molded using a "panel beating" technique by skilled craftsmen. During the 1960s, the level of gasoline engine technology was extremely high as well; one could make an argument that it was during this time the technology was perfected.
Back then, automobile production technology was esteemed and was closely related to national prestige in the West and in Japan, so engineers and designers were extremely passionate about the cars they created. You can feel the quality of the assembling and fitting of the cars made during this era by the sounds that you hear when closing the doors for example. However, as the years went on and automobile manufacturers began thinking of more convenient and efficient ways to make cars, the production environments of the past were slowly lost."
During the 1970s, safety standards, otherwise known as the "Muskie Act" were established to control air pollution (coming from exhaust) in the United States, resulting in various regulations including the positioning and design of the lights and bumpers making it difficult for manufacturers to create unique original designs.
In the late 1970's, not just in the automobile industry, but other industry as well there was an expansion of highly developed capitalism through rationalization and efficiency, which flooded the market with more standardized products.
Fully restored cars are lined up at the "Naito Auto" showroom located in Ogikubo. Photographs of his father Masao at racing events in Europe can be found displayed on the walls.
"In order to prevent the deterioration of modern automobile bodies, a clear coating is generally applied to the surface, but in the past, lacquer with weak coating film and strong volatility was applied instead. What makes lacquer so appealing is the uneven wavy feel and distinct ageing that it gives the body of the cars.
Today, lacquer coating is extremely rare, but we continue to utilize this traditional method in order to preserve the authentic feel of the original vehicle. As our work environment continues to change over time and the number of engineers who possess the ability to restore old cars dwindles, we feel that it is even more important that we keep these traditional methods alive and pass them down to future generations."
Kei, who is an artist when he isn't working as an engineer, draws paintings based mainly on car part motifs.
Even while talking with them, their hands never stopped working on the machines in front of them. For example, in order to prevent the compression leakage of the engine bulbs, each bulb is individually coated with a compound while aligning them bit-by-bit. This task of filling in the tiny gaps invisible to the naked eye requires a delicateness and added time, but by striving to increase the precision of each of these elements to its maximum potential, new life is given to the cars while restoring them to their original conditions.
On the other hand, they don't believe that things should be preserved and kept in pristine condition simply because they are old or rare. What drives them is taking high quality products and restoring them back to their original condition to bring them new life so that they can once again be used today.
"Many people might have the image that old cars are prone to breakdown easily, but most of them can be used for 10, 20 years with little maintenance when correctly restoring every precise detail of the vehicle. Our goal is to restore them to a condition that allows everyday use."
Official Instagram: @naitoengineering
Survey, defined as: to examine or inspect. In these features, we will be reporting on things, people, places, or cultures that inspire us in our daily work of making products.
edit & text: Kosuke Ide
photo: Keisuke Fukamizu