It’s been eight years since a relatively nondescript workshop in residential Chiba, North of Tokyo first appeared on this website.
A lot has changed in that time. Once an anonymous face to anyone outside a small clique of Japanese enthusiasts, Akira Nakai is now arguably one of the most recognisable names in the Japanese tuner industry. VIP at SEMA, a starring role in the latest Need for Speed game and a legion of followers in every corner of the globe – in this crazy car culture world of ours, Nakai-san is certainly sitting atop the highest mountain.
You would be hard pressed to know anything about Nakai’s lofty status by just looking at his workshop, however. The reason for me to be this deep into the reaches of suburban Tokyo on a school night is the latest creation to roll out of the RWB workshop – the handsome red 964 from the cover photo that at the time of writing has made the journey between Japan and a West Coast shipping port.
But before losing myself in the details of a single car, I wanted to take the opportunity to revisit RWB HQ and enjoy a rare sit-down with the man behind RAUH-Welt Begriff and hear about those crazy eight years from his perspective.
It’s just after 10:00pm in Tokyo, and in between modest houses where children sleep and variety shows beam into tired eyes, a warm glow emanates from behind the frosted windows of the corrugated iron-clad workshop. The dappled light plays off the surface of the cars littered around the building – new and old, clean and dirty, but all possessing the iconic 911 silhouette. Some of the cars have yet to be touched by Nakai-san, waiting years for the right time to be wheeled inside and operated on. Others, like Rotana, have been transformed into something that would look at home on the pages of a wild manga.
Japan is cold at this time of year so I don’t hang around outside too long. A vending machine conveniently doubles as entry way illumination so I work my way through the mini-maze of RWB metal, taking care not to tread on the various body parts piled by the entrance. Push through the door at RWB HQ you’re always guaranteed a warm welcome just like I received. That is, if anyone’s home.
You see, Nakai-san doesn’t spend much time in Japan these days. Barely 48 hours before our interview he was finalising a customer build in Thailand, and his (recently replaced) travel-case sat on the workshop floor, still packed.
The Thailand car was RWB build number 40 for the year – or thereabouts – and the total would hit 60 before 2016 was out according to Nakai-san. In the early days, the transformation of a stock 911 to RWB creation took weeks or months, but it’s since been whittled down to as little as 22 hours of labour for a pre-prepped build, with Nakai-san focusing on the bodywork and suspension setup and leaving details like interior trim and paint to collaborative local craftsmen. The schedule is undeniably hectic but Nakai-san remains unfazed. “No stress,” he says.
But here at RWB HQ, you’d never know the man was at the helm of a modifying empire. During his limited time on Japanese soil, Nakai-san continues to build customer cars the same way he always has. That is, with a unique blend of off-the-wall creativity, attention to detail and a work ethic bordering on psychotic. As I’m interviewing him he seems almost completely unaware of his own influence, owing largely to the fact that he doesn’t own a computer, nor use social media. He says he knows of the Speedhunters ‘magazine’ and remembers clearly the first time the curious, camera-toting foreigners walked into his shop, but I doubt he’s read a single article from the dozens we’ve published since. As for the online haters? They simply don’t exist to him.
Nakai-san doesn’t do things to court publicity. ‘Breaking the internet’ is not in his vocabulary. It might be hard to believe, but the online phenomenon around RWB, the cars and indeed Nakai himself is in spite of the man, not because of him.
It’s interesting especially because most of us who are connected to the online world 24-7 default to finding our inspiration there. It’s understandable; in a two-minute flick through my own Instagram feed I’m bombarded with a curated selection of the things that interest me most – cars, design and photography – from some of the best creators in the world. It’s obvious looking around Nakai-san’s workshop, however, that inspiration largely comes from sources outside the automotive world.
At a quick glance, the shelves could easily be mistaken for a repository of junk, but a closer look reveals that each piece of memorabilia tells a story. Tucked amongst a collection of unopened bottles of spirits (gifts from Nakai-san’s international friends and customers, although he’s given up drinking recently) was this – a personal note from the man who is arguably 2016’s most influential recording artist, Frank Ocean.
Readers unfamiliar with Ocean should instantly rectify the situation (go on, Google him now) for apart from being an exceptional musical talent, he also has one of the most developed and relatable automotive tastes on the billboard charts. Highlights include an Acura NSX and McLaren F1 GTR longtail featuring in music videos, and a supercharged S54-powered E30 sedan in his personal collection. It’s obvious that Ocean draws upon various life experiences involving cars to create his music, and as it turns out RWB has a place in that tapestry. Frank borrowed some cars from Nakai-san when he was in Tokyo during the writing phase of Blonde and his racing helmet – emblazoned with the RAUH-Welt Begriff logo – even featured on the alternative cover of the album.
In the same way Ocean synthesises automotive experiences into story-rich lyrics, Nakai-san draws on almost everything around him for inspiration. “I accept everything,” he says. “Beer, cafe, girl, music – everything. I focus in my life around the world, not just cars.” He refuses the title of artist, but listening to him discuss his creative process cements in my mind that what Nakai does is much more than put cars together. “I get sudden inspiration, so I do it,” he relays in between drags of a Winston cigarette. “Sometimes when I paint my cars, I get a feeling an hour before and start mixing a colour. I’m not sure before; I don’t decide, I just rely on my feelings during preparation.”
Despite opinions to the contrary, Nakai’s cars are built to be driver’s cars and not some pretty, inanimate object. The cars might be low, but smart bodywork and proper suspension means they are equally at home on the racetrack or one of Chiba’s many touge passes. “New cars like Porsche and Ferrari are soft touch; it’s too easy now,” he says. “Mechanical connection; smell, sound, emotion – this is what we need.” Similarly it seems like in Nakai’s workshop, disconnected from the madness of the electronic world outside, time moves slower. Nakai-san’s appreciation for simplicity in his cars and life is almost zen-like; he is the head priest at this temple of speed where the smell of cigarette smoke and the whirr of air tools replaces incense and chanted mantras.
He did disclose to me, however, a previously kept secret that in 2017 he would be building a 997, the first ever water-cooled RWB. Although new developments aren’t as rapid-fire as those from names like Rocket Bunny and Liberty Walk, Nakai-san still has his eyes on the horizon and will continue to grow the RWB family. ‘The Family’ is something that’s often talked about but rarely understood by people outside the fold. Nakai-san explains to me that the ‘World’ in Rough-World Begriff refers to this international group of owners from all different walks of life and that they are simply “good guys, cool style.”
Like many of my creative friends unbound by a 9-to-5 work schedule, Nakai-san is also a night owl, starting work from around midday and unlikely to set down his tools before 3:00am. He’ll often work right through to sunrise. This was something that Nate, the owner of the red 964 in the cover photo, had to become accustomed to.
Nate is not a typical RWB customer who inserts a stock 911 at one end of the RWB machine and outputs a completed creation, he is actually the first RWB customer to ever apprentice under Nakai-san as part of the build.
As you can imagine, this is not a situation that happens for just anyone. Nate and Nakai-san came to know each other a few years back when Nate was living in Japan and purchased a complete car from an RWB customer. While this alone is enough to make even the most casual RWB fan green with envy, what endeared Nate to Nakai-san was the fact that he drove the car absolutely everywhere, racking up over 10,000 kilometres on Japanese highways and mountain passes before taking it back with him to the States. Unfortunately, that car met its end against an unforgiving tree trunk on a dark and wet section of Louisiana highway, but Nate emerged from the wreck determined to build something even better than the original.
Just as the build was commencing, Ocean’s most recent album Blonde dropped and provided a backing track to many of the late summer nights in the workshop spent underneath or inside the car. While parts filtered in for Nate’s 964 the pair would tinker on other customer cars, Nakai-san utilising Nate’s extra pair of hands to attack the gruntwork associated with keeping an RWB fleet running. As Nakai-san observed Nate’s competency rising he’d bring him closer to the action and spend time looking over Nate’s shoulder, correcting his technique and passing on advice.
To an outside observer, Nakai-san’s work lacks any semblance of order; he quickly flits from car to car performing seemingly unrelated work before sporadically pausing to light a cigarette and take a phone call or welcome a guest. Even late into the evening the shop feels more like a living, breathing entity than a workspace. Customers, business partners and international fans mix freely amongst the scattered bodywork and tyres.
Since the explosion of RWB eight years ago, it is common for curious visitors from all over the world to stick their head through the front door. Nakai-san welcomes each and every one warmly, at the same time barely pausing from the work at hand. Nate was absorbed into this world, sleeping in a bunk at the back of the shop and working with Nakai-san’s right-hand man, Nojima Yusuke, when the boss was away on his many overseas trips.
As Nate and I were talking about his time at RWB we maneuvered through the labyrinth of cars and parts and I spotted the pink 964 that accompanied Dino, Ron and myself to the idlers 12hr endurance race last year, gathering a layer of dust at the back of the shop, still nursing the scars from an off-track expedition. Nakai-san maintains a small fleet of these shop cars that allow his friends and customers to experience a piece of the clubman racing culture of Japan. As Nate says, “they generally get stripped interiors or RS carpets, lightweight flywheels and RS clutches, FRP hoods and other body parts, and suspension upgrades. For reasons of cost, maintenance and reliability, most have stock power. Yet, in the hands of competent drivers, they’re competitive every year against a very diverse field that includes some very fast, modern and more powerful machinery. Driving two of these in consecutive endurance races was something of a revelation.”
This pink car was also a part of Nate’s RWB dream experience. It was only after a chance reunion with Nakai-san in Germany during a 993 build that he was invited to come to Japan and assist with preparation of the shop cars for the upcoming idlers endurance race, a bittersweet opportunity considering that his own car was a wreck, and at the time he saw little opportunity to rebuild. Over the proceeding seven weeks, Nakai and Nojima gave Nate the encouragement to commence another build, and a suitable base 964 was located online and purchased.
I’d timed my visit to ensure that my lens would be the first to be pointed at the latest RWB creation, and the finishing touches were still being put on the car (here Nakai-san quickly sprays a lightweight passenger mirror before our shoot). The pair worked in creative tandem, with Nate having a firm idea of what he envisioned as the end result, but deferring to the master for the details that make RWB cars so unique even when compared to other overfendered, track-ready 911 customs.
Despite having such an enviable experience and final product, Nate is completely humbled by the opportunity and instantly diverts any compliments towards Nojima, Nakai and the RWB family that surrounded him during the process. Months of dirty work offset by odd hours sleeping in a dark room at the back of a garage probably sound like hell to most normal folk, but I’m sure Speedhunters readers appreciate just how enthused Nate is about his time at RWB.Back To Basics
As the hour hand on my watch edged closer to the two, we decided to move to the local conbini to steal some fluorescent light and take a closer look at the final result of Nakai-san and Nate’s hard work.
The only word I can use to accurately describe my feeling towards this car is lust. I’ve been a hardcore Porsche guy for as long as I can remember and have admired many rear-engined Stuttgart specials during that time. But the car in front of me on this cold Tokyo night just hit the spot so hard that my heart ached. Keep your million-dollar ’73 RSs and battery-laden 918 Spyders, this is the car I want to terrorise the Tokyo tollroads in.
When seeing the car for the first time I assumed that the red hue was Porsche’s timeless Guards Red, a colour I’m intimately familiar with since it adorns my own track car back in Australia. I’d assumed wrong, though. The shade is indeed based on Guards Red, but Nate worked with RWB paint maestro Nojima-san to create something with less orange than the factory colour.
There are plenty of RWB design hallmarks to reflect Nate’s desire for the build to embody the original style that Nakai-san developed in Chiba almost two decades ago, not least the deeply dished Work Meister S1s tightly tucked into the bulging wheel arches instead of some of the flashier styles found on RWB builds around the world. The ever-so-slightly stretched tyres proudly wear the spray-painted idlers logo, Nate having taken part in several of the amateur racing club’s events during his time in Japan.
The decision to go with smoothed fenders over the usual riveted-on approach provides the otherwise raw car with a sense of factory-like quality. It’s a finish rarely seen on cars built outside Japan due to the necessitation of additional time for curing and thus a secondary visit from Nakai-san.
In lieu of the iconic stacked RWB GT wing, a 964 C4 Lightweight wing extends from the 911’s rear, another subtle choice that reaffirms Nate’s commitment to the less-is-more approach. In combination, the smoothed wide fenders, factory-style aero additions and paint choice reference Porsche’s limited edition RS or Cup models more than Japanese tuner culture, and personally I think does justice to the 911 legacy which so many accuse RWB of disrespecting.
And like Porsche’s Motorsport arm, Nate has turned up the tactility and feel of the car to refine its purpose as a pure driver’s car rather than a show pony or long-distance tourer. “It’s not for commuting. If I’m in the car, it’s because I want to drive,” he says.
Much of the inspiration came directly from a revelatory experience behind the wheel of Ramintra, a race-prepped 993 that Nakai-san lent to Nate and some other customers to contest the idlers 12Hr race at Motegi in 2015. Despite having spent his fair share of time in high-power Porsches, it was this simple, stripped-out and honed car that spoke to Nate’s heart, and he endeavoured to carry this across into the new build.
In particular, significant attention was paid to making the car as light as possible, such as to capture the completely raw and unadulterated driving feel that Nate experienced driving Ramintra. In the spirit of the Porsche factory’s RS specials, audio, air conditioning and heating were binned. However, Nate went further still by skeletonizing the doors and stripping out all superfluous interior trim including carpets and sun visors and even using sliding acrylic side windows to replace the factory powered glass, contributing to make this the lightest 964 to ever wear the RWB name.
The rest of the interior fit-out reads exactly as you’d expect for a track-tuned RS car; Recaro 996 GT3 buckets, harnesses, suede steering wheel, lightweight shifter and pedals from OMP and an Okuyama roll cage. Nate will eventually be overhauling the gauges, fabricating custom switchgear and recovering the dash.
The engine remains stock except for the installation of a minimal free-flowing exhaust that Nakai-san fabricated to give the 964 an appropriate rasp under hard acceleration without sacrificing the street-friendly torque curve of the naturally aspirated 3.6L flat-six. The clutch and flywheel were replaced with lightweight versions to help the revs spin up quicker. I love a big-power build as much as the next guy, but that was never the intention here. As Colin Champan, father of Lotus, famously said, “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”
From what I know of Nate, the Porsche is very likely to get some mild power tweaks to freshen up the 25-year-old power unit back in the US. But at this point it was ‘finished’ from Nakai-san’s perspective and Nate made haste to christen the build with drives to his favourite locations in Japan – including Hakone, Tatsumi and Daikoku PA – before it was loaded into a container at the Port of Kawasaki.
Now that the car is back with Nate in the US I don’t doubt it continues to be one of the most frequently driven cars in the global RAUH-Welt family. Because for Nate, he realises that this car is at the end of the day still just a car – a physical possession not worth being so attached to that you become scared of driving, lest it become worn or damaged. But within the metal shell lives a ghost. The memories, experiences and relationships that have changed Nate’s life in ways he never imagined since buying that first RWB car three years ago.
Only Nakai-san is so distinctly aware of what this car means to Nate. For all customer cars Nakai-san bestows a name upon the finished product which represents some inspiration, idea or subtle nod to the owner’s passion, which often remains a mystery to anyone else – and some prefer to keep it that way. Nate and I were texting a few days after the shoot to confirm some final details for the story, and he mentioned that Nakai had named the car, but wouldn’t reveal why the name was chosen. So all we know is that that this very special red 964 is called Kana.
RWB Porsche 964 Lightweight ‘Kana’
Factory 3.6L flat-six, Custom RWB performance exhaust
Factory 5-speed gearbox, lightweight flywheel, RS Clutch
Aragosta suspension custom tuned for RWB
Work Meister S1s, Advan Neova AD08Rs
Custom smooth-fender RWB wide-body, carbon fibre hood, sunroof delete, lightweight RS spoiler, lightweight mirrors
Recaro 996 GT3 seats, OMP 805 harnesses, OMP Corsica Superleggero suede steering wheel, OMP lightweight shifter, OMP pedals, Okuyama roll cage, Rennline Camber Advantage 3-point strut brace, Custom acrylic door & quarter windows, Rennline floor mats