According to social media, you can’t visit Japan without being inundated by ‘crazy’ cars roaming the streets.
But this is social media remember, where the truth tends to get stretched a little. Take the kid holding a stack of cash like a phone. They’re not some crypto genius; they’re a scammer. Or that fitness guru promoting protein bars despite hiding 100ml of bull testosterone in their arse cheeks. You learn quite quickly to take social flexing with a pinch of salt. Providing that salt is high protein, guarantees results, and is available with the discount code SALT20.
The only problem is, in this instance they’re not entirely wrong about Japan. And seeing as this story revolves around two incredible cars in Tokyo, on a platform that may as well be written in kanji these days, that stereotype is about to be strengthened further. Not that it’s a bad thing.
Back in October last year, I found myself in Japan with Rowan Horncastle from Top Gear magazine. There’s nothing particularly weird about this; every year we do a week-long JDM pilgrimage with the goal of shooting as many features as humanly possible. I say humanly, because by day four we’re mumbling like lean-fuelled SoundCloud rappers, such is the sleep deprivation. But as we’re both wired similarly, which is actually completely wrong compared to normal humans, it’s a combination that works quite well.
Aside from the ‘hero’ features like this insight into Japanese lowrider culture, we try and keep the schedule fairly loose to scoop up anything interesting along the way, something not helped by the fact that every street in Japan looks like an amazing location to shoot. Oh, and if someone says they’re going to turn up for a shoot, they’ll always be there. Usually an hour early.
I first saw Shintaro Okamoto’s M3 on the Fieldstone1993 FlickR page a few years back, and aside from being a killer set of images, I couldn’t help but think it was one of the coolest cars I’d ever seen. Admittedly, that’s a phrase I use to describe anything caged and sitting on RAYS Volk Racing TE37s. But if you were to encapsulate everything I love about Japanese ‘tuning’ in a single car, this would probably be it.
So much so, I threw it over to Rowan as something we absolutely must go and photograph, because above all else it’d make a solid ‘gram upload. I’m yet to see Rowan turn down any shoot in Japan, largely due to the fact there’s always more to each story than just a cool car.
The phrase ‘is it OK if my friend comes along?’ usually sends a shiver down my spine, but in Japan I try and encourage it. Partly because it’s what normal people do, and partly because you’re never entirely sure what they’re going to arrive in. Back home this usually takes on the form of a Fiesta ST in straight-from-work spec. Energy drink in the cupholder, high-vis on the back seat, and an intercooler rammed against the front grille. You know the kind; looks like an apple being pushed into a tennis racket. Japan, however, tends to be a little different.
Unbeknownst to us, we’d just arranged a photoshoot between one of DTM’s greatest rivalries: the BMW E30 M3 and the Mercedes-Benz 190 E Evo II. Race weekend at the Hockenheimring would now resemble Hachioji at 7:00am on a Monday, but that seemed like a minor detail in the grand scheme of things.
This might be me getting old – in fact I’m almost certain of it – but the sight of these two sitting on the road has way more presence than any LED-clad Lamborghini. Because you know there’s going to be an entertaining reason behind it; someone hasn’t just walked into their local supercar dealer and dropped half a mil for Insta’ clout. You don’t wake up one day and think, ‘you know what, I’m going to track a 190 E Evo II’ without good reason.
Before getting into the actual story, it’s worth spending an extra minute just to pore over these two machines. Look at ‘em. I find it hard to believe they’re even older than I am. That’s not to say they’re modern by any means, but age has been properly good to this pair. Which is more than can be said for Rowan and I who, on the subject of age, asked multiple Japanese people how old we looked. We stopped after hearing 39 from one gentleman.
I don’t think it’s possible to get bored of the 190 E Evo II, which is just as well as I’ve somehow ended up shooting four of them in the past three years. It’s the juxtaposition of a four-door 190 E with a bodykit that looks more Kaido Racer than DTM; it’ll never not be cool. The E30 M3 looks more traditionally fast with its flared box arches and coupe layout. But the Evo II? That looks fully aftermarket.
While we’re on the subject of the 190 E Evo II, this particular example is proudly owned by Hitoshi Shirai. I didn’t ask Shirai-san his age, but as he looks a good few years older than me, I can only assume he’s 103 by Japanese standards. Once you’re done drooling over its existence, the real party piece of Shirai-san’s Evo II is the fact it’s still properly raced. Not the odd track day; but full club-level racing. According to Shirai-san, it’s one of the only legit models doing so in Japan, and I’m inclined to believe him. Just 502 Evo IIs were sold, and you’ll need upwards of £120,000 to buy one now.
That doesn’t mean Shirai-san is some collector with deep pockets, quite the opposite in fact. Having grown up obsessed with Mercedes – resulting in a W124 E36 AMG wagon in his garage – Shirai-san fancied a change of pace in 2006. He wanted something he could take racing instead.
‘Sporty’ and ‘manual’ are two words not commonly found in modern Mercs, but after a bit of searching Shirai-san found an Evo II for sale at a fairly sensible price. Not dirt cheap, but it was far from the investment opportunity they’re labelled now. It did mean selling his E36 AMG though, and if you’re not sure what one of those is, imagine a 500 E with a boot and an AMG six-cylinder engine.
“The reason for choosing the Evo II was simple, it’s a racing machine created by the world’s best brand,” laughed Shirai-san. “When I purchased the Evo II, nobody was racing them in Japan. Yet it was a car built for racing. Everyone used either Porsche or BMW in this category. The Evo II was not as fast as the E30 M3, but it was still capable. And it means you just have to drive faster than everyone else to win – that’s what I enjoy most.”
Shirai-san’s love for racing didn’t start with his Evo II. Back when he was a teenager and first let loose on the roads, he was ‘keen’ for a spot of road-based drag racing in a Toyota Corolla he’d tuned while training as a mechanic. Inevitably, it got to a point where Shirai-san had to take his speed obsession to the track before it got out of hand.
“Back in the ’80s is when I started karting,” he added. “This is where I first met Okamoto-san with the M3. He was the fastest kart racer at the club, but he did not know me. I knew him because he was the regional champion. So, I started at the bottom, and over time I got faster and faster until I could beat everyone. But he [Okamoto-san] says he doesn’t remember that happening…”
Despite first meeting back in the 1980s, the pair wouldn’t properly race again until 2010 when they found themselves at Fuji Speedway for an event organised by a mutual friend. Shirai-san in his Evo II, Okamoto-san in his E30 M3. This event turned into the Euro Challenge Cup, and if you’ve ever seen a circuit full of ’80s German classics in Japan it’s likely to have come from here.
Don’t forget, this isn’t time attack – it’s proper wheel-to-wheel racing. There aren’t many YouTube channels I’ll promote, but Shirai-san’s is perfect; no shouty maniac, no clickbait title, and no adverts – just a man driving his car at maximum attack with uninterrupted onboard footage.
“Ever since that race, the rivalry started again!” laughed Shirai-san. “When we get on the track, we are rivals first and then friends. It is hard racing, but it is fair. And I know that whoever wins, the next race they will come back even faster. You cannot stop chasing the speed. We enjoy the process, though. Every person has a different way of interacting with their car. For some it is good to decorate and look at, and that is fine. But all I want is to run the Evo II faster than anyone else, that’s my idea of fun.”
What I love most about Shirai-san’s attitude is how it’s reflected in the Evo II’s build. For most this would be looked upon as sacrilege, but he’s not tweaking this car for future values or collectability. If it can make him go faster, it’s a necessary addition.
“The value of these cars is all people think about now,” Shirai-san explained. “They are increasing rapidly, but if I sold this car what am I going to replace it with? There is no replacement, so the value doesn’t matter. I love the feeling of racing the Evo II because that’s what it was designed to do. I keep it in street spec because fun driving can be done on and off the race track, and because Okamoto-san’s M3 is also a street car.”
Take a look at the intake and throttle bodies fitted to the 2.5-16 Cosworth lump. To the untrained eye it’s exactly what you’d expect from a DTM homologation model, right? Apart from the fact that the ITBs pictured here should be fitted to a Toyota lump. Yup, having grown up tuning his own Corolla in the ’80s, Shirai-san turned back to the trusty 4A-GE he knew so well in the quest for freeing up extra power from the Evo II. With management provided by an HKS F-CON V Pro, the Evo II now makes a healthy 255bhp at 7,500rpm.
That’s all been fabricated and setup at home, too. Shirai-san may no longer be a mechanic by trade, but that doesn’t stop him from maintaining the Evo II before and after each race. Club-spec racing at its finest.
His current job? Take a look at the sun strip. That’s not some dodgy translation; he’s now the manager of the nursing home for the elderly, making this Evo II the most comprehensive defibrillator ever made.
Right about now would be a fantastic time to round up this feature if it wasn’t for the M3-shaped elephant in the room.
Okamoto-san’s story is unsurprisingly similar to Shirai-san’s. He too had grown up karting, first meeting Shirai-san when he was 20 years old back in 1983. By the age of 25, Okamoto-san was a regional champion, and while he was at the top of his karting game his passion for racing soon spilled into the world of tin tops… otherwise known as race cars with a roof.
“The older I got, the more interested I became in sports cars, and not just kart racing,” Okamoto-san explained. “After a few years of using four-wheel drive and wagons [Okamoto-san is also a keen skier], I reached a point where I wanted to use a proper sports car. Something I could race with, but something that was also fun to drive on the street. This was around the year 2000, and there were three stand-out cars for me: the BMW E30 M3, BMW E36 M3 and Porsche 911.”
At the time of its release, BMW’s E30 3 Series sold like hotcakes in Japan thanks in part to their ‘bubble’ economy. For those unaware – and I must stress I know very little on the subject – this period between 1986 and 1991 saw house prices and stock markets heavily inflated thanks to over-confidence in the economy (amongst many other contributing factors). Exporting goods became a huge money maker, and with a cash surplus in the banking system lending became super lenient too. To no surprise, ‘luxury’ European cars soon flooded the market thanks to their perceived quality and status.
“We looked at the E30 as a businessman’s car,” added Okamoto-san. “But because so many people had them, there was demand for special editions like the Alpina. At the same time as the bubble economy, foreign motorsport including DTM and Formula 1 was also growing in popularity here. I enjoyed DTM the most because the cars looked just like their road-going counterparts. Of all the shapes, I think the E30 M3 was the best of the era. So, when it came to buying a sports car many years later, I knew the E30 M3 was the right choice… even though it would not stay standard for long.”
That was 20 years ago now, and over the course of that time Okamoto-san’s E30 has been developed into one of the most rounded and complete M3’s on the planet. You could argue it’d have been quicker and cheaper to just buy a Group A racer instead, but Okamoto-san didn’t want a car solely for the racetrack. He wanted one he could drive every day, both on and off the track. Even if that meant getting slightly carried away in the process.
I don’t think there’s many standard components left now, but Okamoto-san has been careful not to fit parts which compromise the M3’s functionality too much, because when he’s not battling Shirai-san in the Euro Cup Challenge he’s likely up on a mountain road battling him there instead.
If you’re wondering why this particular E30 M3 looks extra spicy, what you might not realise straight away is the fact those ‘stock’ box arches have been widened by almost 40mm on every corner. It’s subtle to say the least, but more importantly it allows Okamoto-san to run the staggered TE37SL Volks without scrubbing and without the need for any stance-inspired alignment. Only when looking at the arches from above do you notice just how much wider they really are.
That’s no coincidence. Okamoto-san loves the stock E30 M3 shape, and any addition or tweak is designed to alter that as little as possible. It’s the same reason why he’ll never fit a huge GT-spec wing on the back; it’s just not the style he grew up appreciating.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop tuning it,” Okamoto-san said with a laugh. “At first, I wanted to go a little faster on the road. But as I started racing more – and then battling with Shirai-san – we end up challenging each other to go faster and make more changes. I know if I don’t improve, he will and then he might actually be faster than me. The rivalry is there on and off the track, but let us not forget that it is a trustworthy one. We fight hard, but we fight safe. And it should always be for fun.”
When questioned about the appreciating value of his M3 – because it’s always in the back of our minds even if we don’t actively care about it – Okamoto-san was quick to explain that, while it’s nice to have a car increasing in value, it doesn’t bring him any extra joy. Much like Shirai-san, the enjoyment for his car comes from its history and the feeling he gets behind the wheel, not what someone is willing to pay for it.
That last point is an important one, because it’s something that’s crept into car culture more and more recently. You can’t manufacture or buy passion, no matter how many ‘iconic’ cars you snap up. If the only story you can share about a car is how cool or rare it’s considered by others, ask yourself if it’s actually been bought for the right reasons.
Cars will always come in and out of fashion. But if you’re a proper enthusiast – regardless of what you drive – it’s blindingly obvious to spot someone who’s genuinely into it, and someone who wants to be seen as being into it. As impressive as Shirai-san’s Evo II and Okamoto-san’s M3 are as cars, this would’ve been a pretty boring feature had they simply bought ‘em to sit in a collection. Don’t get me wrong, I love cars, but they should always be at the foundation of a good story and not the whole narrative.
Maybe that’s why all these stereotypes exist around car culture in Japan. It’s easy to sound repetitive, but guys like Shirai-san and Okamoto-san make it feel like the best place in the world to be a Speedhunter. Just never ask who’s the faster driver…
Hitoshi Shirai’s Mercedes-Benz 190 E Evo II
Horsepower: 255PS at 7,500rpm
Total weight: 1,263.5kg
Tsukuba Circuit Best Time: 1’05″113
JE forged pistons, metal head gasket, Sprinter Trueno/AE111 series throttle bodies, Toyota genuine direct ignition coils, HKS F-CON V Pro ECU, one-off carbon fiber ram air box, custom exhaust system
Evo II 5-speed Getrag transmission, KAAZ 2-way LSD, 3.46 final drive
Aragosta coilovers, Hyperco springs (20kg/mm front, 23.2kg/mm rear)
Wheels & Tyres:
Street – OZ Racing 18×9-inch (front) 18×10-inch (rear), Toyo Proxes R1R 245/35R18 (front) 265/35R18 (rear), Circuit – RAYS Volk Racing CE28SL 17×9-inch +45 (front & rear), Yokohama Advan A050 245/ 0R17 (front & rear)
Carbon bonnet, carbon front lip spoiler, carbon rear wing
Recaro SPG seats, Stack tachometer, Momo steering wheel, Alcantara-trimmed dashboard & center console, AP Racing brake bias valve, Odyssey battery
Shintaro Okamoto’s BMW E30 M3
Horsepower: 276PS at 7,500rpm
Total weight: 1,020kg
BMW Motorsport (Group A) camshafts, connecting rods, valves (including springs & lifters), BMW M3 Sport Evolution crankshaft, I-TEC Motorsport pistons, MoTeC engine management, BMW Motorsport (Group A) oil pump
Original LSD, 3.73 final drive, BMW M Coupé differential cover, OS Giken reinforced clutch & flywheel
Suspension & Brakes:
BILSTEIN Clubsport dampers, Eibach anti-roll bars, AP Racing 4-pot brakes
RAYS Volk Racing TE37SL 17×8.5-inch +15 (front), 17×9.5-inch +12 (rear)
Carbon bonnet, carbon fenders, carbon bumpers, carbon rear wing, original over-fenders (40mm all round), undercoat removal
Original roll cage, Recaro SPG bucket seat, Momo steering wheel, additional meters (water temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure, voltage)