On a balmy summer’s night in the foothills of Mt. Fuji, I stood in the dark, on the edge of a forest at a bus stop – long after the last bus for the day had departed – my camera bag weighing me down and my thumb out in the hope of getting a lift to the nearest train station.
As I expected, every car drove past without as much as a toot. I had come from an event at Fuji Speedway, so there was a hope that someone might pity a fellow car enthusiast and stop to ask where I was headed. After 30 minutes, I started coming to the realisation that I’d need to start making the 20km walk to civilisation, but my thinking was interrupted by the sharp beep of a horn and the glow from the rear brake lights of a GD series Subaru Impreza wagon.
I hurried towards the car in disbelief and jumped in. It turned out that the driver, was not only a fellow photographer, but had been at the wheel of some of the classic Mazda race cars I had been shooting all day. Luckily he recognised me; it would have been a long walk otherwise.
As we chatted about cars, he asked if I knew of Tommykaira. ‘Yes, of course,’ I replied, to which he casually announced while gesturing to the passenger seat: “This is Kaira-san.”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking until, out of the darkness, the mysterious front seat passenger passed me his business card. In the blink of an eye my dire situation had become an unforgetable life moment.
We exchanged LINE details during the drive, and then said our farewells at the train station. But this chance encounter wasn’t going to be our last.
Over the next few months I arranged to visit with both Kaira-san – and the second half of the outfit- Tomita-san on their home turf in Kyoto. When that day finally came, we met at the Tommykaira showroom.
What struck me very quickly during our first meeting, is that these two old friends have a chemistry which is very much The Odd Couple in dynamic. Kikuo Kaira (wearing eye glasses) is softly spoken, deadpan and witty. Yoshikazu Tomita, Kaira-san’s business partner and friend of almost 40 years, is a typical Kansai local – colourful, enthusiastic and never far from a joke.
But despite their differences, the pair have been friends for 48 years and colleagues since 1984 – around the time Kaira-san joined Tomita Auto as an engineer.
There are so many industry connections and threads which form the history of this story, but to keep it simple, it went a little something like this: In the late-1970s and early ’80s, Tomita Auto was a dealership and distributor of various European sports cars from Mercedes-Benz and BMW, as well as the first Hartge dealer in Japan.
Having established a reputation as a brilliant engineer and designer in the UK with Tom Walkinshaw’s Formula 2 car, a podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix and not least being the chief designer of the Toyota DOME 84C Le Mans car, Kaira-san began work with Kojima Racing in Kyoto to develop their new F1 car – the KE007 for the 1976 Japanese GP. Kyoto isn’t a large city, and it didn’t take long for Kaira-san to pay a visit to Tomita Auto.
Perhaps the two young men recognised each other’s strengths, but whatever the reason, a friendship was formed and ultimately a plan was hatched to develop tuning products for the popular performance cars of the day. And thus the brand we now know as Tommykaira was born.
With technical guidance from the brilliant Kaira-san, Tommykaira didn’t stop at tuning parts, eventually creating complete, special edition cars based on the GT-R, Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution platforms. They were even responsible for a Hartge-tuned Skyline GTS.
As if producing what have now become highly collectable special editions of halo cars from the golden era of tuning wasn’t enough, Tomita-san and Kaira-san set their sights on developing a lightweight, exhilarating sports car that could match the performance of supercars of the day, the result of which was the Tommykaira ZZ and ZZII. But that’s a story for another day. Trust me though, it’s worth waiting for…
The amazing thing is, this pair is not quite finished yet. Kaira-san is designing high-end lawn mowers for golf clubs around the globe, and Tomita-san is negotiating with sponsors to get the ZZII into production.
Having met Kaira-san while essentially hitch hiking, his quiet, gentle manner made it easy to forget the genius he is. The same goes for Tomita-san; he’s a brilliant man with real standing in the Japanese automotive industry.
It truly was an honour to meet two of the greatest and loveliest personalities in car culture.