BBC Autos

Car Tribes

In Canada, a frolic for Japan’s future classics

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    A clutch of first-generation Honda Civics parked along Vancouver's Spanish Banks. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Rising suns
    Datsun 510s. (Brendan McAleer)
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    Club badging under the hood of a Datsun 510. (Brendan McAleer)
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    Steve Pridgeon, with his 1983 Subaru Brat. (Brendan McAleer)
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    Pridgeon located the Brat in Ketchikan, Alaska, through eBay. "I had to have it shipped down on a barge," he said. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Rising suns
    Larry Sharp, with his 1977 Toyota Celica ST. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Rising suns
    (Brendan McAleer)
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    Kyrstie Nesplak, with her 1984 Toyota Starlet. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Rising suns
    Toyota Starlet. (Brendan McAleer)
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    A decal depicts the outline of Vancouver's crown-jewel park, site of occasional extra-legal nighttime racing. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Rising suns
    Datsun 510, bearing a collector licence plate. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Rising suns
    (Brendan McAleer)


The sun is glinting off the waves of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, and car show season is in full blossom.

No fewer than four automotive meet-ups are taking place this day at Spanish Banks, a verdant park stretched along the seaside, but one clan stands apart.

It has convened for the city's annual All Japanese Classic Car and Bike Show, the kind of loosely orchestrated event where hibachi smoke floats over a line of gleaming, Skittles-colored Datsun 510s. This is no white-gloved Pebble Beach foofaraw. Yes, there is a nominal $10 fee to be considered officially entered, but it is about as laid-back as car culture gets.

What strikes a newcomer to this realm is not just the diversity of the machinery, but of the participants. Grey-haired men dressed in hoodies chat amiably with tattooed, lip-pierced young bucks. A kindergarten-age child runs about wearing an oversize t-shirt depicting a heavily modified first-generation Honda Civic.

Among the cars are auto-crossers, show cars, drifters, body-off restorations, engine swaps – pick a level of automotive enthusiast and that person’s car is represented. Flat-grey, primed track rats park next to candy-coloured show pieces with centimetre-thick paint. What do they all have in common?

Rust – a refrain overheard throughout the parking lot.

“It's in pretty good shape. There's a little rust, of course.”

“Yes, it was pretty rusty when I found it, but I welded on some new brackets.”

“This one's all original and nearly completely rust-free. Well, nearly rust-free.”

The tendency of older Japanese cars to decompose into their constituent molecules is on everyone’s mind. It is generally the first thing that unacquainted owners will bond over in conversation (or is that Bondo?). But on the wet West Coast, where winters are mild and roads do not see much salt, rust is more a bother than a bogeyman. Head east and a meet-up like this might look very different – a group of people standing around with jars of ferrous oxide labelled “Datsun”, “Honda” or “Toyota”.

The cars at Spanish Banks on this day represent a mix of survivors and rescues. Steve Pridgeon, an aircraft mechanic in training, found his 1983 Subaru Brat on eBay, locked in a garage in Ketchikan, Alaska. “It belonged to a guy in the Coast Guard, and since there aren't any roads out of there, I had to have it shipped down on a barge,” Pridgeon said.

What is a Brat? Conceived as a sort of off-road interpretation of Chevrolet’s El Camino, it is a half-pickup, half-car built on the chassis of a Subaru GL. Featuring selectable (not full-time) all-wheel drive and comically unsafe rear jump seats, the little trucklets are relatively rare sightings at the side of the road, let alone on it. After paying $500 for the car and a further $800 to have it shipped, Pridgeon worked three months to get his Brat through British Columbia provincial inspection. During the legal limbo, he managed to shoehorn a slightly larger 2.2-litre boxer engine under the hood while the car sat in his driveway.

Sitting alongside a pair of tuned Toyotas of similar vintage, Larry Sharp's 1977 Toyota Celica ST wore a pair of sheepskins over its factory seats – a direct contrast to heavily bolstered racing buckets found elsewhere here. “This is all-original,” the retired BC Hydro planner said, pulling back those woolly covers to reveal immaculate, cream-coloured fabric beneath.

Gloria Gaynor's disco chestnut I Will Survive might well have been written about this Japanese mini-Mustang. The original owner took delivery of his Maroon Metallic machine in nearby Richmond, and from there the car logged just 57,000mi over three owners, Sharp being the current keeper of the keys.

As a bright yellow Acura Integra Type R buzzed noisily past in the background, Sharp explained his attraction to the car. “I bought a 1974 ST, and it's the one I regret selling the most,” he said. Though the Celica – with just 96 horsepower on tap – is hardly a hell-raiser, it exuded an undeniable presence among newer, hopped-up Nipponese rockets.

Nearby was a vintage pint-size screamer  belonging to Kyrstie Nesplak. The 1984 Toyota Starlet, a Tinker Toy two-door hatchback, originally shipped from the factory with rear-wheel drive and extremely modest power ratings. Modest, that is, until Nesplak got her hands on it.

“It's got a 4AGE in it,” Nesplak said in the clipped argot of a proper gearhead, referencing the engine code for the Starlet’s swapped-in, high-revving power plant. “Bigger brakes up front, suspension's sorted, no diff yet – well, it's got a diff of course.” The underside of the diminutive hatch’s hood was festooned with stickers, as well as a burn mark with the words “Small Carb Fire” scrawled in the soot. The Starlet and Nesplak formed the kind of scrappy, spunky pairing you might admire in a mixed-breed terrier and its unflappable owner.

Nesplak gestured toward a lanky young man in a baseball cap – her driving companion for the trip to the meet-up. “I've been doing my best to scare this guy on the ride over from Victoria,” she said. (He did look a little green around the gills.)

Meanwhile, one of three customised Datsun roadsters from the 1960s fired up and headed out, its upgraded turbo engine chittering and snorting under boost like some mongrel rodent from The Island of Dr Moreau. A screech of tires, and a cloud of improperly combusted hydrocarbons joined the haze kicked up by the hibachis, which commingled with sea spray and a faint rumour of marijuana smoke.

Three first-generation Honda Civics were parked in front of a family laying out a picnic. The convertible, wagon and coupe were the handiwork of Justin March , a renowned enthusiast and builder in the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) scene. Further along, a JDM Subaru Sambar pickup with a glowering countenance eyeballed a trio of Mazda Miatas – one of which bearing a sticker that copied the look of a popular one depicting the outline of Germany’s legendary Nürburgring. But here the circuit outline was accompanied by the phrase “Stanley Park” – a winking reference to the looping pavement of Vancouver’s crown-jewel park, the site of occasional extra-legal nighttime racing.

Immaculate licence plates on registered classics were spotted alongside plates that might have been pounded flat after an origami contest. Two-piece, basket-weave alloy wheels were paired with multi-colour Recaro seats.

For all the care lavished on these machines, there was still some rust to be found. But on this day, oxidation was not a symptom of decay, but rather a mark of experience, of charisma.

At afternoon’s end, the cars joined the lines of gleaming, humourless appliances circulating on the city’s perimeter roads. It was not difficult to see why these vehicles engendered such affection. A few spots of rust, after all, were a small price to pay for a soul.

The tendency of older Japanese cars to decompose into their constituent molecules is on everyone’s mind.