For Japan’s hot-rodders, the eyes have it

Traffic in downtown Tokyo is a sea of queueing shoeboxes, many of them equipped with hybrid powertrains. Traffic in downtown Yokohama, on the other hand, occasionally contains hybrids of another sort: perhaps one might care for a 1970 Toyota Crown with an all-American V8 shoehorned under the bonnet?

The Mooneyes shop is like a wormhole connecting the bustling, built-up streets of Japan directly to the 'Kustom' scene of 1950s and 1960s California.

Welcome to Mooneyes Japan, a slice of Californian automotive history basking in the glow of the Rising Sun. Holding pride of place out front, a glinting yellow dune buggy looks as if it just alighted from the cover of a vintage hot-rodding magazine. Millions of metallic golden flecks in the citrus-yellow paint catch the dancing light, making the car twinkle like a mirage. The driver of a passing Nissan Sentra can only look on enviously.

Above the Moon Buggy, a benevolent-looking yellow disc keeps watch over the whole operation with a pair of widely curious eyes. It's one of the most recognised brands in hot-rod history, taking its place right beside the maniacally grinning caricatures of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. The Moon Buggy itself wears polished metal discs over top of its steel wheels – dubbed Moon Discs, these are also touchstones of hot-rodding culture.

Dean Moon founded the company that bears his name in the 1950s, in Norwalk, California. His father owned a small restaurant called the Moon Café, which included a tiny go-kart track he dubbed “Moonza”, a winking reference to Italy’s Monza circuit. In a garage around back, Moon the younger began crafting the parts that would make him famous.

As the business grew, Moon found himself at the centre of an automotive revolution. Car culture in California, particularly in the greater Los Angeles metro area where he operated, was exploding, and Moon tuned, drag-raced and tested top-end speed at Nevada’s Bonneville Salt Flats. When the very first V8 engine found its way into the prototype Shelby Cobra in 1962, it was Dean Moon's shop that did the work. He also put the 429-cubic-inch racing engine into the Lincoln Futura concept that would become the Batmobile, and had a brush with Japan when Moon Equipment supplied high-performance V8 engines to Nissan for the 1968 Japanese Grand Prix (which they won).

Products like the Moon Disc wheel covers and Moon Tank auxiliary fuel containers were very popular, and Moon Equipment's bright-yellow show cars and drag-racers soon filled the public imagination. Even as his cars were immortalised as Hot Wheels toys, he befriended a young Japanese drag racer by the name of Shige Sugamuma.

Parked around back of the Mooneyes Japan shop is Sugamuma's first car, a 1960 Ford Thunderbird. He souped the car up as best he could with next to no budget, and later sold it to a collector. Some years back, the car came up for sale again, and passed back into Sugamuma's hands in much the same condition as when he originally owned it. Its red upholstery has the patina of years, yet is obviously well-cared for.

Inside, the Mooneyes shop is like a wormhole connecting the bustling, built-up streets of Japan directly to the “Kustom” scene of 1950s and 1960s California. Original Moon gauges cluster together in a display case, and memorabilia lines the walls, including numerous photographs of Sugamuma and Moon together.

After returning to Japan from California, where he attended college, Sugamura decided to open up as a dealer of Moon products in Japan. In 1983, Mooneyes Japan started selling the billet aluminium parts to their own underground hot-rodder culture. Sugamura would return to California where, with Moon, would peruse swap meets, on the hunt for original Moon parts.

When Moon passed away in 1987, his company needed a new leader, someone who lived and breathed the same passion for hot-rodding. Sugamura began running both the US and Japanese locations. Mooneyes Japan has been in its current location for 17 years.

Though now more an equipment supplier than a hands-on hot-rodding outfit, Mooneyes still does custom work. In a garage around back of the shop, Hiro “Wildman” Ishii carefully prepares his paint brushes. Having studied under “Big Daddy” Roth, Ishii brings the poise and delicacy of Japanese calligraphy to his free-hand detailing. The Volkswagen Beetle to his right has just returned from a show in Belgium.

Mooneyes Japan sponsors the annual Yokohama Hot Rod Show, now in its 22nd year. The cars found there reflect a mix of styles: faithful American-style hot-rods and kustoms, and a growing segment that is more organically Japanese. Some are the expected slammed-to-the-ground modern imports, incongruously shod with Moon discs and whitewall tires, but some are classic Japanese cars infused with their own style.

Take that yellow 1970 Toyota Crown out front of the shop, with the Chevy 350 V8 engine installed, one with camshafts hand-ground by the late, legendary Bill Jenks. The fender-mirrored Crown sedan farther down the line is more subtly restored, but Mooneyes often tweaks classic Japanese iron. Though he mostly drives his bright yellow 1969 Camaro Z/28, Sugamura is particularly active in trying to preserve nostalgic Japanese machinery, always on the hunt for a nearly lost cause to rescue.

The company's gleaming new Toyota Hiace delivery van stands ready to be loaded with parts, accessories and stickers for the upcoming show. Naturally, it wears Moon Discs, and is carefully pinstriped.

As any grade-school astronomer knows, moonbeams are merely the reflected rays of the sun. Here in Japan, Mooneyes both reflects the sunny splendour of mid-century Southern California, while refracting it into something fresh. That, accompanied by the thrill of speed, remain the principal tenets of hot-rod culture, however far from the source they might flourish.