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American-style customs in Japan: Highlights from the 2019 Mooneyes Hot Rod and Custom Show

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What is it about American car culture that makes it so much more powerful when it’s found way beyond its original borders? What makes it all so much amazing when it’s translated into foreign languages? When it’s interpreted by the Swedes, the Germans, the Italians, Indonesians, Russians, or Japanese? Did we figure out how to make automotive design just…cool? These might be unanswerable questions, but in the hyperconnected digital world of everything-all-the-time, there’s no doubt that the power of analog American custom car culture is, at once, universal and undisputed.

And one of the most impressive examples of the universality of American car culture is what Japanese businessman, Shige Suganuma, did with one of the most beloved American speed shop brands ever built: Dean Moon’s Moon Equipment Company.

In the early Nineties, Shige bought the Moon brand from Dean’s family shortly after his widow died, moved the base of operations to Japan, changed the name to Mooneyes and promptly launched the first Hot Rod & Custom Show in 1991 to celebrate all things Moon and Moon-equipped. Or at least Moon-influenced. And Moon-beloved. Twenty-eight years later, we’d argue that his Hot Rod & Custom Show in Yokohama, Japan is the most influential one-day custom car culture event in all the land.

Squint your eyes and this could be just about any setup day at any indoor hot rod show in America.

Japanese-cum-West Coast lowrider culture is worthy of a mind-bending Ken Burns miniseries on its own, but suffice it to say that this style is well-represented at Shige’s HRCS. Preserved pre-war American motorcycles are a complete, distinct subculture not to be mistaken for the custom chopper scene in Japan. Same with hot rods and customs vs. the custom JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) stance kids. And don’t forget the Cal-Bug thing. Or the custom van thing. American muscle and even Eurosport-by-way-of-America. It’s all well-represented on one fine December day in Yokohama at the Hot Rod & Custom Show.

One of the more enviable features of Shige’s event is the group of hand-picked American customs that not only make the cut for the annual poster, but are, along with their builders and/or owners, guests of the show. Along with Chico Kodama running the original Santa Fe Springs operation in California, Shige’s team goes to great lengths to bring some of the most influential cars, bikes, vans and showcars from the states, reminding everyone of the homage to be paid. Which is an oh-so-very-Japanese custom.

Shige freely admits that it’s quite the gamble to go to such expense to put on a single-day event every winter. A lot has to go right in order to keep this thing going for nearly 30 years. But breeze just a few of the photos we gathered from a handful of attendees at the 28th annual Mooneyes Hot Rod & Custom Show and you’ll better understand its staying power and constantly recirculating global influence. Like the old slogan reminds us, “GO! With Moon”

(Photos by Kento Shibata, Ryuta Tanaka, and Takahiro Ohyama unless otherwise noted.)

crazy_fat_bomb snapped Junichi Shimodaira in his Galaxian just outside the Pacifico Yokohama Convention Center. Radical!


A big part of what makes the HRCS so unique is the entrance of the show’s displays. bentheboog shows us what it’s like to ride his Blue Crush into building.


When the bike loses fire, you get off and walk it in. bentheboog shows us how it’s done and the crowd cheers him on. So good.


daveshuten and his team restored Ed Roth’s Orbitron years ago and here it runs the HRCS gauntlet. This thing has an amazing story and this trip was just the next chapter.


matchstick_customs poses with Ed Roth’s “Tweety Pie” in front of a Gene Winfield custom he helped paint.


cyclezombies snapped a pic of one of the more involved displays at the 2019 HRCS.


kentheflattop snaps the Blue Crush in its display space.


A great mashup of eras and influences in this trike caught by kentheflattop.


Trucks have been well-represented at the HRCS for years, but you won’t see lifted bro-dozers you can walk under at Yokohama. (At least not yet.) _box59 snapped a few and can’t help but love this ’59 Ford.


daveshuten captures his restoration of Ed Roth’s Tweedy Pie in the Galpin Auto Sports booth.


ra_juan_trevino got some great pics of the trucks at HRCS this year. Which makes sense, seeing as he contributes to Custom Trucks Japan magazine.


The West Coast lowrider aesthetic is not lost on the Japanese and rambleonattheranch catches the last-minute touches being put on one of the best examples we’ve seen in awhile.


A ’39 Dodge full custom? Why not? rambleonattheranch captures the drama.


Setup day at the HRCS and it’s hard to beat a shoebox Ford or a pre-’55 Chevy for a custom mule. But a ’50 Plymouth, too? YEP. rambleonattheranch snaps all the plastic-covered glory.


Master hot rod historian, builder and restoration expert, Dave Shuten, brought Rob Reisner’s “The Bathtub” show rod back to life and onto the floor at Pacifico Yokohama. k.hard_body spied the ‘Tub on load-in day.


Can you beat a perfect ’40 Mercury custom? No. No, you cannot. frenchyruby54 agreed, apparently.


Another staple of any custom show is the ’49 – ’51 Mercury. A million variations since the Barris Brothers first made Bob Hirohata’s ’51 custom so insanely popular in 1952 and tc_444_mkt caught this millionth-and-one.


You’d think the ‘bomb’ style of lowrider would be easy to nail. But you’d be wrong. Luckily, _box59 caught this clean, textbook definition in cruise-stance to show how it’s done.


Like other subcultures, the Cal-Bug thing sees infinite variations on a theme. A polished Vector-style wheel and a set of Hoosiers? Sure, why not? _box59 captures the Japanese interpretation.


crazy_fat_bomb with another shot of this fairly amazing ’50 Plymouth: Thing started out as a 4-door sedan snoozer and proves that anything can be cool.


dicemagazine was there at the dawn of the chopper revival that’s still hitting on both v-twinned cylinders. And so was Max Schaaf. DicE catches Max in “the ole’ lookback.”


The crew from won Best Motorcycle at HRCS ’19 and their scooter is a great example of the latest tweaks in the evolution of custom bikes right now. Dig it!


Japanese Domestic Market show cars at HRCS are some of the most interesting things on display. But that’s coming from the Americans, so there’s that. hakoya1968 grabs the vibe.


As a rule, car shows are horrible places to get good photography of cars. Indoor shows are even worse. But frank.weiland snapped this ’59 Chevy lowrider being installed and what a neat juxtaposition between polished concrete and polished paint and chrome.


Just about every style of American custom is tweaked, reimagined and made just a little better in Japan. kazuyaitou got a great shot of this jockey-shift bike and ’29 Model A boattail racer on display. Lots of bare aluminum. Lots of chrome.


Early German stuff is always cool, especially when it’s a BMW 2002. Lowered, fender-flared, bright red and cornering like a Tron light cycle doesn’t hurt, either.


This Toyota Corolla SR5, by a guy who goes by the handle DOPEFOREST, is a great example of the Eighties and early Nineties domestics being customized in Japan. Very cool.


If you’ve seen any other shots from this year’s HRCS in Yokohama, no doubt this full-custom widebody DeLorean popped up in your feed. We need one.


This ’39 Ford pickup could just as easily be found at the better hot rod shows, stateside. Proves you don’t need to do much other than suspension and the right wheel and tire combo to do something killer.


Second-Gen Camaros have been hot for a minute and this custom, dunked in Pagan Gold metalflake, is ruling us.


This ’28/’29 Model A coupe is a great example of the era mashups commonly seen at HRCS: Sixties-era panel pinstripes, early Fifties-era wheel/tire combo, late-model engine treatment and an early-2000s ‘ratrod’ spiderweb grille insert.


We dig this ’67 Impala SS drag car. Lots to unpack in this photo, but the Japanese have always proven that they don’t need no stinkin’ rules.


Customize everything. Then pave the world. We don’t need an excuse to go glamping in this late-model Toyota-bodied Winnebago. Take it to the 2020 California Hot Rod Reunion and rule the pits all week long.


Not entirely sure what’s going on in this display, but what looks like a survivor custom Chevy stepside squarebody with an awesome 1.5:1 cardboard standup of JFK on one end and an ape-hanger chopper on the other is so wrong, it’s all right.


A mild custom paint scheme over a set of 20-something-inch 5-spokes and Vogues translates across language, political and cultural borders.


The “Early Times” T-bucket craze is cool again, after a long hiatus. And the Eighties-update version of that Seventies-era street rod is noticeable here. Are the Japanese that keenly wired to the history of American hot-rodding? We’d have to say yes.


You can just barely see the hoverboard in the bed and you can’t see the magic Back To The Future Nike MAGs next to it, but know this: the Japanese have a long history of nerding out on the minutia of American pop culture.


old052 leaves the 2019 Hot Rod & Custom Show in the way only he possibly could: driving the Galaxian in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Junichi wheeled this thing four hours from his Paradise Road custom shop to the show this year!