A Full Day Of Japanese Car Nostalgia: Touge California 2016
The list of reasons why I would get my ass out of bed before dawn on a Saturday morning is quite short. Air travel to some exotic locale, fresh powder on the mountain, or being first in line for a complimentary continental breakfast that includes DIY Belgian waffles are a few. House on fire, gastric distress, or dog in need of relief are a few more. Driving classic Japanese vehicles? Not on the list—at least, not until I got an invite to Touge California 2016 anyway. And by invite I mean approval of a request to attend after hearing about said event through the S.S.A.J.C. (Super Secret Automotive Journalists Club) and a good deal of lobbying on my part. Truth be told, I don’t know why I wanted to go so badly. I’m not a huge fan of classic Japanese autos, I appreciate them, but they don’t get my heart racing the way a Chevy Cosworth Vega, or BMW 3.0 CSi does. Why someone would want to take the time to painstakingly restore a Civic CVCC, is beyond me, but if that’s what they’re into, who am I to judge? RELATED: See More Photos From Touge California 2016
So it was with an open mind that I embarked on my journey, the first stop being Mazda’s North American headquarters in Irvine, California, where I would meet up with my co-driver Zac Estrada (of Autoblog fame), and procure the keys to an ND Miata. The plan was to leave Mazda HQ at 8, caravan with the support team to the rally start point at Lake Wohlford in Escondido.
The scheduled departure time came and went (through no fault of event organizers), and I was forced to shuffle my feet for an hour while caffeine corsed through my veins. I was on edge. The keys to a Miata Clubsport were in my pocket and I couldn’t take off to enjoy it because someone was running late.
Allow me to step onto my soapbox for a moment and say that if you can’t at the very least respect other people’s time, don’t get involved with an event with numerous moving parts, and a set schedule, just stay home and organize your socks.
Once all parties were on site, we got the all clear to leave, and a wave of relief hit me as soon as I threw back the top of the ND and exited the parking lot. It is impossible to be in a foul mood when driving a Miata, especially a brand new Clubsport model. Prior to that morning, I had only run the ND around a short autocross course during the Jalopnik Film Festival kick off party, and although that was a fun experience, it was far too short lived. The Miata is a car you want to hang out with because it’s just so damn likable, like an automotive Neil Patrick Harris, if you will. A brief encounter will leave you wondering how such talent can exist, and not be douchey. And like NPH, the ND Miata is a freak of nature, good at a variety of things, and destined to be leg—wait for it—endary.
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By the time we arrived in Escondido the sun was high in the sky, the temperature high and getting higher, and I could have called it good right then and there. Instead I was about to commit to another 200 miles of driving, miles that would be covered in a vehicle without A/C, or power steering, and a with stranger behind the wheel.
It’s hard enough for me to relinquish the driver's seat in a normal situation, but riding shotgun on winding mountain roads in classic vehicles, that falls into the personal hell category. Lucky for me, Estrada turned out to be an easy going fellow who doesn’t drive like a maniac, and made for a great companion on this most epic of journeys.
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In addition to being the title sponsor, Mazda brought out three classics from their heritage collection for us wordsmiths to have a go in. These included a 1975 REPU, 1978 GLC and a 1985 RX-7 GSL-SE. Not wanting the day to peak too early, I suggested we save the RX-7 for later, and Zac agreed, making it clear we were on the same page, love it when that happens.
The Sealike Green paint on the REPU lured us in, and we soon found ourselves in possession of a key to a 2,800 lb truck with a 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine under the hood making 110-horsepower. I mention these number not to be thorough, but to give credence to what I am about to say, this truck is damn quick.
From the moment Zac dumped the clutch, and lit the tires up pulling out of the parking lot, I was impressed with the REPU. Here was a small truck from 1975, and not one minute had passed before it put a big smile on both our faces. My seatbelt was restrictive, the vinyl bench seat was hot as hell, and the high pitched drone of the exhaust was borderline deafening, but I was completely into it.
Zac drove until we hit our first checkpoint, and on arrival we were rewarded with generous slices of heaven from Julian Pie Company. Try telling me that cake is better than pie, and I’ll look at you like you’re crazy, but try telling me that cake is better than Julian Pie Company’s Apple Pie, and I’ll have you committed.
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With a stomach full of pie, and a head full of exhaust fumes, I slumped into position behind the wheel of the REPU, ready to put the ‘ol dog though its paces. The clutch was light with a high catch point, the gearbox was as vague as Hillary Clinton answering a reporter, and while the steering wasn’t overly-heavy, it did have a mountain of play in it.
None of that hindered the driving experience though, in fact I think it made the REPU even more endearing. I was able to hustle the truck through the winding roads with ease, so much so that when I pulled over for a quick break, the Mazda rep in the ND Miata that had been trailing us paid me a compliment in the form of a question.
“How’s the truck doing?” he asked with a concerned look on his face, “Temp levels normal?”. I told him the needle hadn’t moved, and the truck felt rock solid. The concerned look faded, “Enjoy it then!”, he said as he climbed back into to the Miata, satisfied that the REPU was being driven fast, but not hard. Just like the Miata, the REPU is at its most enjoyable when you get in a groove and are harnessing your momentum not mashing the throttle.
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By the time we reached the checkpoint where we’d all be having lunch, I was pretty shot. I’m not sure what time it was, but I was most certainly feeling the effects of getting up early, over caffeinating, and then driving a seriously analog vehicle. On top of that the aforementioned helping of pie had been tossed around in my gut for the past 45 minutes while doing the “Mesa Grande Touge”. Translated literally, “Touge” means “mountain pass” in Japanese, and our route included a number of these stretches of road that are ideal for spirited driving.
The decision to save the RX-7 GSL-SE for after lunch turned out to be the best one we made all day. Zac generously let me have a go behind the wheel first, and for that I will be eternally grateful. The crispness of the gearbox, strong pull of the 1.3-liter rotary engine, and heaps of steering feel awoke me from my food coma.
The next 25 miles were some of the most informative I’ve covered in my entire life. Doing the “South Grade Touge” in that RX-7, with just 1,200 original miles on the clock, I’m not sure I can fully communicate the level of joy it brought me. I was so elated not because I was driving a rare classic, but because I was getting it. I had been afraid that there would be a learning curve with this car, there was not. I felt right at home in the driver's seat within the first couple of turns. I had been worried that it wouldn’t have enough power, what I fool I was. The 13B rotary engine cranks out 135-horsepower and 133 lb-ft of torque, which doesn’t sound like a lot, until you drive it.
With only 2,590 lbs to haul around, the 13B excels at its job, and offers a great deal of excitement for the driver. This car is every bit as fun as it's cracked up to be, and that is so very rarely the case these days. For the sake of comparison I would really like to drive one that isn’t a garage queen, just to see how it feels when it’s been through the wringer that is life on the road. Something tells me that like so many other classic Japanese vehicles, it’d be just as entertaining to drive an RX-7 with a hundred thousand more miles on it than the one I had the privilege of piloting.
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Eventually I did give up the driver's seat so my partner could have a go, and in a true testament to how good the car is, I wasn’t miserable while riding shotgun . No doubt it helped that I could not get enough of the analog radio setup, I spent most of my right seat time playing with the equalizer settings, but the RX-7 was just plain comfortable to be a passenger in. However, I was itching for more time at the wheel, and we switched one more time just as the sun began to perform its daily disappearing act.
As we sped towards the final checkpoint, the radio finally locked onto a clear signal, and we were treated to a little Van Halen to close out the day. With the pop up headlights leading the way, and all the cabin gauges crisply illuminated, it felt as though I’d stumbled into a wrinkle in time.
Although the whole day had been surreal, those final miles along the coast, were really something else. Maybe I was tripping off all the fuel fumes I’d been exposed to, maybe it was all the sun I’d gotten due to the fact that I’d been in a fish bowl all day, but out there on the PCH at dusk, with the Wankel humming, and David Lee Roth howling I’m pretty sure I found automotive nirvana.
Photo Credit: Andrew T. Maness for BoldRide and LarryChenPhoto