Die(sel) Hard in Gunma

If you strip away all the spin and bravado, this is an article about a diesel saloon. Originally, I wasn’t going to admit that right away. There was going to be an opening paragraph so enticing that viewers would come flying in from WordPress, Google and far beyond. The title would be such that anyone seeing it pop up in their Twitter feed would be compelled to open, retweet and favourite. I even had a photo lined up with the perfect balance of intrigue and promise to ensure excitement spread far and wide. But then I got cold feet. I realised I would be giving a rather selective representation of events, one that would break the golden rule – under-promise to over-deliver. Dishonesty is something that sits uncomfortably with me.

Now that the introduction has scared off all the hangers-on, I can give those of you that are remaining the alternative version of events. Namely, that I got to spend three days in the company of a GT-spec Nissan Skyline that is one of only three of its kind in the whole world, and just as importantly its utterly bonkers yet passionate owner.

D is for Diesel...

D is for Diesel…

“I did so much research before buying this car for my daughter. Could I get the right kind of fuel nearby? Was there a garage where I could fix it? What to do if a part gets damaged that you can’t replace? And after all that she turned round and said ‘Dad! Do you think I’m going to drive a weird car like that?’ So I decided to use it myself instead.” Atsuo Hukuda cuts the vigorous classical music belting out from the speakers by forcing a tape out of the the cassette player. He takes his hand off the steering wheel, changes up a gear, grabs the cassette, changes gear again with tape in hand, drops the archaic music device into a gap at the base of the console, changes back down into second and then returns his hand to the wheel just in time to stop at the next intersection.

The fact that a cassette player is fitted gives the game away that this is not a new car. The gear changing and fuel issue will also ring bells for anyone familiar with Japanese domestic cars, where manual transmission and diesel-powered machines are highly unusual. What Atsuo has is an R31 Nissan Skyline Passage GT-D. To those who associate the Skyline name with high-performance cars this reads like a typo, or worse still – sacrilege. A diesel Skyline. Let that sink in for a moment. In reality, however, the Skyline name has been used for decades to cover a whole variety of vehicles and specifications – only a very small proportion of which could be considered sports cars. Saloons, estate cars and big coupes have all worn the Skyline badge without threatening to break even the twenty minute mark at the Nurburgring.

Rare - not that you would guess

Rare – not that you would guess

Indeed, from the outside Atsuo’s Skyline looks like most other eighties saloon cars. It is white and boxy, a fridge on wheels. There is also nothing exciting about the constituent components, a six-cylinder diesel motor and a five-speed manual gearbox. It is the combination of these bits that makes the Hukuda car unique – albeit not necessarily in a particularly inspiring way. “This car is very, very, very slow,” bemoans Atsuo as we gurgle our way through the Gunma countryside. “RD28 single overhead camshaft diesel, made for export. The successor to the LD28 – and that is an extremely old engine indeed.” He wasn’t kidding when he said he did research before buying this car.

Slow or not, according to the owner only three Skylines of this particular specification were ever made with a diesel-manual powertrain. This at first seems to be a rather grand, even disingenuous, claim given the tens of thousands of each model that get made. But when one breaks it down it seems plausible. In Europe at least, there were of course oil-burners in the eighties but they weren’t nearly as popular as they are now. Nissan diesels were virtually unheard of until the two thousands (even though they powered most of London’s taxi fleet throughout the nineties). So if we take an engine that (a) used fuel that at the time was somewhat unfashionable, and (b) was destined for export out of Japan, then (c) mate it to a very particular variant of Skyline, the three-in-the-world claim starts to hold some water.

Same badge as the GT-Rs...

Same badge as the GT-Rs…

It also appears Japan is trying to make Atsuo’s car rarer still. The Skyline wound up in Gunma through a rather tragic path, its previous owner being an elderly gentleman from Miyagi Prefecture who was swept out to sea in the 2011 tsunami, and seems destined to see out the remainder of its days in the countryside north-west of Tokyo. “Gunma is one of only two prefectures I could actually register this car now,” he tells me (the other, if you’re interested, is Tochigi). “So if I moved to anywhere else I couldn’t re-register it – I could drive it and buy diesel at the pumps, but not register it.” Japan is one of a small but growing number of places moving to outlaw – or at least actively discourage – diesel passenger cars on pollution grounds, which leaves the Hukuda GT-D as something of a legacy vehicle, seemingly allowed to continue on the road through grandfather rights only.

Badge aside, this is not a car that goes out of its way to actively inform you it is a diesel. A time-served custodian of a Peugeot 106 XND, I have lingering memories of needing a fishing net to catch the wildly vibrating gearlever, and waiting several weeks for the pig’s tail to go out before being able to start the engine and move off. This by contrast is quiet and smooth. The cabin is light and airy, aided by the absence of a B-pillar – the front seat belts are anchored to the roof, which is more scary than impressive given the age of the car. My seat would be very comfortable indeed were I not sitting on a towel. We are all sitting on threadbare towels reappropriated from a range of hotels and spa resorts, for Atsuo is keen to protect the material. “When there are only three in the world, there are no replacements so you have to take care”. To emphasise the point, Atsuo slaps the dash with his left hand. I notice the colour of the interior – a deep dark red of the kind left behind on a pavement after a fistfight – matches perfectly to the thread Atsuo has used to sew the knees of his jeans back together.

Eighties vibe

Eighties vibe

The four-spoke steering wheel, which Hukuda-san operates with both hands on the rare occasions he is not gesticulating about contemporary art (his first passion) or operating peripheral components of the vehicle, and the twin rear headlamps both give the impression of sportiness – yet the GT-D is anything but. The impromptu lecture continues. “It has the same GT badges as the high-performance Skylines, but because this is an old-style diesel engine the performance is not GT at all! The new Citroen HDis, on the other hand, now those are quick cars.”

This last sentence is important, because it gives away Atsuo’s primary car interest – Citroens. When he’s not curating, producing or training the next generation of practitioners in contemporary art, Atsuo Hukuda sinks time and funds into a late-model Citroen DS 23 Pallas, imported from Belgium and given a full restoration. When we visit the DS is out of commission awaiting its shaken (the notoriously strict and expensive test old Japanese cars must undertake), but that does not deter Hukuda from telling me everything under the sun about his car. Late model. Full wheeltrims. Gold Pallas badge. Lifting door handles (from 1971 onwards, don’t you know?) I also get to hear about the strict conditions under with it is maintained. Garaged and covered. No mechanical car washes. Not to be driven in the rain. Having longed for a DS for years, Atuso decided to do it properly and get the very best car he could – even if it meant triple-repairing pairs of jeans along the way.

But why the DS? (aside from the obvious answer – why not?) “If you drive a car like this, you’ll meet people like this”. Atsuo grins as he shows me a picture in a magazine. It is of a DS on stage at a Citroen retrospective event, flanked by four ultra-sharp Gallic models – two male and two female.

From this angle, it actually looks like it might be quick...

From this angle, it actually looks like it might be quick…

“But I discovered it doesn’t work like that.” He drops the opened magazine to the floor. The glamour picture creases under the weight of the other pages. The DS may not have brought Atsuo Hukuda fame and adulation – his activities in the art world have come closer to something approximating that – but the underlying point stands true. Refined, renowned, revered, sexy – a DS is precisely what one would expect the director of a contemporary art gallery to drive. So the fact Atsuo is quite happy to travel about in a Nissan diesel on rainy days so that the DS doesn’t get rusty speaks volumes about his practice as an artist. Cerebral and progressive, but with a healthy dose of pragmatism thrown in. Aim for the very top and go for it all-out, but find the exotic in the everyday along the way.

Depending on who you speak to, the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s head at the same town is the hallmark of either true genius or insanity. Being able to drive – with passion and enthusiasm – both a super-chic sedan and an undesigned freak creation comes pretty close to that ideal in my view. By extension, that makes Atsuo Hukuda either a genius or utterly insane. Having spend some time in his company, I reckon there is a good slice of both in there.

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