You bring home many things from Japan. Memories, ramen splatter on your shirtsleeves, and a hundred stories about the toilets—near-sentient thrones with rows of blinking buttons that practically bow when you approach.
But mostly, I’ll remember the scream.
This story originally appeared in Volume 18 of Road & Track.
It’s the banshee song of a straight-six with two turbos hung from the thing like iron cojones. You hear it when the throttle’s pinned and the countryside whips into a 650-horse blur. At 5000 rpm, the turbos’ noise rises to a whistle, like wind ripping through a canyon, and by 7000 rpm, they’re spinning up a wail so loud that you’d swear the car might nose up and lift off.
Rattled eardrums aren’t the worst souvenir.
This monster’s name is Mine’s & Built By Legends R33 Nissan Skyline GT-R. Quite a mouthful. To explain it requires a redeye and a two-hour drive south from central Tokyo. There, we meet the GT-R on a legendary mountain road.
“We felt like we needed to present Japan correctly, with the right context,” Built By Legends (BBL) co-founder Masaharu “Masa” Kuji explains. “So that people really understand the culture.”
More than 20 years ago, Kuji and BBL co-founder Katsu Takahashi worked for a Japanese news and culture startup. The site’s car content, they noticed, drew the lion’s share of traffic. Equipped with a unique insider/outsider perspective—Kuji and Takahashi were born in Japan but lived abroad as boys—the two spotted an opportunity.
Their mission: offer Japan’s car culture to the world. In due course, they brought a touge showdown to Willow Springs, filmed a landmark project called The Drift Bible, and watered Formula D’s grassroots. Through DVD sales, they offered the West a window into underground racing by producing episodes of Best Motoring with English subtitles. If you’re enamored with Japan’s tuning culture, there’s a good chance BBL’s co-founders brought it to your doorstep.
“I think the popularity of Japanese car culture was fed initially by illegal driving, and then came Fast & Furious, and then a perception was created from that scene. We’re not denying it, and I understand people find that really cool,” Kuji says. “But how can you make that understanding more sophisticated?”
It required yet another leap, and in 2018, the pair took it. They aren’t mechanics or salesmen, but decades of work in film and commercial production had forged deep connections with Japan’s best shops and suppliers.
Takahashi and Kuji planned to offer Japan’s culture to the world with authenticity, this time with a rolling showcase, and the BBL name springs from that mission. The company gathers legends of the Japanese automotive landscape and aims their talent at a tuner cult classic.
First, there was an EG6 Honda Civic hatchback built in partnership with Spoon. Then a Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R. BBL managed logistics, allowing each contributing shop and craftsperson to chase perfection on a blank canvas.
For its third project, an R33 GT-R, BBL partnered with the legendary GT-R tuner Mine’s to source the car’s wailing inline-six powertrain. The seats are Recaro, reupholstered in a proprietary fabric called Ultrasuede from Japanese textile giant Toray. Mooncraft, a Japanese racing and composites firm established in 1975, supplies the R33’s one-piece carbon bumper. Same with its carbon body panels and wing.
The car’s four 265-width tires are BBL-specific, evolutions of the Bridgestone RE-71Rs that Mine’s developed for its own GT-R project. That’s the pull of BBL’s Rolodex: Even a global tire conglomerate bought into the project.
So this twin-turbo Voltron touches down. But could an assemblage of disparate parts and ideas ever feel whole?
From behind the wheel, you never shake the feeling that you’re driving a tuner car. Maybe that’s the point. The GT-R’s exhaust mutters a dead-steady basso at idle. The flywheel clatters until you slot the shifter into first gear, release the clutch, and roll from the roadside onto the Hakone Skyline’s historical curves.
They say drifting was born here, but the idea pretzels the mind. Hakone is a staircase of long narrow sweepers with ruin beyond each corner’s edge. The bravery it’d take. The absolute balls.
The GT-R is up for it, eager to brake later and dive deeper into every corner. Another kick at the clutch and a stab on the throttle. The scream takes over, and everything goes blurry until the blowoff valve croaks its big shuddering sigh.
On Hakone’s bouncing pavement, this car oozes motorsport quality. The ride feels stiff but assured,
akin to that of a GT3, with ample travel and a damping curve that cossets the car under high-speed compression. That kind of deft tuning and indefatigable character makes you think, “Shoot, I could lay the hammer down all day.” With the BBL GT-R, I sense you could. Instead, the low-gas indicator lights up, and I head back.
The collector market has never burned hotter for Japanese metal, and the 25-year import law has opened the floodgates between Japan’s supply of GT-Rs and the Americans who grew up worshiping them. But this car is a moonshot. Cost was no object here, and it shows.
How do you sell yet another six-figure restomod in a global market crowded with them?
You take them to the legends.
Toshikazu Nakayama bows and presents his business card with two hands. His title—technical supervisor—suggests a flurry of diligent underlings. But as we shuffle into the shop, it becomes clear that Nakayama is not just the technical supervisor at Mine’s but is, in fact, the technical department itself.
This might surprise anyone who knows of the shop’s fame. Renowned for its robust and reliable engines, Mine’s achieved a legendary profile among Japanese domestic tuners. Then it went global. Its trademark livery, scrawled across the doors of its cars, became a mainstay on the covers of Super Street magazine and was rendered on PlayStation’s Gran Turismo series racetracks. But before the magazines came calling, Mine’s boss Michizo Niikura simply made Nissans go faster.
Niikura recognized the early potential of engine control unit–based tuning and ran with the notion. Rather than flex peak power figures, he demanded reliability and charisma from his heavily tuned motors.
“When you build a car, you don’t build the engine first. You build the suspension, the brakes; you make the car turn and stop correctly,” Niikura says. “Then you put in the engine that accommodates it. That’s how balance is achieved.”
And balance is the tuner’s secret sauce. Customers who ask Mine’s for 1000-hp rockets get turned away. The company’s vision is to produce good cars rather than expand business. Maybe that’s why you could wedge the shop’s footprint inside a small grain silo.
We’re led up a double staircase to the engine room. On Nakayama’s workbench sits a set of six pistons, their rods, and a gleaming aluminum cylinder head. Mine’s developed each component for BBL engines.
Nakayama has worked solely on Nissan’s twin-cam turbo sixes for nearly 35 years. Every engine that leaves Mine’s is hand-built by the technical department himself. A nearby antechamber holds 50 RB engine blocks, nestled like cigarettes in a pack. He’ll build all 50 into running motors over the next year. Nakayama perches an RB head on a newspaper-lined milk crate and demonstrates his porting and polishing technique, done by hand.
“A Mine’s engine must always be smooth,” he says. “We run forged crankshafts and high compression, so the engine responds quick, like it’s normally aspirated. And always balance.”
Nakayama is still searching for fractional gains in the engines he builds. “These are durable engines,” he says. “In theory, we could run them at 9500 rpm all day.”
“In theory?” I ask.
He raises an eyebrow. Then a grin spreads across his face. Niikura calls me to his office. I glance back and see Nakayama staring down at the blank cylinder head, seemingly deep in thought.
By Japanese standards, Garage Yoshida is huge, a sprawling rural compound in an old mill near the city of Nara. It’s like Disneyland for GT-R nerds. I find founder Kozo Yoshida waiting patiently, his hands clasped behind his back.
Garage Yoshida is responsible for the bedrock of BBL’s R32, R33, and upcoming R34 projects. Before they’re sent off to Mine’s to fit the engine, every BBL build starts here with a bare shell.
There are other GT-R restoration shops in Japan. Even Nissan offers factory restoration (Yoshida is not impressed by those rebuilds). But, like every artisan in BBL’s orbit, Yoshida was selected for his dedication to the GT-R.
Takahashi tells me that if you drive a GT-R onto the shop floor, Yoshida can tear the car down to a bare shell in just six hours. Lining the sides of the shop are towering shelves, each chock-full of parts that serve as proof. Every piece is meticulously labeled, allowing for an equally speedy reassembly. But it’s not just a familiarity with the GT-R. It’s Yoshida’s obsession with improving the form.
“The Japanese aren’t afraid to tinker, to improve,” Kuji notes. “They have never been precious about tuning their cars.”
Yoshida plucks a reinforced R33 strut tower of his own design from a box. Most GT-Rs collect water under the layered stock panel, allowing rot. Yoshida designed a replacement panel built from a single piece of reinforced high-strength steel for ultimate longevity and torsional rigidity.
It took seven years before a manufacturer took on the task of producing the part. Yet Yoshida persists. Up next, a full front subframe.
Yoshida seems flattered by all the questions. “Ah, sou desu ka?” he repeats, amused at my interest in the unibody perched on a chassis rotisserie he built by hand. He considers every query for a beat, all crossed arms and furrowed brow, then strings off a monologue in Japanese.
The first GT-R Yoshida restored was his own. He couldn’t afford one in good condition, so he found a wrecked one and dragged it back to life.
“I try to accept as many customer cars as possible, even if the cars were denied at other dealerships or shops,” Yoshida says. “Because I was able to learn from each vehicle.”
It almost sounds like a complaint.
“Why not simplify?” I ask. “Why revive totaled chassis and develop custom strut towers?”
He says nothing, strokes his chin, then shrugs. It seems he’s never considered it.
The sun sinks low as the Shinkansen sidles up to a Kyoto platform. Tokyo Central is 300 miles but only two hours away on this high-speed rail. The ride offers a chance to savor a Sapporo and reflect.
Like a GT-R, the Shinkansen is another distinctly Japanese marvel. It runs the tracks like quicksilver going downhill, its smoothness never betraying its awesome power.
When one bullet train passes another at 200 mph, the air cavitates, and you’re not sure whether your eyes will be sucked from their sockets or shot through your ears. Yet not a drop of lager spills from your brimming glass.
That’s Japanese craft at its best. Why shouldn’t trains do Mulsanne speeds? Doesn’t a handmade dry-carbon hood prop trump a steel one? Things are done this way because it’s the best way. Cost be damned. If that notion doesn’t jibe, you’re not buying into anything BBL has to sell. Not that it’s an option for everyone.
The Mine’s & Built By Legends R33 GT-R is, among many abstractions, a towering wall of zeros. No spoonful of sugar will ease down the price, so here it is: a half-million. Yep, $500,000.
This isn’t the only restomod on the market asking luxury-condo prices. And while most boutique supercars are assembled with far less attention to detail, this GT-R is not a car that justifies its sticker by casual appraisal.
Without meeting Niikura’s gaze, appreciating an intake port massaged by hand, and seeing Yoshida’s face light up describing hidden GT-R intricacies, the wall of zeros stretches higher.
But then you visit. You meet its creators. You drive the thing. You leave with an authentic understanding of what Kuji and Takahashi have carefully curated. And you never forget its scream.
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