Japan isn’t all high-tech turbos, four-bangers, and econo-cars

Though it might seem a little strange at first, Japan — the land of high-tech turbocharged weaponry and tiny economy cars — has a great American V8 scene. Drag cars, circuit racers, muscle cars, low riders, and kustoms all have a great following in the Land of the Rising Sun and have done for many years, stretching right back to the post-war US occupation and the flood of Chevs, Fords, Pontiacs, and everything else that came with it.

It is, of course, still rare to see a classic American machine roll past you on the narrow streets of cities like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Tokyo — not because they’re not there, but because these enthusiasts take their cars very seriously. These guys and girls are very protective of their cars, and finding these machines, especially in a city as big and chaotic as Tokyo, is a real case of knowing the right person, saying the right things, and being prepared to get totally and utterly lost in the attempt. 

I’d been in Japan’s capital for about month before I had filled up on just about as much Japanese drifting, track racing, and crazy street cars as I could handle — I was in need of some good old American iron to balance it all out. I put the feelers out, and eventually got wind of a little shop called Fit Kustoms on the outskirts of Tokyo City, in Saitama Prefecture. Saitama certainly wouldn’t be considered a fashionable or trendy part of Tokyo — it’s more industrial — but it’s where you can find a lot of interesting car shops. 

With help from a local contact, I got in touch with Takuya Sakuraba and Ryusuke Murata, the two artists behind Fit Kustoms. Arrangements were made for me to come down to the shop and take a look at one of their most famous and award-winning creations, an amazing 1957 Chevrolet Nomad, affectionately known as ‘Acid 57’. 

After driving through backstreet after nondescript backstreet, we happened upon the shop after seeing the back of a baby-blue ’50 Mercury poking out from behind a building. Greetings were made — accompanied, of course, by cans of hot coffee from the vending machine outside — and we took a look inside the shop. Originally specializing in the sale and repair of heavy-duty machinery, the guys that ran and hung around the shop — which was originally called Fit Industries — became well known for their custom builds. Slowly, the shop began to reinvent itself into what it is now. Every wall is adorned with Americana, and dozens of vintage wire wheels and hubcaps fill any space that isn’t occupied by various builds in different states of completion — from recently imported lead sleds awaiting a full restoration to a top-level ’56 Bel Air build in progress. There is even an airbagged scooter that doubles as a lunch-run weapon. 

Sitting in pride of place, right in the middle of the shop, was Acid 57, and it was just as amazing as I had been told. Built entirely in-house at Fit Kustoms for Daichi Shimizu, the Nomad is inch-perfect, and looks absolutely stunning laid out flat on 15-inch steel wheels covered in ’57 Cadillac hubcaps. 

The Chev was imported from the States four years ago, and, upon seeing the car, the guys knew they had their work cut out for them — though Takuya-san admits he didn’t quite realize the full extent of what would be needed. The Nomad was originally ‘surf green’, but it looked as though it had been repainted a couple of times in different colours with varying degrees of skill, and was now riddled with rust and hurting from various poor attempts at restoration over the years. The plan right from the start was to take the beaten-up old wagon and turn it into something that sits on the floor, and wins show awards, yet can be driven daily if needed. 

For the sake of reliability, the team decided to attack the mechanicals first. They ditched the tired old small block, sourcing an all-alloy 5.7-litre LS1 — found between the struts of a wrecked fourth-generation Camaro — and a GM 4L56E crate transmission to match. This was no easy fit, however, and the guys spent weeks getting the motor to sit just right, including notching the chassis rail to allow for the alternator and replacing a large section of the firewall. The body modifications needed to carry on through the cabin — the plan was always to have the car laying frame once it was on air, so the motor sits on custom raised mounts to bring the sump up, which means the transmission also sits high, which necessitated an all-new transmission tunnel that now houses a custom driveshaft running out to a GM 12-bolt positraction diff. 

Though Daichi-san wanted the modern LS1 performance and reliability, he still recognized the need for a little old-school flavour, so the factory fuel injection was replaced with a Holley carburettor set-up and dual-plane intake manifold. This meant new fuel lines and a low-pressure Edelbrock pump, which pulls fuel out of a ’57 Bel Air coupe fuel tank. The tank was chosen due to its smaller size, necessary on account of how radically different the underside of the car now looks. In the space where the other half of the original fuel tank was, you can now find a full RideTech ShockWave suspension set-up, including two powerful Viair compressors and a big air tank, all hidden from view. At all four corners, ⅜-inch lines run out to Air Ride air cylinders, next to big Wilwood Dynalite calipers and rotors for that modern, reliable stopping power. 

In order to get the car sitting so nice and low, the guys at Fit Kustoms have semi-tubbed the inner guards and fitted tubular RideTech StrongArms suspension arms up front, and installed a StrongArms four-link kit in the rear, sitting below a big C-notch in the chassis rails. The C-notch, while it allows for the diff and axles to tuck high up into the car, creates other problems. The rear floor of the Nomad needed to be re-fabricated to create some room for the notch, but this in turn meant that the factory rear seat no longer fitted, so a ’55 Handyman seat was found and cut down, giving just enough room for the new panel steel to rise up out of the floor.

In a similar vein, the new higher trans tunnel meant the factory front bench seat had to go, replaced by a pair of buckets from a ’62 Impala SS. These, along with the rear seats, door cards, and other panels, were reupholstered in the traditional tuck ’n’ roll style, while a completely custom centre console now runs down the middle of the car, hiding both the airbag controls and the well-sorted stereo system. Finally, almost as a nod to the Nomad’s modern motivation under the bonnet, the factory instrumentation has been replaced with a full sweep of Dakota Digital gauges.

Despite the relatively rare nature of the car, Takuya-san and Ryusuke-san had no problem chopping into it to get the exact look they were after. Once the car was sanded back, the door handles were shaved, along with some unnecessary emblems. Panel gaps were greatly reduced to produce a cleaner, more modern look, and the front bumper and grille were also smoothed before being rechromed. With a set of custom rear spats fitted, new rubber and glass throughout, and all the chrome and stainless polished until perfect, the Nomad was ready for paint — one of the few processes Fit Kustoms outsources, in this case to well-known painter Cal Trend, also based in Saitama. At first they went for a satin burnt orange hue. Admittedly the car looked amazing, but something wasn’t quite right; it just wasn’t in-your-face amazing enough for Daichi-san. After much contemplation, the orange was rubbed back and a few tins of incredibly beautiful House of Kolor Candy Apple Red were ordered. Firstly, a gun-metal base coat was applied, then layer after layer of the candy was laid down with a fade upwards towards the roof to reveal more of the base and therefore a darker hue. Metal flake scalloping along the body finishes off the look.

This Nomad is one of those cars that makes you stop and stare. While some might not agree with the decision to modify such a rare wagon so heavily, or with the use of a modern motor up front, there is no denying the pure beauty of this candy-coated, gleaming wagon. It’s simply stunning to look at, and the rumble of the LS1 is the perfect mix of subtlety and aggression as it rolls past you — which, if you’re in the right place in Tokyo at the right time, it just might. 

Unlike a lot of Japanese enthusiasts, Daichi-san drives his Nomad regularly and even takes it on long road trips all around the country — perhaps to an event like the recent Mooneyes Hot Rod & Custom Show, where it was awarded the trophy for Best Kustom, along with being the top pick by the team from Starlite Rod & Kustom, California, who had come to the event as special guests. 

If you thought Japan was only good for reliable ‘rice rockets’ and high-tech econoboxes, now you know better. Daichi-san, Takuya-san, and Ryusuke-san are but a handful of the huge number of enthusiasts based in the Land of the Rising Sun, and their labour of love, Acid 57, is the perfect example of the type of machines this car-crazy country is capable of, irrespective of where said machine was manufactured. 

Photos: Peter Kelly
1957 Chevrolet Nomad

  • Engine: 5.7-litre LS1 V8, Holley carburettor, Holley dual-plane intake manifold, low-rise air cleaner, dual 3-inch exhaust, glass pack mufflers, Edelbrock fuel pump, ’57 Bel Air coupe fuel tank, Griffin aluminium radiator
  • Driveline: GM 4L56E crate transmission, custom driveshaft, GM 12-bolt positraction diff
  • Suspension: RideTech StrongArms tubular A-arms, RideTech StrongArms parallel four-link, front drop spindles, RideTech ShockWave air suspension kit, Air Ride air cylinders, twin Viair 440c compressors, ⅜-inch lines
  • Brakes: Wilwood Dynalite calipers and vented rotors front and rear
  • Wheels/Tyres: 15-inch steel wheels, 1957 Cadillac hubcaps, Firestone 670-15 wide white tyres
  • Exterior: Two-tone House of Kolor Candy Apple Red, metal flake scallops, smoothed front bumper, smoothed grille, smoothed and shaved trim, shaved door handles, reduced panel gaps, shaved emblems, rear fender spats, raised transmission tunnel, smoothed firewall, semi-tubbed front inner fenders
  • Chassis: Raised engine mounts, C-notched rear chassis rails
  • Interior: Full tuck and roll retrim, 1962 Impala SS bucket front seats, 1955 Handyman rear seat, custom centre console, phantom audio install, custom shifter, Dakota Digital gauges, air conditioning system with custom pop-up vent, custom dome lights, full Dynamat interior
  • Performance: Untested
  • Driver: Daichi Shimizu
  • Car club: El Classico
  • Age: 37
  • Occupation: Construction machine maintenance 
  • Dream car: 1957 Nomad
  • Why did you choose the Nomad? I did not want it to end as just a dream; I wanted to own it before it was too late
  • Build time: Three years
  • Length of ownership: Four years
  • Daichi-san thanks: Fit Kustoms, Cal Trend, Otowa Seisakusyo

This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No. 113. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: