A story of endless love: Mr Maruyama and his Minis.
There is probably no one in Japan who feels as close to the MINI brand as Kazuo Maruyama. The 74-year-old has had a deep passion for the little car since the 1960s. Many historic models are on display in his workshop – including one of the oldest Mini ever, and a special racing car by John Cooper.
When it comes to collecting cars in Japan, few can compete with Kazuo Maruyama. The 74-year-old who runs Mini Maruyama, a museum-like garage in central Tokyo, owns a spectacular body of vehicles, many of which cannot be found anywhere else. This includes one of the world’s oldest Mini, a present he received from the car’s inventor, Sir Alec Issigonis. The second Mini to be made, it was a prototype that wasn’t put on the market. The first was used purely for crash testing so it’s no longer around. The late Issigonis, a good friend of Maruyama’s, passed on the historic car to the Japanese man in a show of appreciation for all he had done to help the company. Known as the man who revived the classic Mini when the car was struggling to sell in the 1980s, Maruyama has been collecting, restoring, selling, repairing and, of course, driving the iconic British vehicle for decades.
His garage, a hidden gem located in a nondescript area of Tokyo, is a must-visit for car lovers visiting Japan’s capital. It boasts historic photographs and a great selection of accessories in addition to all the cars. Walking around the place, you can see his devotion to the Mini. Surprisingly, though, it was a trip to France and not the U.K. that first piqued his interest in the original two-door hatchback model. “When I was visiting France in the late 1960s, I saw many Minis parked on the side of the road as they were so popular back then,” recalls Maruyama. “I wouldn’t necessarily say they looked beautiful, but I remember thinking how dreamy it was seeing the sea of them blending in so well with the cityscape. I suppose that memory inspired me to start doing what I do.”
Feeling there was something special from that encounter, the Japanese businessman made selling Minis and their various parts his life’s work, establishing Mini Maruyama in 1973. It was the kind of job that came naturally to him. After all, he’d been surrounded by automobiles his whole life with his father having run a taxi firm followed by a car repair shop.
Cars, therefore, became an obsession for the Tokyo native. In his late teens he bought a Ferrari 275 GTB, which made him Japan’s first Ferrari owner. Since then, he has managed to get his hands on some of the most sought-after and unique vehicles on the planet, including two Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupes. Built to contest the World Manufacturers’ Championship in the mid-60s, legendary American automotive designer, racing driver and entrepreneur Carroll Shelby made just six of them.
Listening to Maruyama speak, though, you can sense that it is his Mini collection that gives him the most pleasure. He purchased his first one in 1968, less than a decade after the British Motor Corporation (BMC) launched the tiny automobile. He was in good company. The cute and compact automobile had become the car for the stars including the likes of Enzo Ferrari, Clint Eastwood, The Beatles, Britt Ekland and Steve McQueen.
Listening to Maruyama speak, though, you can sense that it is his Mini collection that gives him most pleasure.
Unsurprisingly, there was a growing interest in the vehicle from overseas, particularly in Japan. Yet, for ordinary citizens, getting hold of one wasn’t easy in the beginning. „Japan first imported the Mini in the spring of 1960; however, it was still quite difficult for regular folks here to buy cars back then since we’d lost the war and had lots of restrictions imposed on us,“ remembers Maruyama.
Another issue was the exchange rate as the pound was so high compared to the yen. „It was a humble car meant for low-income households that was intentionally designed to be driven and maintained for long periods and at a reasonable price, but in Japan it became a luxury item as it was so expensive here,“ continues Maruyama. „Comparatively, Volkswagens that came from Germany were half the price of the Minis since they’d lost the war, too.“
According to Maruyama, the fact that most people in Japan couldn’t afford the Mini added to its allure for those who could. Owning one in Great Britain was trendy, but in his country it had even more of a status symbol. On top of that, Japanese consumers loved the car’s size and how efficiently it ran. From a personal perspective, Maruyama’s long been attracted to the mechanical construction of the vehicle and its analogue nature, which he describes as “adorable”.
It was the car Maruyama had fallen in love with, and he was determined to help the brand succeed in his country, even when others had seemingly given up on it. „As Japan experienced rapid economic growth in the 1970s, cheaper yet more efficient cars came into the market, effectively deeming the Mini obsolete,“ he says. „Despite its downfall, I continued to vouch for the classic English car against the consensus. I believe this built the foundation for its popularity in Japan today.“
Maruyama did far more than just champion the Mini’s cause. He also tinkered with the cars to create his own versions, beginning with the first Mini he ever bought. After sending it back to the U.K., he spoke to engineers about the modifications he wanted to turn his ideas into something tangible. It took four years to complete and meant selling most of his collection, but in the end, he had what he calls his „dream car,” that looked almost the same as a classic Mini but also featured a custom-designed rear boot spoiler, more comfortable seats and various other Maruyama touches to make it stand out from the rest.
That was just the start. In the late ‘70s, Maruyama struck a deal with John Cooper, the auto racing legend who revamped the Mini shortly after it debuted, to modify and redesign Mini Cooper S model donor cars so they were easier and smoother for Japanese consumers to drive. Around 1,600 were made with their own Chassis (vehicle identification) numbers. For Maruyama, though, it was about more than simply adjusting and remodelling the vehicles. He knew that it was also important to educate people in his country on how best to nurture their Minis so they could keep driving them for 30 years without spending huge fees.
It required looking after the car in a completely different way from how they did things in the U.K.,“ recalls Maruyama. „We had to think about the reality of owning a Mini in Japan, which came with its own unique problems. For instance, heating the engine wasn’t recommended because of the environmental impact it had, but we suggested it for the health of the machine. We also advocated changing oil after driving 3,000 kilometres as opposed to 10,000 kilometres, as was common at the time. On top of that, we advised our customers to bring their vehicles in for maintenance once or twice a year. Again, that wasn’t typical back then.“
This was all great for existing customers, but what about attracting new ones in Japan? In the early ‚80s, as there were only a relatively small number of dedicated fans interested in purchasing Minis, Maruyama developed a strategy to boost interest in the car. He provided the vehicles modified at his company to be used as props in advertisements and television commercials.
The extra exposure had the desired effect. New fans emerged including many women who felt the Mini was both charming and fashionable. Japan was going through something of a “retro boom” at the time and the Mini had that nostalgic feel to it, reminding people of simpler times. Though evolving to keep up with the modern age, it remained true to its origins.
Several private Japanese dealers consequently took advantage of the car’s popularity by importing the vehicles themselves. Realising it was missing a trick, British car manufacturer Rover then officially started exporting Minis to Japan in 1985. Though keeping the designs the same, the British factory added more chrome and leather to the automobiles for the Japanese market.
Soon enough, more than half of the Minis manufactured in the U.K. were being shipped to Japan. In the late ‘80s, Rover had considered ceasing production of the car due to poor sales in Europe. The Far East market effectively kept it alive. Without the influence of one man, that probably wouldn’t have been possible.
Maruyama was key to the car’s success in Japan, and anyone associated with the Mini appreciated his endeavours. That, of course, included John Cooper, with whom he established a close connection. The British man who revolutionised Formula One racing by humbling Maserati and Ferrari had great respect for Maruyama, and the feeling was mutual.
Asked which was the most meaningful car in his garage, the Japanese businessman was immediate in his response. „It’s the silver one over there, a racing car model that John Cooper made in 1950,” he says excitedly. “Only two of those vehicles exist in the world. Over time, this particular one was picked apart with various parts taken out, so he asked me to complete it for him. It took eight years, but now it’s the most atmospheric car in the garage.”
There’s much to see at Mini Maruyama. It truly is a haven for car enthusiasts.
Looking like a speedster car from an old movie, you can see what he means. It really does stand out. However, it’s not just the cars in the shop that Maruyama’s proud of. A bicycle he built for Cooper also holds a special place in his heart. “He was 65 years old and had put on weight,” Maruyama says of his old friend who died in 2000 aged 77. “I gifted it to him because I wanted him to stay healthy. I thought dearly of him. He was someone I really admired.”
From the ice cream van to the first-ever Mini Sprint, previously owned by all-time racing great Stirling Moss, there’s much to see at Mini Maruyama. It truly is a haven for car enthusiasts. Not everything, though, is just for show.
“I don’t own a lot of MINIs purely for the purpose of collecting them,” says Maruyama. “I like to drive them too… I always think to myself, there’s no reason why the Mini wouldn’t be popular. I don’t need to turn the radio on. It’s just endless fun after five hours of driving. I sometimes take 200-kilometre trips in a Mini to visit clients. I then switch to domestic cars on the way home, but it’s boring driving in them.”
Listening to Maruyama speak, you can sense he’s still as enthusiastic about Minis today as he was when he started his business five decades ago. He currently owns six and says there’s nothing you could offer him to sell his collection off. Maruyama has accompanied the car’s development ever since, and his passion for the vehicle never diminished. It’s been a huge part of not only his life, but also his family’s, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Autor: Ben Cooke / Fotos: Steve Gaudin / Production: BIANCO BIANCO Tokio