A Car Nerd's Guide To JapanAn insider look at car culture in Japan.  

You’re in Japan in the early 1970s. Everything is in sepia filter, the economy seems unstoppable, and you’ve got yourself a shiny new car. But then so does everyone else, and because you’re a unique individual you want your car to be unique, too. However, there’s a problem. All the shops you need to go to to get tires, dress up accessories, audio, oil, exhausts, and servicing are all in separate shops spread out around Tokyo and the rest of the country. If only, you say, there was a one-stop shop to get all of these essentials.

That’s exactly what Toshio Sumino did in 1974 when he opened up his first Autobacs store in Higashi Osaka.

Although the company that would eventually become Autobacs was established in 1947, Sumino saw an opportunity in the Japanese market for a concentrated auto parts store only in the early ‘70s.

Autobacs is an acronym basically outlining its focus: “Appeal, Unique, Tires, Oil, Batteries, Accessories, Car audio and Service.” The opening of the first store also coincided with the paradigm shift of car ownership in Japan, when the car was starting to become an expression of yourself rather than a tool to get from A to B.

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Clearly it was a hit. By 1979, only five years since the first store opened, Autobacs had 100 locations in Japan. The expansion during the ’80s and ’90s went even further with Autobacs setting up shop overseas in markets such as Taiwan, Singapore, and France.

Autobacs has 641 stores in total, 597 in Japan and 44 overseas, at least as of the end of 2018 as counted by Market Screener. It even tried entering the American market with a (short-lived) store in Los Angeles.

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The Autobacs group is so much more than an auto parts retailer now. It has its own used car dealerships as well as its own BMW/Mini dealership. Since 1998, it’s been heavily involved in Super GT racing.

Now that you’ve stopped imagining you’re a Japanese car enthusiast in the disco era, you may now be thinking: “Great. But how’s this different from an AutoZone?” Well, AutoZone never made its own car.

That did happen with Autobacs. The result was the Garaiya, a TommyKaira ZZ-based sports car, which anyone who played Gran Turismo 3 will remember.

The Garaiya in question. Photo: Autobacs

That came with a 204 horsepower Nissan SR20VE engine from the Primera, a six-speed manual, only weighed 800 kilos (1,763 pounds), and most importantly, had scissor doors. Most of the parts were shared with more humble Nissan vehicles, except for the taillights which came from the Alfa Romeo 147.

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Unfortunately it didn’t come become much more than virtual reality. Amazingly, 60 orders had been placed despite the ¥6.5 million (roughly $58,000) asking price, difficulties in the development process shut the project down. A few cars had been delivered, but they are a rarity today.

It was in 1997, when Autobacs once again changed the auto parts game in Japan with the introduction of its first Super Autobacs store in Chiba. Building on their tried and tested formula, Super Autobacs had become much more than just an auto parts store. It was the beginning of the implementation of a lifestyle store. It featured automotive related goods such as books, DVDs, music, apparel, and even a 100-seat cinema. In the same year, after the Chiba location, the Super Autobacs Tokyo Bay was opened.

This became their flagship store and on November 28th, 2018, it received a shiny new upgrade.

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No longer called Super Autobacs, the Tokyo Bay location has been given a new name to go with its new look. Now known as “A Pit Autobacs Shinonome,” it aims to change the way people see this Autobacs store in the age of online shopping.

Like any other retailer it has a hard time competing with Amazon. But as Japan does have an aged society there are still many out there who prefer to buy in person. Items such as winter tires and dash cams, as well as services such as the annual inspection and servicing are the main drivers for bringing people into an Autobacs store.

The aim of A Pit Autobacs Shinonome was to make a space where you could go in and get your parts but at the same time a place where you could relax, hang out, and immerse yourself in all things car culture. It’s now a three-story building.

The first floor consists of the “pit” where you can leave your car to get work done, regular maintenance, and annual servicing. On the second floor you can even keep an eye on your car while it’s getting work done to it with the “Pit View” screens.

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The second floor is the heart of the lifestyle section of the A Pit store. I haven’t been in an auto parts store quite like this before. I doubt there’s an AutoZone or Halfords anywhere in the world as nice as this.

Rather than looking like a regular auto parts store, there’s a very modern yet cozy atmosphere. It’s almost like being a hip coffee shop that just so happens to be surrounded by Recaro seats, iPhone holders, and tires.It’s no coincidence that it feels like a coffee shop as there’s literally a Starbucks bang in the middle of the second floor.

The combination of the Starbucks and large parking lot outside makes this location an ideal place for a potential cars and coffee style meet.

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There’s also a Tsutaya book shop stock with automotive magazines and books, both domestic and international. The idea is to get inspiration about what to do to your car next by browsing through the selection of books and magazines here. There’s also a kids’ section with books and toys to get kids excited about cars. It was meant to be a place you can bring your family.

Up on the third floor you can find most of the aftermarket accessories like speakers, headlights and taillights for certain models, steering wheels, helmets, racing suits, strut bars, exhausts, seats, suspension, and wheels. There’s also a whole section dedicated to car navigation systems.

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Aftermarket nav systems are big business in Japan. A lot of OEM manufacturers intentionally leave their center consoles blank because they know most people prefer to go with their own preferred aftermarket navigation systems from Pioneer, Panasonic, and Kenwood. There’s even a place where you can sit in a model car interior to test out the functions and usability of each system.

Finally, there’s a driving simulator on this floor too. It costs 1000 yen ($9) for 10 minutes or 2500 yen ($22.50) for 30 minutes, but there’s 250 cars to choose from and 200 tracks to drive on. The simulator is exclusively for Autobacs members, and Autobacs says it’s used by “driving professionals.”

After taking in the inside, I went walking around the car park outside and to check out the self-service car wash area. Apparently this was one aspect customers requested a lot, as there aren’t many of these around Tokyo yet, so it’s good to see these gaining popularity.

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A Pit Autobacs has two parking lots. There’s a multi-story adjacent to the main building and there’s a reserved area out front for those who are bringing their cars in for work. I went on a Saturday and the variety of cars would fit right in at a Sunday morning meet at Daikoku.

There was a constant flow of interesting cars going in and out. Although it’s only been around in its latest guise for four months, locals are definitely seeing the appeal and making this one of the best new car meetup venues in Tokyo.

There’s talk of expansion for the rest of Japan, most likely upgrading existing Super Autobacs to A Pit Autobacs stores. If it all goes well they might introduce this to their overseas markets too. I don’t know if it’s a good move or not, but it shows that Autobacs is trying to shift things up, or at least that it feels like it has to.

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Maybe it’s not enough to be a traditional auto parts store anymore, what with the rising popularity of online shopping. Business sense or not, it is a nice place to wash your car, hang out with friends over a cup of coffee, leave your car to get work done or find other ways to kill a few hours.

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