When most people start wrenching, they typically choose a cheap, mechanically simple and well-understood car for their first project. A Mini or a Beetle or maybe an old Jeep. They work their way up to the obscure stuff.
Mr. Yamada chose a Super GT race car from a company most people have never heard of, one that, by all rights, has no reason to be in America. But it’s in his garage, and he’s restoring it back to its former glory — with the help of friends far and wide.
A few years ago my colleague Raph wrote about a Vemac RD320R that Quickstyle Motorsports helped a buyer import to Maryland in 2018. A short while later the car wound up on Bring A Trailer; the car was in very poor shape and Yamada told me the original buyer fell ill and wasn’t able to give it the care it needed.
Yamada didn’t win the auction. He lost out to another bidder, who later decided not to go through with the sale. It crushed him at first, having been a fan of the car since watching it compete in Super GT while living in Japan. “When that Vemac came up [on Bring A Trailer] I’m like, ‘I just gotta own it.’”
“So I bid the thing up thinking, like, who else is as crazy as me to pay this much money for this shell, right? And somebody just kept going. So at a certain point I’m like alright, I’m gonna give up. It was really painful, but I just stopped bidding. And the other guy won and for three days I was losing sleep, I’m like, damn it, I should have just kept going.
“And then, sure enough, a week later the guy in Maryland reaches out to me and says ‘the guy flaked — I can’t get in touch with him. Are you interested?’”
Yamada was skeptical at this point, wondering if the mystery winner was a fake bidder simply driving up the price of the car. He told the seller he’d bid again if the car was just relisted, but the seller couldn’t or didn’t want to do that.
“I said ok well, how about this? I’ll come down this weekend but I’m not paying you more than $35,000, cause I think I was up to $45K. If $35K is ok with you, I’ll come down this weekend and frankly, if it’s a deal, I’ll bring a check with me. But if it’s not in the shape advertised or there’s something fishy, then I’m just going to walk.”
Yamada and his brother-in-law drove down from New York to Maryland to check out the car. It was in “pretty bad shape,” but nothing was wrong that they couldn’t put right with enough time and money. The listing mentioned the RD320R was missing its “engine, gearset, ECU, and digital instrument cluster,” which had all been removed after the car was retired from competition in 2009. The carbon fiber bodywork was tattered and torn in places. You could see evidence of prior repairs and remnants of liveries all over the car.
The car was delivered to Yamada’s home the very next day in a trailer. He runs an Instagram account, called Project Vemac, where fans can follow his progress and offer guidance and support, as they often do.
“The first photos on my stream were that night. We took a picture of them unloading it and it was like, OK, here we go. Here goes nothing.”
The Vemac RD320R looks like a Lotus Elise GT1 but isn’t British — well, not entirely. It’s the joint product of Tokyo R&D and Chris Craft. The former runs the R&D Sport Subaru BRZ in the GT300 class of Super GT today. The latter is the sports car champion who co-designed Gordon Murray’s Light Car Company Rocket and passed away in February at the age of 81.
Vemacs competed in Super GT between 2002 and 2012, at times in either the GT300 class, the GT500 class, or both. That ended when changing regulations around production and homologation effectively banned them from the series. In its final year, Yamada’s example raced as the #666 Avanzza Bomex car, piloted by Shogo Suho, Junichiro Yamashita and Takashi Miyamoto.
The GT500 class Vemacs — the RD350R and RD408R — ran with Zytek- or Mugen-built V8s. In the GT300 class where Yamada’s car competed Vemacs employed the Honda C32B engine out of the NSX, stroked and tuned by Toda Racing.
This brings me to my favorite part of Yamada’s ordeal: sourcing an engine for his Vemac. The original Toda C32B had long since been pulled from the car, and Yamada assumed his best bet would be rebuilding an NSX motor to replace it. He got his hands on a C30A, but all the while, he held out hope that he could get the real deal hardware from Toda itself.
“I called [Toda] out of the blue for like a year straight, once a month and I was kind of annoying to them. I speak Japanese, so they were like “who is this crazy guy calling us from New York?”
Yamada had seen images of a Toda C32B online, at an Autobacs Secondhand Market (ASM) shop in Yokohama. He recognized the shop from having lived in the area. One summer, while on vacation in Japan with his family, he paid the ASM a visit.
“I said I’m going to go down there and just knock on their door. So I went down there and, you know, I saw the motor and I took out a ruler and I started measuring it and a guy comes over and he’s like ‘what are you doing? Why are you measuring the motor?’ [I asked him] ‘this is from a Vemac, right?’ And he’s like ‘yeah, how’d you know that?’”
Yamada told the employee he had a Vemac, but he didn’t have a motor. The man was confused, but quickly understood as soon as Yamada showed him the Project Vemac Instagram page on his phone.
As it turned out, the engine had been a spare and Vemac’s Super GT program ended before it ever saw any track time. It had been on loan from Toda as a display in the shop for a decade. Yamada remarked it’d be perfect to reunite the engine with a proper Vemac, and the employee enthusiastically agreed.
“Yeah I really want to get this into a car,” Yamada recalled the man telling him. “So let’s do it!”
“What do you mean let’s do it?” Yamada asked.
“Well, I’ll just tell them I’m selling to you.”
“Are you gonna get in trouble?”
The employee said he probably would, but he’d call Toda up and try anyway. Toda was concerned Yamada might reveal intellectual property or trade secrets, so he assured his advocate at ASM that he’d sign whatever agreement was necessary to convince the engine builder that he wouldn’t tear the motor down and share his findings.
Thankfully, the employee was on his side. Fiercely so.
“These guys are being ridiculous,” Yamada said the man told him. “This is 15-year-old technology, you can’t do anything with this!”
Yamada said the employee essentially chided Toda over the phone, reminding them there was no technology in that C32B that hadn’t been superseded in the years since it had been raced. That convinced the company to relent, and the motor was Yamada’s. Or, rather, not that particular motor. Toda actually had a C32B in storage that had been receiving regular maintenance, and they shipped him that one instead. Above is a picture of it in his garage from a few weeks ago.
As someone who’s never been a wrencher myself, I nearly fell out of my chair when Yamada told me that he didn’t have a history of projects under his belt before taking up this one.
He did go to school for mechanical engineering, so even though he doesn’t work in the field, it’s not like he’s totally out of his depth. He’s also unafraid of trial and error. That’s good because he’s fabricating some parts using his 3D printer and CNC milling equipment. With parts and plans unsurprisingly hard to come by, he’s in the dark on a lot of this stuff.
And that’s precisely where the Instagram community comes in, as well as the network of individuals and suppliers that have stepped up to assist however they can.
“You couldn’t have done a project like this 20 years ago, because you didn’t have the web, you didn’t have Instagram, you didn’t have forums,” Yamada told me. “So I would have never gotten anywhere near as far as I have on my own.”
Tap on any post on the Project Vemac Instagram page, like the one below, and there’s a good chance one of the commenters is helping Yamada solve one of a million little mysteries, like the source of the RD320R’s taillights.
“[Without the web] you’d basically be reinventing everything and everything would be different, very different from what you had originally. Whereas now, because there’s so much digital imagery online, I have photos of the race cars in the pits and you can kind of zoom in and see how things were set up and what components they use and what brands they use. It’s actually not that difficult to figure out most things.”
What Yamada isn’t able to make or do on his own, he’s outsourced to those who know best. One of the Vemac’s wheel hubs was badly damaged, so he shipped it to a drivetrain specialist in the Netherlands to reverse engineer it. “I was going to do the drawings, but if this is off by a fraction of a millimeter, this isn’t going to work.
“They’ll figure out exactly what half shaft, the axles that we need. That’s the only part where — [I] could have figured it out, but you don’t want to mess that up. It requires a level of accuracy I don’t have.”
I visited Yamada’s home in April, and his garage and basement have essentially been transformed into a Super GT restoration workshop. There are tools and parts all over — a Hewland LSG transaxle out of a Corvette C5.R here, a Denso race alternator there. There’s an enclosed area for sanding in one corner of his basement and a high pressure parts washer in another. It’s like a candy shop for motorsport engineering nerds, though it would appear to present an organizational challenge.
“Real mechanics who do this as their day job would freak out because everything is still lying out. But that’s the only way I can be efficient. I’ll purposefully leave stuff, tools next to things so that when I come back to it I’m like ‘oh, that’s what I was doing.’”
Lately he’s been focused on the bodywork, laying up sheets of carbon fiber over the various panels to repair the battle scars. He’s started taking the filling and sanding work outside again now that the weather’s been cooperative, test fitting the monocoque against the nose and, in the process, reminding everyone that Vemacs were really good-looking race cars.
Two and a half years into the project, there’s still much left to do. But slowly and surely, progress is being made and the various pieces are coming together — even if not in the most literal sense yet.
“I knew that it was going to be this way going into it. And the whole point is I want little puzzles every weekend or every month to solve.”
On the list of all the puzzles someone could be solving, this ranks as a pretty damn cool one.