The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared

The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Photo: Signal Auto
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There was a golden age of imports and tuning in Southern California, and Riki Yoshida was lucky enough to have been there for it. Born in Japan, Yoshida and his family emigrated to the United States when he was three, settling down in Torrance, California. While attending university, he also started working with one of the most illustrious Japanese tuner shops of the day, Signal Auto.

“The late ‘90s to early 2000s were a good time for tuning cars,” Yoshida recalled. “Work was abundant. You might remember how often you saw modified cars on the street. On top of that, there were many Japanese companies, so there were a lot of just regular repair customers as well.”

Today, Signal Auto is anything but a household name. The tuning frenzy that dominated the turn of the millennium is over and gone—and with it, most of the influence of the companies that helped build and shape it. But for those who were there—for those who remember—Signal was one of the all-time greats.

Mad Beginnings

Signal Auto started in Japan in 1977 as a small tuning shop by Kousuke “MAD” Kida when he was 19 years old. Up until that point, Kida had helped out at his father’s body shop as a boy, headed up a racing crew and landed himself a job at the local Toyota dealership after high school.

But, as the company tells it, Kida quickly grew bored of the monotony of working at the dealership. After all, this was a man who spent his spare time running around darkened Osaka highways with Japan’s bosozoku motorcycle gangs.

Eventually, Kida and a friend rented out a corner of a shop and started a business with his younger brother, Hiko.

Kousuke “MAD” Kida
Kousuke “MAD” Kida
Photo: Signal Auto

“He was done with typical repairs and wanted to build big-time performance cars,” Yumi Mano, a current Signal employee, told me. “His rolling business car was a Fairlady Z (Nissan 300ZX). [But] he became a little too overzealous in his product testing sessions and landed himself and his car in the impound yard.”

This was obviously no way to live, and so Kida turned from street racing to legal means.

“He realized, then, to focus more on the performance of his customer’s cars,” she continued. The business flourished and allowed Kida to buy his own office. He hired employees, he hired his father and called the place “Signal” because there was a signal in the front of the shop.

Over the next 12 years, Signal grew. Chasing expansion, Kida set his sights on racing. The shop built a KP61 Toyota Starlet for a smaller series before moving up to compete in the RS Formula series. From there, he entered Signal as a sponsor in the Japanese Touring Car Championship series.

Impressed by the speed of the cars, Kida refocused his vision and, in the early ‘90s, opened a used Nissan GT-R division with locations in Osaka and Kyoto.

1997 saw the R33 Skyline GT-R, which Kida built up, tuned and sent to the United States to race. By 1998, the shop was demolishing the competition with its Honda “Chop-Top” Civic drag car.

“Osaka-based Signal Auto came out with the original chop-top Civic three years ago,” reported a Super Street article from 2001. “Signal shipped the car to America at the end of 1998 and raced a full schedule the following year, ending the season with a stout 9.98 run at the IDRC Finals in Pomona.”

It was, as Signal claimed, “the fastest Japan-built Honda to appear on American shores.”

A casual observer might have only viewed Kida as a guy who liked speed. At the surface-most level, that’d be accurate. But Kida wasn’t just a wheelman and a tuner. He also had his finger on the pulse of what was to come. Super Street Magazine was an early advocate of Signal’s endeavors—and would become one of the Signal’s greatest allies.

The Right Friends in the Right Places

Kida made it a habit of inviting American journalists out for night-drifting in the Osaka Bay Area. Though drifting was not yet big in the U.S., Kida apparently had a suspicion that it would one day take off here. One of journalists was Howard Lim, Super Street’s publisher at the time.

“I was first attracted to Signal by their vehicles,” Lim told me. The two met in about 1999. “They had some of the best-looking and built Skylines and Sylvias. Kousuke [Kida] and Yumi [Mano] were [some] of the first real tuners that I had met. [Kida] was an original bosozoku back in the day. Sort of a street car gang. They were the ‘outlaws’ of the car world then.”

This was not something Kida hid from anyone, either. A glance at an old Signal commercial, featuring an R34 Skyline quickly dissolves into a no-frills video of night driving at questionable legal speeds. It speaks quite plainly to what sort of image Signal wanted to put out.

In those early days, only a choice few in the U.S. might have known what Signal Auto was. But it turns out the right people were paying attention.

“Signal had several shops around Japan and were known throughout the tuning world,” Lim continued. “My editor was very interested in drifting way back when it was only done in the streets of Japan and Signal was part of that movement from the very beginning.”

Street drifting is old in Japan, and it’s not even hard to find video of drift competitions from the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that D1 Grand Prix did its first competition in America. Of course, Signal got here first, running a demo in Hawaii in 2002, then making it to the lower 48 not long before D1GP showed up.

“As the market continued to grow here in the States,” said Lim, “we helped Signal to be more of a name [with] the magazine and Web exposure and introducing them to bigger manufacturers. They started selling parts and building cars for us (the magazine) and we found sponsors to help offset the costs for the campaigning of the cars to several car shows around the U.S.”

Success was indisputable. Signal Auto was ultimately able to gain substantial funding and influence. And in 2000, it opened Signal Auto USA in Torrance, California.

American Landing

Riki Yoshida’s first interactions with Signal were as a customer—one that needed modifications done to his Nissan 240Z. He didn’t live far from the Torrance shop and its employees were happy to let him watch them as they worked. After a while, he started helping the managers with their English translations and ordering parts. Part-time work came later, while Yoshida juggled his life at Signal with the extra automotive classes he took on in addition to the regular ones at El Camino College.

Image for article titled The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Photo: Signal Auto

But those days at the shop sounded like something out of a import tuner’s dream come true.

“[I] started off mainly helping out with easy jobs like oil changes and ordering parts. Eighty to 90 percent of the work was regular maintenance jobs,” he described. “As I gained knowledge and skill, I gradually moved on to more difficult jobs. As time progressed, we started doing a lot of engine swaps, a lot of AE86 Corollas with superchargers and five-valve swaps, as well as SR20DET swaps into S13s and S14s.”

It wasn’t just customer cars, either. They were building race cars, too—at a pace that sounds as though there was no tomorrow, stuffing powerful motors into cars and hiring famous Japanese pro drivers to send them sideways.

“As for the shop vehicles, we were mainly running the orange S13 ‘Twins,’” Yoshida recounted. The “Twins” were a set of candy-colored, drift-tuned Nissan 180SXs, although “actually there were three” he laughed.

“For many people in the U.S., seeing the Twins was their first time watching drifting. The S13s got minor updates along the way and were driven by various drivers like Fumiaki Komatsu, Bai Kazuya and the late Atsushi Kuroi. Drifting was in its infancy in the U.S. and Signal played a major part in bringing the trend over.”

Even by 2003, the sport was still just getting off the ground when it landed a feature in Wired, one of the earliest mainstream American publications do to so. It took an unsurprising tone of explaining drifting as if the reader had never heard of it before.

Image for article titled The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Photo: Signal Auto

But that was fine. Drifting was picking up more steam by the week and the optimism of a newfound motorsport gave everything a breathless, exhilarated feel. There was plenty of time for builds and ample places to go fast.

Yoshida said he helped Signal enter its Nissan S15 at the Bonneville Top Speed Week, one of the last places you’d expect to find an imported car from Japan. There, classic American nostalgia runs rampant. What wasn’t some kind of muscle car or truck was a belly tanker out of WWII surplus.

Regardless, Signal’s car still ran a very impressive 194.72 mph.

“The first engine wasn’t producing power and so we had to switch engines on the salt,” recalled Yoshida. “One of the other workers had to drive overnight to deliver a part [because] we [didn’t have a] spare. All this was a lot of hard work, but [it was] fun and memorable.”

After that, “We built the 350Z and G35, both with SR20DET. Not so much because the VQ engines were bad, but we were already so familiar with the SR20 and also [wanted] to promote our ability to do the swaps. By this time I was heavily involved in swaps and fabrication. We helped Chris Forsberg with his first 350Z.”

That’s Chris Forsberg, the most successful American driver in professional drifting, with three Formula Drift titles to his name. Somehow it was Signal that was always there, at the right time, at the start of it all, laying the foundation.

Image for article titled The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Screenshot: Signal Auto

But perhaps the most well-known car that Signal has built is its R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R. An Everest shimmering in a coat of iridescent Maziora Andromeda paint, the R34 started out in the days before big-money professional drifting as a drag car in Japan with over 1,000 horsepower. It gained notoriety there as one of the few GT-Rs that not only pulled off nine-second quarter-mile runs on radial tires, but even managed to fly into the eight-second range. With a rear-drive conversion.

The car’s performance was enough to catapult it into fame, but it was also shrouded in a sense of theater that immediately grabbed your attention, something that not all of the other Japanese tuners of the day could boast.

“The Signal R34 is, without a doubt, the best-presented drag car we have ever seen,” remarked the narrator from an old High Performance Imports episode from 2001, now on YouTube. “It looks more like a show car than a nine-second drag car. Even the inside has been painted to show standards.”

In the clip, you can see two Signal employees painstakingly polishing the car’s engine bay. Would that polish help it run faster? Not really, but you could tell Signal took a certain amount of pride in showcasing its cars. It was that same dedication to aesthetics that attracted fans like Howard Lim in the first place

After a stint of winning drag races, the R34 was retuned for the circuit and time attack competitions as those came on trend. Signal was limber enough to make the transition, and it had built a car good enough to carry it there.

Finally, it “found its way to the U.S. and was converted to [a] drift [setup],” according to Yoshida. Seven-hundred and fifty horsepower. A 2.8-liter Tomei kit. Alcon brakes. An HKS turbo. These are the objects that those who still have issues of Super Street in their attics fantasized about. The Signal Auto R34 had them all, each a talisman of a different age, when tuner dreams emptied bank accounts across the country.

Fans remember seeing it splayed across the glossy pages of import tuner magazines. Its mods list alone was something to behold. A Speedhunters video from 2008 brings us back to the R34's days of sideways tire-shredding at Formula Drift competitions—and with Kida himself excitedly walking viewers through the car. He’s a long way from 1977 in that video, but he still eagerly points to each tuned part.

It even had a cameo appearance in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift. Once that happened, you knew that Signal Auto had made it in the eyes of the American car community.

Pardon the butt.
Pardon the butt.
Screenshot: Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift

At its peak, Signal Auto USA enjoyed a bustling shop, a loyal and enthusiastic fan base, prominent optics in an exciting and new motorsports series and waves of love and adoration from the publications.

It wasn’t to last.

End of an Era

The Great Recession hit the auto industry harder than others, but it wasn’t just the big American automakers that suffered. With the economy the way it was between 2007 and 2009, people simply didn’t have the money for discretionary purchases like car mods. Tuning shops suffered. Signal Auto was one of them.

“After the peak of the industry, maybe [from] 2003 to 2004-ish,” Howard Lim said, “the quick contraction caused many of the high-end tuners to close their doors. The market wasn’t willing to pay for their services and many competitors [had] stepped in as well.”

The market simply had become too big too fast. Over-saturated. New companies and shops popped up along the way, also demanding their cut of the pie, resulting in fierce competition and leaving consumers with more choices than ever before. More choices generally meant less customer loyalty.

It’s an issue that Rob Fuller, a notable and long-time Datsun Z tuner in the Bay Area, touched on as well when we interviewed him last year. “A tuner shop has a hard time surviving because you get lost among the [other] tuner shops,” he told me.

“[With] brands like Stillen and Jim Wolf Technology and GReddy—it was such a niche thing and you were so proud to have those parts. And then with the Internet happening and with all these choices... People used to stay married for a long long time and now people get married for five years and they change the channel.”

“The tuning aspect of technology just keeps getting better and better, things keep getting better,” he insisted, “but because the data stream is so massive, it’s hard for a little or medium guy to sustain.”

To top it off, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which legally called for a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. “Things started to shift as police got very strict and passing smog tests was impossible. Japanese companies started to leave the area,” said Yoshida.

Image for article titled The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Photo: Signal Auto

“Once Signal stopped drifting in America and the Recession happened, people stopped modifying cars,” Jonathan Wong, who was a Super Street editor at the time, agreed. “They dipped out of the American eye.”

Signal Auto was forced to close its U.S. doors in 2010. It might have been able to survive one or two of the factors, but combined pressure from a shifting industry, the economy and government regulations proved too much to bear.

English coverage of the Maziora R34 pretty much stops after Signal left. The car seemed to vanish—until a local publication called Prime NYC ran an article in 2016 and revealed that it had slipped into private hands.

In 2011, Colton Amster of Redline Restorations in Connecticut bought the R34, paying just $55,000 for it. “At that time, no one wanted it,” he told us in a video interview. “They just saw it as another beat up Nissan Maxima or 240 or whatever. No one could understand the history, the pedigree, the heritage behind it.”

Said Wong, “Most guys today probably won’t know what Signal Auto is. But 10, 15 years ago? People knew what they were.”

It’s strange that nearly all of Signal’s U.S. influence has washed away so smoothly. Strange that even though it built the R34 to end all built-R34s, had a renowned shop and seemed to possess an uncanny knack of being able to time itself with the scene perfectly, it wasn’t enough. You’d think it did everything right to anchor itself historically, but any lasting impact flowed from its grasp.

I asked Wong what Signal’s reputation in Japan is now. “Signal isn’t big in Japan,” he responded, thinking. “It’s adjusted with the times, just like all the other shops. [The focus is] more on body [work] now. It’s big on the ‘show up’ cars—cars with the crazy paint jobs.”

Indeed, a look at Signal’s Japanese website these days seems to indicate a shop whose services include vehicle inspection, maintenance, and insurance and accident repair. Under its tuning section, however, it lists LSD swaps and clutch replacements—but nothing as crazy as a set of orange drift twins or an R34 drag car.

Yumi Mano is still a current Signal employee, but after Riki Yoshida finished his degree in 2006, he went on to work at an industrial design firm and its sister company that manufactures aftermarket parts for American muscle cars.

Currently, he has a job at Mattel as a senior model maker, creating prototypes and test models. To stay in involved in the automotive scene, he’s been a volunteer at a Japanese classic car show for about six years.

Image for article titled The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Photo: Kristen Lee (Jalopnik)

The Maziora GT-R is enjoying retired life in private hands, where it’s driven pretty regularly, but probably doesn’t see much racing anymore. And that’s fine—it’s better than rotting away in a museum somewhere—but it’s also kind of analogous to what happened to Signal: A dream car from a dream shop that just sort of disappeared.

These days, as Wong pointed out, most people don’t know the name Signal Auto unless they were tuned in during a very specific era of car culture: the age of imports that grew out of drag racing, of tuning and feeling like there was no limit to how high you could take your car.

“I grew up in that era,” Wong told me. “The golden days of Southern California drag racing. Then the whole JDM thing came along. I wasn’t the guy who created the term ‘JDM,’ but I found it online and put it in the magazine and helped get it into the mainstream.”

A perfect storm of things needed to happen to bring a shop like Signal Auto to American shores, and the magazine was one of them. But that wasn’t the only thing. Here, drifting was on the rise and folks were thirsty for import tuner cars. And the regulations were lax enough for enthusiasts to experiment with tuning their own cars. We were ripe for shops like Signal Auto to come and make a home here. For a time, anyway.

Nostalgia is funny like that. It’s easy to look back on this colorful period of tuner and drift culture, get swept up in the glorious, sun-bleached and hazy days. To think that Kida and his team arrived at a kairos in the industry and were prepared in precisely the right way at precisely the right time. But the reality is that Kida was and is a businessman. During that magical period, tuning import cars was just business.

It’s funny how Kida’s dedication to show car-quality in even his rawest projects ended up as important as it did. It’s the same thing that set him apart and helped take Signal out to the teetering ledge of business in America, and what set Signal up to survive in this new era, working as a more dedicated show-up shop.

The perfect storm that made Southern California habitable for Signal Auto shifted as swiftly as any other business opportunity. Now it—and the era it once occupied—seems to only exist in the remembrance of the people who were there. People like Lim, Yoshida, Amster and Wong. It was because of enthusiasts like them that the scene was able to grow as big as it did. And it’s also because of them that it lives on as a memory today.

Image for article titled The Ultimate Japanese Tuning Shop That Disappeared
Photo: Signal Auto