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‘Mad Max’ loose on the streets of Tokyo

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KITT, the talking Pontiac Trans Am in David Hasselhoff’s “Knight Rider” TV series, doesn’t get a mention. Steve McQueen’s Mustang from the movie “Bullit” barely rates a response. And what about all those Aston Martins that James Bond drove? Not a whisper. Confessed car nut Yoshinao Hirata of Chofu, in western Tokyo, reckons that Mel Gibson’s Ford Falcon V8 — from the 1979 Australian cult classic “Mad Max” — is the greatest screen car ever. That’s why he bought one.

“Most people just give me weird looks. Some even say that I’m mad,” the 36-year-old home-renovation specialist says of public reaction to the black beast. “I’m convinced that no one realizes what I’m driving.”

And why should they? About the only person driving an Aussie-built car in Japan is the Australian ambassador!

Having been part of the flick’s original following, this writer, however, instantly recognized the famed 600hp Interceptor, or at least a rather good 260hp replica, in a sea of cream-colored Corollas and silver Civics. Capable of over 200kph, the 1973-model Ford Falcon XB GT appeared out of a side street, crossed in front of me, turned and started heading the other way. Without even thinking, I picked my jaw up off my lap, spun a U-turn, and sped off in pursuit of “Mad Max” through suburban Tokyo.

As I closed in on Hirata’s thumping 351ci Cleveland V8, my mind wandered back 28 years. Arriving in Tokyo as a first-year university student in early December 1979, the first movie I saw here was “Mad Max” — dubbed into American English (the Aussie accent still too raw for American ears back then). George Miller’s film was a breakthrough moment for actor Gibson, who went on to star in two sequels. It also did wonders for the popularity of the XB GT — an Australian cousin of the American Ford Mustang and Torino — that was the last of the “Muscle Cars” (later models were forced to comply with new emission regulations) and has become very collectible (another Aussie actor, Eric Bana, owns an XB).

Pulling up next to Hirata at the next set of traffic lights, I wound my window down, told him I was a motoring writer and that I wanted to write about his car. Anywhere else in the world, most people would threaten to call the cops or just tell you to get lost. In Japan, with one of the lowest crime rates and carjacking records in the world, drivers at traffic lights tend to be more open to suggestion.

“Really? A story on my car?” Hirata couldn’t resist the exposure, turned off the main road and stopped.

Only 949 XB GTs were ever made, so you are most unlikely to find one in Japan, let alone one dressed up as a full-bore pursuit special. (The original movie car is in the Cars of the Stars Motor Museum in Keswick, Cumbria, England, with other famous cars such as KITT, the “Back to the Future” De Lorean DMC-12 and several Batmobiles.) But Hirata had dreamt of owning one since the first time he saw the film as an 8-year-old.

“I was so taken by the car action and the look of that black Falcon that I collected all the movie brochures and used them to learn how to draw the car,” the Max wannabe says. “I would sketch it constantly and sometimes even got in trouble at school for drawing the car during classes. I knew that some day I would own an Interceptor.”

One day in early 2001, he was flicking through the pages of a Japanese car magazine when he spotted a double-page article on a “Mad Max” Interceptor that had just been imported from Australia — complete with the huge supercharger and side-mounted exhaust pipes.

“It took me about 2 seconds to call the shop that had imported it, and, well, the rest is history,” Hirata explains.

He paid around ¥4.3 million for the 34-year-old Falcon. One of the first things he did was remove the fake supercharger and side pipes.

“The car looks mean enough on public roads without that extra stuff, you know. The more accessories you have on your car, the more attention the cops tend to pay to you. And I didn’t want that. Plus it’s easier to get the car licensed if it looks less menacing.”

What does he like about his car?

“Apart from the looks, I adore the sound of the exhaust. It’s intoxicating. There’s nothing like it in Japan!”

And his favorite scene in the movie?

“That’s easy. The one where Max does a cool U-turn in his Interceptor, just after blowing up one of the bikers — Johnny the Boy — and cruises slowly up the hill toward the camera. Also, I have to mention the nail-biting chase scenes on long, deserted roads. For a Japanese who hasn’t traveled much, that Australian landscape was like something from another planet!” blurts Hirata.

Now that he has his dream car, what’s next?

“Well, the only thing for me to do now is to visit and drive the locations in Australia where the movie was shot.”

A huge grin comes across Hirata’s face when he is told that many of the roads in the movie are still unchanged from how they were 28 years ago. With V8 muscle cars all the rage in Australia, and the “Mad Max” legend still strong, a cottage industry exists there in building replicas (with a starting price of about ¥7,000,000) and Hirata might even be able to find a local Interceptor to borrow and live out his dream.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motor journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.