A Stroll Through The R31 Kingdom With Shibata-San

If you caught my latest Project Rough update last week, you’ll know that my success with some handling upgrades was followed by an issue – a busted power steering line. That breakage led me down to R31 House to pick up the required part to fix my Skyline. There, Shibata-san also had a surprise in store for me, and that’s where my ‘Part 1′ update finished off.

Part 2 is coming, but first, I need to take you on a tour around the ‘R31 Kingdom’.

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On my previous two visits to Shibata-san’s vast facility in the Gifu countryside I was pretty much left to my own devices, but this time around it was extra special. Shibata-san strolled with me, which provided the perfect opportunity for me to learn how he got into cars in the first place, discover where his passion for R31 Skylines came from, and see how he’s turned that into a successful business.

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Shibata: “Right from when I was born, I was around cars. My father was a mechanic and race car driver, so every weekend our family would be at Suzuka Circuit.”

Shibata: “Even when I was a baby, I was surrounded by screaming engines, exhaust fumes, and the other wonderful smells that only a race track can provide. Because my father raced Sunnys, I was always around them, which is probably why I grew to love the Nissan brand and love cars. I was either going to be a mechanic or a race car driver.”

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Shibata: “My father founded Shibata Jidosha [Motors] right here. [Back then] this was actually the first and only building on the site. It was also our home.”

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That’s something I definitely did not know. I had assumed that the larger building at R31 House was the first one, and the smaller a later addition to free up some extra space. It’s amazing to think that the smaller, original building was also Shibata-san’s home growing up.

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Shibata-san continued to talk while carefully navigating his way across the R31 parts room at the back of the workshop.

Shibata: “From my birth till around the time I was in middle school, we lived here. This is where my mother would work. Her desk was here. Oh, and over here was the bathtub. And this is where the TV was. I believe my bed was over in this area too.”

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Shibata: Every day after work, all the mechanics would come in and we would eat dinner together. We were basically one big family. The walls were pretty much the same as they are now, so you can imagine how hot it was in the summer and how cold it could be in the winter. Since I grew up here, I think could live anywhere!”

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Shibata: “I think I was 16 when my father bought the rice field next to this workshop and created the bigger garage. He also made the top floor above the garage our house, so we moved there.”

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It was amazing to see exactly where Shibata-san had grown up, and also hear about what spurred his passion for cars in the first place. But I was keen to learn where the R31 fit into all of this.

Shibata: “Thanks to Group A racing, I grew to love the R31 Skyline. After the new garage was built and my father saw how serious I was about them, he gave me the old garage. That became a workshop solely dedicated to R31s, whereas my father’s new garage would continue to work on any car.”

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Shibata: “Even to this day, the main garage works on all cars and can perform shaken [roadworthiness/registration] examinations. Although, you wouldn’t think that we worked on other models with basically only Skylines in here right now.”

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My last trip to R31 House wasn’t all that long ago, but I noticed that many things had changed in the bigger workshop space.

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Shibata: “Before, this was more of a showcase area, but we changed it to handle restoration and body preparation work before painting. We have also installed a [chassis alignment] rig that allows us to straighten out a car’s frame, so we can repair any damage in house.”

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Shibata: “The paint area was here the last time you visited, but we’ve added another spray booth as the volume of cars coming through the door only keeps increasing.”

Shibata: “The paint mixing area has been renovated too, and we now have a tool that can scan a car’s paint and give you the percentage breakdown so that you can recreate the exact color.”

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The next room was also here on my last visit, but off limits as the team were working on a few special projects.

Shibata: “We call this our ‘Research and Development’ office. Here we do all the development work for our original parts, like our premium air conditioner unit for the R31, as well as engine parts, body kits and so on.”

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Shibata: “We also create the parts for our remote control car brand [GRK] in here.”

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As I walked around with Shibata-san, it was clear that the staff count had also increased since my last visit. Without dating myself, I felt like I was older than many of the employees too.

Shibata: “The first time you visited, I think we had about 10 to 15 employees. Now we have 40 or 45. As for their age, you’re probably right, Ron!”

R31 House has obviously had a lot of wins in the time it has been in business, but I wondered if any one thing stood out to Shibata-san above all others.

Shibata: “I accomplished my life goal with the R31 House takoashi [octopus leg] headers, but after that I wanted to move on to the next goal – the next dream. Dreams can come true and the youth are always dreaming, so I want to support their dreams.”

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Shibata: “Koudai [Koudai Sobagiri, R31 House’s Formula Drift Japan pro driver] is a good example. I remember him coming to the shop when he was in elementary school. Koudai took part in one of my RC drifting events and he was simply amazing. In fact, he became the #1 ranked driver. Koudai eventually transitioned from RC to the real thing and told me one day that his dream was to become a world champion.”

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Shibata: “So his dream became my new dream, and for the past five years we have pushed. I want to give him the best machine, the best parts, the best tires, the best everything – all made in house.”

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Speaking of parts, I was curious to learn more about Shibata-san’s move into the tire market with his Shibata Tire brand, produced by Rydanz. Simply, why enter into what is today a very crowded market?

Shibata: “The main reason is because I want people to enjoy their old cars. These days, it’s not easy to order tires for kyusha [old cars] in their OEM sizes. Sure, you can change things out to accept modern sizing, but you may run into complications doing that.”

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Shibata: “So what do you do when you can’t find your size? You stop driving. I asked people online what size tire they would need if I was to start a tire company and the list was crazy. Like 200 different sizes! So I had to shrink the list down, but we still have 124 sizes. It’s a lot, but I want to help everyone enjoy their older cars.”

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Shibata: “In regards to performance, we are always testing and playing with different compounds and patterns. If I feel like it’s not perfect or, in the case of tires for our drift car, not helping Koudai achieve his dream, it’s deemed a failure and the process starts all over again.”

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It was at this point of our stroll that Shibata-san and I got onto the topic of R31 House’s famous parts yard – home to over 400 cars, mostly R31s – and how it came about.

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Shibata: “When I was 21, I bought 200 or so Skylines from auctions in a span of just two years. As you can imagine, they were a lot cheaper back then. The numbers kept increasing till it became what you see here.”

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Shibata: “The cars that are stacked are for parts only, and help breathe new life into our customers’ cars. If a customer decides that they want to buy a car from us and do a full restoration, then the cars on the ground are the best candidates.”

Shibata: “Again, our main goal is to ensure that our customers can continue to drive their precious cars for as long as possible. Here’s an example; one of our customers was in an accident and we used a rear quarter panel for the repair. That’s the main objective with the yard.”

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Shibata: “Hopefully, you can continue to enjoy and drive Project Rough for a long time with the parts from the yard, Ron.” In the meantime, let’s move your car to our new race shop and find the parts you’re looking for. What I promised you will be waiting there as well.”

New race shop? Stay tuned for that in my next Project Rough update.

Ron Celestine
Instagram: celestinephotography
www.labcuriosity.com