When the film The Fast and the Furious opened this summer in US theaters, it captured the imagination and wallets of many adolescent moviegoers. For a movie as thick-headed as protagonist Vin Diesel's bald pate, it amazingly was the top-grossing movie in America for several weeks.
Fast eventually grossed an astounding $144 million (E160 million) in theaters, and who knows how much it will generate on video. Monetary gains aside, the movie also won over who-knows-how-many converts to performance-enhanced Japanese compact cars.
In Los Angeles, the plot-line for The Fast and the Furious is relatively accurate. Perhaps we don't have Honda Civics driving under 18-wheelers and shooting crossbow bolts through the windshields of big rigs. But incredible modifications to Japanese compact cars and street racing on public roads - certainly we have that in spades.
I've known about the 'rice rocket races' since 1989. That's when some friends and I piled into my Acura Integra and drove to a rather rundown part of the San Fernando Valley, on the fringes of LA. My buddy Mike had been tipped to the location, and sure enough, there were hundreds of modified Civics, Integras, Eclipses, RX-7s, you name it, all burning rubber and wagering cash on Nordhoff Street.
A scene that big can't help but attract attention. Within 30 minutes the police descended and everyone made a chaotic getaway. We were so panicked about getting thrown in jail for street racing that we were halfway to Ventura before we noticed we were going the wrong way home.
Eleven years later, the underlying theme of the movie has permeated the general populace. Driving any sort of modified Japanese compact car now means you have something beastly under the hood. Booming along in Toyota's modified TRD Celica to the local sandwich joint - not 15km from where Fast was filmed - I was confronted by a Baby Boomer in a bedraggled Porsche 911.
'That thing got nitrous?' he asked.
I didn't have the heart to say no. Though at age 34, I don't quite fit the rice-rocket demographic anymore, it still felt fun to play the rebellious youth.
But while The Fast and the Furious certainly played in Pomona and Peoria, would it play in Picadilly?
In England, the idea of modifying Japanese cars with slammed suspensions, glittering the sheet metal with wild graphics and boosting the engines with hazardous chemicals just doesn't fly. And the thought that someone would do such a thing to a Honda Civic - an old-person's car over here - is almost laughable. In America, Honda sells nearly twice as many Civics as total cars in Europe.
During my first month working here in England, I saw a total of four modified Japanese cars. I have a neighbor in Los Angeles who has that many in his driveway. But here, if a kid is going to modify a hot hatch, it's a VW, Peugeot or Vauxhall. Sure, Honda cranks out some amazing 'Type-R' vehicles here, but they don't garner nearly the respect that they would in the USA.
To perhaps understand why I didn't understand this discrepancy, I decided to endure the movie again, this time in London. I went to Chelsea, site of the infamous monthly 'Chelsea Cruise.' The police don't much like The Cruise, because the old-school guys in their T-buckets don't get along with the kids in their hot hatches. Just like America.
On the screen
I went into the tiny Chelsea movie theater, which was about half-full on a Friday night. Lots of adolescents on dates, the perfect demographic. Sure, they giggled through Americana-filled lines like, 'I live my life a quarter-mile at a time.' They laughingly mimicked the actors trying to out-baritone each other when delivering their serious lines. But the audience also ooohed and ahhhed at the urban-racing footage. No matter that the cars were geezermobiles. The actors played up their street credibility to the hilt and made the cars legitimate.
After the movie, I asked a couple of the kids if the movie changed their view of Japanese cars, and Hondas in particular.
'A little bit. Yeah, I'm impressed. I'd look at a Honda now,' said one of them, approaching the 'early adopter' age that automakers desire. As the word-of-mouth adage goes, win them over one buyer at a time.
Conservative Honda, of course, has distanced itself from the movie like the plague. Obviously, Honda can't embrace it. Even though Shoichiro Honda built his company on the idea of driving fast, Honda has a modern-era corporate respectability to uphold, which it does in America by sponsoring 'Racers Against Street Racing.' That is sort of like parents telling kids they can't smoke pot, because they did it back in the '60s and it was a baaaad thing.
But if Honda were ever to gain any respectability in the European market, especially with the younger buyers, it has to do something more than just launching a few Type-R Civics. Putting Vin Diesel at an auto show booth or two might be a start.
Mark Rechtin is normally Los Angeles bureau chief for sister publication Automotive News. But for the next several months Rechtin is reporting on the European auto industry from our London office.
E-mail him at [email protected]