The BRE and Aerovault crews gathered in the showroom to wish me happy birthday a couple of weeks ago. The showroom has what Gayle calls the “Peter Brock History Walls”. She’s taken images from when I had my first car in 1952 (an MG TC) thru my time at GM (late ‘50s), my history with Shelby (’61-’65), my BRE team (’66-’72) and my hang gliding company starting in ‘73, Ultralight Products (UP) and mounted them on the walls with dates and descriptions. A person can spend some serious time in that room.
While “shooting the breeze” with the guys while b-day cake was being cut, I was asked what my favorite image is in the room. Wow, how do you answer that? However, I quickly gravitated to this photo from 1967 at the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway. The photo was taken when the BRE Hino Samurai I designed was going through tech for the race. In the photo, a tech official is telling me he isn’t going to sign-off on the car. On the other side of the car, my honorary team manager, Toshiro Mifune (pronounced Mifoony) is preparing to protest. Mifune was the most recognizable face in Japan having acted in some 150 movies. He played Mr. Honda in Grand Prix and was most well known as being a fierce (and sometimes crazy) Samurai warrior in Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai movies, especially my favorite, The Seven Samurai. His fierce on-screen performances were in stark contrast to his quiet and gentle nature off the screen. He loved cars and he was happy to accept my offer to be our honorary team manager for the race (I learned early on at Le Mans in France that it’s helpful to have a national “local” on the team). It certainly didn’t hurt that I had named this GT car of my design, the Samurai.
I had a strong relationship with Hino going back to 1964 when a U.S. actor, Bob Dunham, acting in Japan playing an American in their films, approached me about prepping a small Hino sedan race car for him that he could race in the states whenever he was back visiting. The car had good success and soon I had negotiated with Hino to let me run two Hino Contessas, one for Bob and one for myself to race and to also design and build a GT car for them that would run at Le Mans, the BRE Hino Samurai. Early in ’67 as I was designing and building the Samurai, a gentleman from Toyota walked into my BRE shop in southern California. He said he was there to see what I was working on for Hino. I told him that was confidential and asked him to leave. He said he’d be back. I immediately called my main contact at Hino and told him what happened. My contact said Toyota was making a bid to buy part of Hino. Toyota would benefit from Hino’s truck building expertise and Toyota would build their cars. He said very likely Toyota would become my new bosses so I should show the Toyota person whatever he wanted.
The next day the Toyota person came back and I let him in. He saw us building the Samurai and asked me what it was. I told him it was a GT car that would race at Le Mans in June and before that, the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway (Toyota owned Fuji Speedway). He didn’t say anything but I could tell he was pretty surprised. He came back the following week and told me Toyota didn’t need a GT race car and that I should stop the project. I explained I was under contract with Hino to finish the car and I had too much time and expenses invested to stop before being paid. To make a long story short, he ultimately asked me what amount of money I needed to stop the project. I contacted Hino again to make sure this was okay and they recommended I proceed with the offer. I told the guy what I would accept. He ultimately came back and said they’d pay it. Not really sure what was going to happen I continued to work on the car until payment was received and I knew the deal was real. He would occasionally stop by the shop to look around but he never brought the money. A week or two before the race he stopped visiting altogether.
With no payment I finished the car and loaded it onto a plane for Japan. The Samurai was a press sensation. What I did not know at the time, and only learned months after the race, was that Toyota had given the guy’s boss the money to pay me. Every week when the guy came by the shop, he saw the bare chassis in the center of the shop floor, the bonnet against one wall, front body work along another, etc. He didn’t understand how race cars are modular and told his boss he thought there was no chance the car would be finished. If the car wasn’t going to be finished there was no reason to give me the money so his boss pocketed the money for himself, told his bosses I had been paid, the car wouldn’t be at Fuji and told his guy not to bother coming by the shop again.
Toyota execs seeing myself and the glorious Samurai arrive in Tokyo were furious! They thought I had double crossed them. I not only learned later what happened with the money but I also found out that the reason Toyota didn’t want the car to become a reality is that they knew Hino’s stock price would go up if people saw Hino unveil this amazing GT race car at the Grand Prix. A higher stock price would mean Toyota would have to pay more to purchase part of the company. I was costing Toyota millions. They had blood in their eyes and I had no idea what was happening.
Toyota, owning Fuji Speedway, told the track officials they couldn’t pass the Samurai through tech. At each station a tech would come up with some reason the car wouldn’t pass, a tail light here, a seat belt arrangement there. Whatever they came up with we quickly fixed and the car would proceed to the next station. Toyota was seething. They went to the last station and told the tech official that under no circumstances was the car to pass tech.
That’s where we were when this photo was taken. Mifune being the star he was and the sensational looking Samurai coming in from the states (its name didn’t hurt either), there were tv camera crews and reporters following us the entire route. In the photo you can see people holding up recorders, microphones, etc off to the side. The tech, not having anything to point to that was wrong on the car, just proclaimed the car didn’t pass. When we asked why he said he didn’t have to tell us, it just doesn’t pass. Mifune challenged the official saying he must give us a reason. As you probably know, “saving face” is an important concept in the Japanese culture. To lose face is to lose respect or suffer embarrassment. The official turned to Mifune and mockingly asked him; “Who are you?” There couldn’t have been a worse insult for the most famous face in all of Japan. As cameras and recorders rolled, the gentleman Mifune put his hands on his hips (the moment seen in the photo), tensed up to where the veins on his neck were popping and his face turned purple, and turned into a Samurai warrior before our very eyes! The guttural onslaught Mifune unleashed upon the official was something I had never seen, nor seen since. The official practically melted into the pavement and the car was passed!
During practice I discovered the belly pan on the Samurai was scraping on the track’s surface from all of its downforce. It wasn’t something we were going to be able to fix and the car couldn’t run like this. Continuing to get pressure from Toyota not to run the car, without them knowing there was a problem with the car, I worked out an agreement that we would only do some slow parade laps and I would never run the Hino Samurai again. In return Toyota would allow me to design and build a GT car for them, the Toyota JP6. And that my friends, is another story (-: