I think I have the automotive version of SAD (seasonal affective disorder): SAD-MC. As in, “Seriously, Another Dang Muscle Car?” Though SAD-MC would be an interesting DJ name.
There’s few things I dread more than a loss of interest. That something you once adored, all of a sudden having all the appeal of gray cardboard. Pizza’s delicious, but I wouldn’t and couldn’t eat it every day. It’s the same with cars.
I love visiting car shows, and talking to owners and fellow enthusiasts. But I live in the Midwest; I’m sorry, there’s only so many times I can walk past a row of the same shiny muscle cars, endlessly repeated, while rockabilly plays in the background.
But I had similar thoughts about Detroit’s Autorama custom car show this year, and I still enjoyed myself. My local Monday Night Car Show may be mostly American metal, but there’s some cool stuff sprinkled in at times (like that Toyota Sera). And recently at Northeastern Illinois University’s Chicago campus, after reading about it in Andrew Collins’ Petersen Museum experience, I went to a Hot Import Nights show for the first time.
I didn’t know quite what to expect—gallons of energy drinks? Speakers rattling enough to blast the fillings outta my mouth? Exhaust fumes competing with vape clouds for Most Annoying Eye Irritant? Cops on stand-by for the first hint of a burnout?
But I was game to see something new, so I popped in my FLCL OST CD to set the mood, and drove into the balmy Chicago night.
Yes, there was some vaping. Bumper-rattling bass was, in some cases, one of the tamer mods on display. And NOS, as it happens, was handing out free samples. But I didn’t need to drink a drop. Even when 3 am came around, I couldn’t sleep. Because Hot Import Nights left me more excited than I can remember in a long time.
Hell, the parking lot got me on a runner’s high.
Not every day a 3000GT VR-4 and a race-ready AE86 (aka the most beloved drift car in the world) serve as commuters. Also not the last time an icon would be parked next to its spiritual successor.
The actual show itself wasn’t terribly spread-out—about two parking lots worth—but it didn’t need to be. On one end, a bangin’ stage hosting the tongue-twisting talents of Twista served as the perfect backdrop. Every else—the cars.
The magic carnival started literally as soon as I walked past the check-in.
This Mazda RX-3 SP isn’t JDM—it was called the Savanna in Japan, and the ‘sports package’ SP trim is more of a US appearance pack—but it is a 70s-styled shrine to the rotary engine, a status it wears almost literally on its sleeve. Its sweet, sweet sleeve.
Why don’t more cars come with plaid seats?
I wish I could’ve captured the exhaust note: it somehow combined the most viscerally satisfying notes of a buzz-saw, a typewriter, a Swiss wristwatch, and a stove-top percolator. Instant music.
If the RX-3 was a study in subtlety, the next car was an exercise in exuberance.
Many modify their Toyota MR2 Spyders to make them more effective racers. This owner, however, saw the word ‘spyder’, and clearly thought, “I think I can go further.”
This car has more webs than just the ones in the frunk, though. It’s got to have enough wiring to link up all the screens.
Seriously, they were freaking everywhere.
Now, I will freely admit I’m not the biggest fan of pure-show cars. There’s no way this MR2 Spyder was road-legal. Its purpose is clearly to wow passer-by and showcase the dedication and talent of its owner, not to drive on the pockmarked Chicago streets.
And yet. This was one hell of a showcase. The color and striping were beautiful; the lights were, dare I say it, tasteful. And it takes a certain mad genius to make an MR2 Spyder less practical without adding a splitter.
I found I was letting myself be blown away by it. I remember asking myself, “Am I being a hypocrite for liking this? Or is it just so insane it gets a pass?”
That question would have to wait, though, because my jaw had just hit the asphalt.
Sweet holy mother of Speedhunters—an R34. My dream car; standing right in front of me, not being crushed or impounded or anything. And not just any R34. This is the actual hero car from Fast & Furious.
A friend of mine (and fellow FF fan) commented on Instagram that it was actually powered by a VW engine—the horror!—but the official @r34_ff4 profile set the record right: while one stunt car did have a rear-mounted VW V6, under the hood of the car in these pictures is a true blue RB26.
We need more blue cars.
Green, though, is also good. Especially when it’s on a 1978 Toyota Hilux. I know hood-mounted mirrors aren’t as useful as modern ones, but they look amazing.
The owner clearly knows it isn’t easy being green—with envy, that is—and helpfully included an item for color-matching.
By now, I was starting to go deeper and deeper into the parking lot, and the sun was starting to go down. Luckily, the cars were able to light my way in a hybrid rainbow of color.
I don’t know exactly how, but this was one subtly cool Subaru. And yes, I do realize I’m saying that about a car with a wing wider than its bodywork and what looks like an updated Windows Media Player Visualizer in the back. But it didn’t blast you over the face with light, and those wing struts look almost architectural from some angles.
Speaking of not face-blasting you with light, this RX-7 kept it simple with color-changing under-body lights and a nod to the owner’s favorite video game series. That’s the beauty of Hot Import Nights: nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted.
Like non-Japanese performance cars lit up in true Fast & Furious style. What, did I ever say this was Hot Japanese Import Nights?
The Corvette was my favorite. I guess ann import’s an import, even if it’s an import fighter.
Like the MR2 above, this was customization turned to 11,000. But whether it was the in-wheel lights, the bumping stereo, or Twista’s sweet rhymes blasting from the sound stage, I couldn’t come down.
And if you’re starting to get sick of the lights, there were more than enough cars which stood out without any LEDs.
I don’t know what engine is in this 1982 Toyota Corolla wagon, but this might be The Very Essence of Jalop. And possibly the coolest Toyota on the streets today.
Can I still call this an ‘electric’ blue Civic, even with all that VTEC, yo?
Even this Datsun 510 got in on VTEC.
Rounding out the Church of VTEC was its Pope: an Integra Type R, blessed by Spoon.
Long may it rev.
I paused a bit here, where this great last dinosaur met the first of the new-school monsters.
I remembered one life ago, with my job duties taking me to an American automaker’s factory, where ‘foreign’ brands had to park further away from the doors. A sad relic of the days when the 280Z’s predecessors bloodied the likes of the first-gen Ford Mustang and MGB with their better handling and ability to hold their oil. Ditto that Datsun 510 and the European rivals which inspired it.
I thought about my early days as an auto enthusiast, when late 90s Corolla beige-mobiles filled me with disgust. And yet, today I dig the R32's crisp Q-ship lines hard.
I thought about how I’ve changed, and how the import car scene around me has, too.
And as I pondered, I found a scene straight out of the movies.
Here, reminiscing on the moment I first heard Don rumble about living life a quarter-mile at a time, is where it all clicked for me.
Hot Import Nights does have nostalgia. Of course it does. Every generation looks back to its past. The music and cars we enjoy today will one day be, culturally, looked upon the same way we view the Beatles and the Volkswagen Beetle. Today’s edgy album is tomorrow’s classic oldie. The rock playing at Monday Night Car Shows was as fresh to the vintage car owners as My Chemical Romance was to me in high school. I bet that’s when they first saw their dream machine, too.
The muscle and pony cars, new and old, that dominate many local car shows share many things with the Japanese muscle at Hot Import Nights. Outrageous power, ridiculous noise, dedicated fan-base, certain “standard” ways to modify your ride, and an intense desire to find an unmolested set of wheels.
So what’s different? The attitude. The attitude that led the MR2's owner to install screens everywhere they could possibly fit. The one that’s responsible for the wings on a WRX, or the Assassin’s Creed artwork on that RX-7.
Yes, some people want to be Paul Walker, the same way that some want to be Steve McQueen or James Bond. But I saw far more modified cars in the NIU parking lot than I’ve ever seen outside of Autorama. But at the latter, the wildest customs most likely never saw an inch of pavement. In contrast, trailer-only cars were the exception, not the rule, at Hot Import Nights.
If some car shows feel like a museum, an attempt to preserve at all costs, then Hot Import Nights is the antidote. Not a preservation of what was, but a celebration of what cars like the R32, the WRX, the Lancer Evo, the original M3, and even a little buster like the Civic inspired: a generation of tuners and enthusiasts. A following of machines that were a nexus of old and new—manual gearboxes, no safety nets, and light weight, with ECUs and modular design. A bridge for “young” enthusiasts to the old world, and old enthusiasts to the new.
The bands at Monday Night Car Shows have started sneaking in some Fall Out Boy. Ride on, you shooting stars.