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Summit County collector spotlights Japanese cars in 'A Quiet Greatness'

Car cruises in Northeast Ohio feature plenty of muscle cars alongside British roadsters and Porsches. Yet, classic Japanese cars are slowly getting their due as well. A new 1,400-page book, "A Quiet Greatness," shows the scope of what Toyota, Honda and other Eastern automakers have produced over the past six decades. One of the authors is 67-year-old Myron Vernis, a noted Summit County car collector.

Myron Vernis: It was a six-year project. My co-author [Mark Brinker] and [I]… are enthusiasts about all kinds of cars. We started collecting Japanese cars about 10 years ago. There really wasn't a depth of knowledge in this country about the cars. The common misconception about Japanese cars, even among the enthusiast market was that Japan never really had any cool cars. What we always used to say is, the Japanese were like the French with their wines: They kept the best cars for themselves. So, we set out a few years ago to write a book. It was going to be 300 pages, then mission creep set in and it ended up at 1,400 pages [with] 2,200 images. It’s basically a 35-pound boxed set. We had photographs from all over the world, even from Malaysia and… Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, obviously Europe and then all over the United States. We commissioned photography. We had access to all the archives of the major manufacturers. Actually, we found photos that they didn't even know they had.

Ideastream Public Media’s Kabir Bhatia: Yet neither of you speaks Japanese or Malaysian or anything, right?

Vernis: No, not a word. And we've never been to Japan. We were scheduled to go in October 2020, and then that little virus got in the way. So we never made it.

"A Quiet Greatness" started as a few hundred pages, but ended up as a 35-pound, four-volume set.
Myron Vernis
"A Quiet Greatness" started as a few hundred pages, but ended up as a 35-pound, four-volume set.

Bhatia: How did you decide which vehicles to put in? Was it supply and demand? Cars you could get to, or what?

Vernis: No, it’s totally subjective. We spent probably eight or nine months just making lists of cars that we thought were cool. So, it's not the greatest Japanese cars necessarily, or the best-selling Japanese cars, or every Japanese car. It's not an encyclopedia about Japanese cars; it's just cars that we found intriguing. The deeper we dug, the more intriguing cars we found. Which is how it went from 300 pages to 1,400 pages. We say that the most expensive part of the project wasn't printing the book and doing all the artwork. It was discovering cars that we then had to go buy. I think he ended up buying 10 cars, and I ended up with eight or more cars. That was the fun part, but also the most expensive part of the project.

Bhatia: Did you find in doing this that there was a cultural shift happening? Especially with American consumers becoming more and more accepting of these cars. Maybe as Pearl Harbor became more of a memory? Or was it that the cars were just getting better and better?

Vernis: German cars, American cars, Japanese cars, [all] cars have been getting better and better for years, contrary to what some people will tell you. Now, the cultural shift is a big part of it, which is really how we both got into Japanese cars. I'm in my 60s. I've been a car enthusiast my whole life. I was into old Porsches for the longest time, and I've kind of watched that culture of people my age get a little bit old and bitter. And I got tired of hearing, “Young kids don't care about cars.” We discovered Japanese car meets that would happen at night, and I'm three times as old as anybody there. But their enthusiasm for old Toyotas or old BMWs was just the same as my enthusiasm was back then. They bought cars that they could afford for two-or-three-thousand bucks and, over time, they put every paycheck into it. So, the passion was just as much there… the passion hasn't changed. They don't hear about ‘57 Chevys, they care about SR-5 Corollas and things like that. Or Mazda RX-7's or Miatas. For me, it was kind of a rejuvenating thing. What really hit home for me was, I went to the Japanese car show at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles about seven or eight years ago. I was the oldest and whitest person there but fit right in because these folks had every bit of the passion that I remember from 50 years ago when I was buying thousand-dollar Porsches and trying to figure out a way to make them run well, as cheaply as possible. It really kind of brought back my passion for the hobby.

Bhatia: Are you finding that, out west especially, it is more diverse? But also, they don't use salt on the roads, so these vehicles are a lot easier to find than in Northeast Ohio.

Vernis: The survival rate is much higher there. You still see vintage Toyotas and Volkswagens and things like that on the roads used for daily transportation. As a result, there's much more support. There are shops out there that'll work on those cars, and parts are stashed out there.

Some of Japan's most interesting cars were never exported to the U.S. The gray vehicle is a stand-issue, American-spec 1974 Toyota Corolla. Its green cousin is a "Sprinter Trueno," never sold here, which takes the Corolla template and upgrades the mechanicals for a sportier driving experience.
Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Some of Japan's most interesting cars were never exported to the U.S. The gray vehicle is a stand-issue, American-spec 1974 Toyota Corolla. Its green cousin is a "Sprinter Trueno," never sold here, which takes the Corolla template and upgrades the mechanicals for a sportier driving experience.

Bhatia: When you buy a car, how do you find something like that when you’re based in Summit County in Ohio? There must be some interesting stories about doing this from across the country?

Vernis: Well, I'll tell you there's one. There's a Honda 1300 Coupe, which is interesting because it's the last car that Dr. Honda engineered for the company. This was a ‘72. My first JDM [Japanese Domestic Market] car was a Honda 1300 Coupe. That was done through a friend, but the second one that I bought - which is now in the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville - it was a pretty interesting story. I've been looking for a later one, more of a high performance one, and this car turned up in Los Angeles. I'd been talking to the owner about selling it, and he wanted way too much money. I wasn't going to spend the money. He was a Japanese national and his main business was importing Japanese high-performance motorcycles to this country. I talked to him for a couple of years. One day I get a call from the guy who was his landlord who said, “I found your number, do you want this car?” Apparently, the guy was bringing these motorcycles over illegally and changing the serial numbers. So, he'd gone to jail and was deported to Japan and the car was sitting in this locker. And the [price of the Honda] was right. It wasn't free, but the number is what I had offered the guy like two years before. It became a little bit of a paperwork nightmare, because he imported the Japanese car illegally too, but that thing worked out.

Myron Vernis grew up as a Porsche lover, but discovered a new passion for Japanese vehicles in the 21st century. He wrote "A Quiet Greatness" with Mark R. Brinker.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
Myron Vernis grew up as a Porsche lover, but discovered a new passion for Japanese vehicles in the 21st century. He wrote "A Quiet Greatness" with Mark R. Brinker.

Bhatia: As far as car shows around here, it's mostly from about ‘57 Chevys to maybe mid-70s muscle cars. When you show up with something like a Toyota Corolla Sprinter or [Toyota] Century, what's the reaction from guys your age?

Vernis: Most don't care. That's a fact. The difference is, it doesn't bother me. I don't go to get adoration for things. I drive what I like. There's a cruise-in that happens in Tallmadge every Tuesday night. I took my Mazda Cosmo the other day, and I just kind of walked away. I don't think anybody looked at it the whole time it was there. I saw cars, I talked to a couple owners and went back. I didn't look at any of the ‘57 Chevys that were there. I can’t be [annoyed] that they're not looking at my JDM car if I'm not looking at their car.

Bhatia: So, getting back to the book, of the vehicles that are actually in there, give us a few that are your particular favorites that you don't own.

Vernis: That I don't own? Well, the Toyota 2000GT, obviously, is probably the standout. Subjectively, the most beautiful Japanese car ever made. Not the world's greatest performer, [and] kind of a failure as a race car. But still, the iconic Japanese vintage collector car. It was featured in a James Bond movie [“You Only Live Twice”]. They made 330 cars. They were all coupes, but Sean Connery was too tall. So, they took two and chopped the tops off so he could fit in the car for the movie. [Another is the] Nissan Pulsar GTI-R. My friend Mark has two of them, so I may end up with one of them one of these days. Those are the two that come to mind right away, but opposite in the spectrum, right? That's the other great thing about cool Japanese cars: They're very affordable. People are saying these things are too affordable. That was the other thing that happened with the Porsche culture. All the folks my age, all they could talk about was how much their cars were worth. And then the fun goes out of the hobby. The JDM community is still grassroots and very much tips and help. It's very much a real community.

Bhatia: With all of this information, you could have just made a giant website. What compelled the two of you to say, “This has got to be a substantial object that's printed.”

Vernis: We're old and we like books. It'll probably end up going online at some point, but there's something special about seeing these great photographs and touching them and being able to keep them for generations and share them. A lot of magazines want to do reviews, and we really struggled with that because they want electronic copies. But then you lose 50% of the book. To me, the value is the tactile portion of it, and you just can't double duplicate that online.

Bhatia: No matter what form [the book] had taken, are you sensing this might be kind of the swansong of the combustion engine? Because there's not going to be much after this, I wouldn’t think, that's gas-powered that would be included in a book like this. What do you think?

Vernis: No. It might be the swansong of the combustion engine, but I don't think it really matters. Car passion is car passion. I love the smell of gasoline. I love the sounds that gasoline combustion engines make, but I also love electric cars. I have two or three electric cars, [and] had them for decades, before it was cool. So no, this book has nothing to do with whether it's a swansong or not.
If we found electric cars that we thought were cool to put in the book, we would do that. We weren't going to put a Prius in there, even though the Prius was a very, very important car. We have a hybrid - the newest generation Honda NSX - in the book, which is an amazing car: electric motors and the big twin turbocharged V6. So, it has nothing to do with internal combustion or not.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.
Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.