Last October I had the chance to shake hands with one of my heroes. I was attending the launch of the Lexus LFA in Florida, and after taking a few hot laps around Homestead, I was offered a ride with Hiromu Naruse, Toyota's "Master Test Driver" and the man responsible for the automaker's first and last supercar.
At 66 years old, he put me to shame. Smooth inputs, graceful slides and nearly imperceptible throttle inputs had him lapping the track seconds faster than anyone in attendance. Including one race driver. But the LFA wasn't his greatest work.
Naruse-san helped create my childhood dream cars. Stapled above my Countach poster and a cutaway of the Acura NSX was a small picture of the Toyota 2000GT carefully snipped out of my first issue of Road & Track. That was his first baby and there were many more to follow.
While most of my Valley-born peers were interested in muscle cars and pickups, I was fawning over the Sprinter Trueno and the original MR2. When the Lexus IS300 showed up in the late '90s, I scammed my way into one of the first manual models at the local dealer and racked up 30 miles on to the odometer during an elongated "test drive."
Naruse-san was responsible for all of them, and now he's gone. One of the few men left at Toyota passionate about driving has exited stage right, and the automotive world stands to be a worse place without him.
Naruse-san joined Toyota in 1963 and after proving to be a math-wiz, almost landed a gig in the automaker's accounting division. As the cliche holds, fate – and talent – had different plans.
Within a few years he had established himself as one of Toyota's top test drivers and by the end of the 1960s he helped create the 2000GT and Toyota's first custom-built racer, the Toyota 7.
He eventually moved to Switzerland where he worked to establish the Toyota Motorsports group, leading to the automaker's initial participation in the Spa-Francorchamps and Nürburgring races – something he competed in to the very end.
While all that motorsports knowledge was distilled into the road cars he helped develop, at his heart, he was one of us – an enthusiast who, at damn-near 70, was still attacking the Touge on weekends.
In addition to the racecars and the iconic 2000GT, Naruse-san had a hand in every revolutionary product to come out of Toyota. You name it, he was working on it. The 1965 Sports 800. His. The 1600GT. Another one. Every iteration of the Celica. The AE86. The first and third generation MR2s. The Supra. The Altezza. And yes, even the second-generation Prius.
Not only was he instrumental in Toyota's rise, but test drivers and journalists around the world held him in the highest esteem. Known as the "Meister" by his peers and proteges, even the folks at Ferrari addressed him by his nickname – as one bio put it "the man who knows all the world's roads."
And when he wasn't blasting up the mountain passes of his homeland, he was at the Nürburgring. To this day, Naruse-san has logged more miles at the famed circuit than any other Japanese driver. So to end his life on a road outside the track holds an especially sad, if fitting, sentimentality.
When I spoke with him late last year, I stumbled over my words, his interpreter constantly trying to keep up with my incomprehensible blathering. I asked him about the development of the MR-S (which I owned at the time). I asked about the inspiration for the LFA and what it was like to drive the 2000GT. I went on and on, and each time his flustered interpreter would rattle off a few sentences and Naruse-san would pause, think for a moment and answer with a few short, carefully-chosen words.
He was soft-spoken, modest and incredibly warm. It was obvious he was excited about his latest creation; less interested in mulling over past masterpieces, the nearly decade-long development of the LFA and all the technology that had been poured into it. He was focused on the driving experience. How the LFA felt, how it spoke to him and what it was like to race around the 'Ring.
When we returned to the hot-pits, I pulled off my helmet, shook his hand again and thanked him for the ride with a (decidedly gaijin) "arigato." He smiled and tipped his helmet as I made way for the next journo.
I've had the chance to check off a lot of items on my Bucket List while doing this job, but I never thought to add "Seat Time with Hiromu Naruse" to the queue. His creations helped to shape not just Toyota, but nearly every automaker hailing from Japan. And he's largely responsible for all the things I adore about Japanese cars.
If there was ever a time that Toyota needed an injection of driving enthusiasm, it's now. And without Naruse-san to man the helm, his untimely demise will be felt more than ever.