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Hiromu Naruse's Creations – Click above for image gallery

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.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow, looking at the list of cars that Naruse-san was involved in developing, he must've had the best job in all of Toyota. What a shame.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This was a great post, Damon.

      Rest in peace Mr. Naruse.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Highly inappropriate place to set up your soapbox. Save the armchair pontificating for another post.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Well , he left this wicked world doing what he really loved ,
      and at least he died with his boots on.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Everyone's saying he made so many great cars. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't he a test driver & test engineer? which meant he did quality control and give feedback to the main engineers of the car? I'm sure he was an important part of the team but I'm wondering as to why you guys are saying he created the cars.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I'm not arguing that he has a very important role in it. But to say he is solely responsible for the cars is kinda absurd and misinformation. Again, I'm sure he influenced many aspects of the design and production, but it seems he is more on the QA side of it.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ LesPaul1

        I understand where your comming from on the sole responsibility part. No argument on my part as well.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Les Paul1

        Feedback, Test driving and Quality control is a major part of creating a car. Changes to the way a car originally looks, performs or feels to final sign off ready for production is down to the skills of people like Hiromu Naruse.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The only good that could come of this would be Toyota using this tragedy to bring back the old Toyota that made fun, good looking cars. I think that would be a great way to honor him.
      • 5 Years Ago
      What a terrible loss!

      The man who created so many wonderful cars is now totally gone. May his memory and cars live on forever!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow, so basically he was responsible for practically all the greatest sports cars that Toyota has ever made. What will Toyota do without him? What saddens me even more is that after reading this, there probably won't be a test driver or a Toyota employee who is as passionate in racing as he is.

      He is also lucky that all the touge racing did not kill him. It could have happened. He sure did live his life on the edge, and I'm glad that he at least survived to see the LF-A roll off the production line.

      I now feel sad about this tragedy.. Rest in peace. Condolences to his family and friends.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Responsible for the driving dynamics. Not the design. Not the engines. Not the suspension. By responsible, it means he provided input to the engineers on what to change, and how much. And possibly the designers, on the ergonomics, seating positions, etc. Again, not trying to minimize the impact of this great man, but the way AB wrote it, it sounds like he designed them. He did not. Nor did he engineer them. He was the test driver, who provided infinitely valuable feedback to the rest of the team.
      • 5 Years Ago
      "and the automotive world stands to be a worse place without him."

      Seriously, akin to Walter Röhrl, Murray, or Valentino Balboni passing... well dare I say, this man was more prolific than balboni.

      RIP Naruse. Few can match the utterly profound breath of this man's work and impact on the automotive world.

        • 5 Years Ago
        Well put.

        Damon, a fitting tribute to an automotive icon.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Am I the only one who is SUSPICIOUS about this accident ?

      It just seem so surreal
      • 5 Years Ago
      Rest in peace.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Really too bad. One has to wonder why he was on the wrong side of the road. I'm sorry for his family and friends, and for the occupants of the other car, and their family and friends.
        • 5 Years Ago
        BMW could have been swinging out wide during the high speed turn with a lot of understeer and continuing to encroach on Naruse's lane making Naruse to gun for the inside,

        but BMW driver upon seeing the LF-A instinctively swerved hard back into his lane hence the damage to the right side of LF-A and left side of BMW, bimmer must have swerved hard since the angle at which it sits is more side ways (you can also see the side curtain airbags deployed for BMW)
        • 5 Years Ago
        No real cause to speculate yet.

        No matter whose fault it is, he had a hazardous job that he was passionate about and excellent at. Even the finest drivers make mistakes, not that I am saying he did or did not.

        Just a tremendously awesome man who has now been lost. I celebrate his genius over many years. Here's hoping Toyota can live up to his ideals.
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