A driver who had spent nearly half a century with one company, and not some niche automaker, but Toyota, one of the largest in the world.
Naruse climbed that company’s ranks to lead a global team of test drivers. His fingerprints could be traced across Toyota’s history of performance cars: the Sports 800, the 1600GT, the 2000GT, the AE86 Sprinter Trueno. The Corona, the Celica, the MR2, the Supra, the Altezza (our Lexus IS), the MR-S (MR2 Spyder). His legacy spanned decades, woven through the history of the modern fast car.
He had no hobbies, did not smoke or drink, and worked hard enough to leave an impression on others.
Naruse practically lived on the shop floor. Adachi said Naruse would stalk engineers in the upstairs cubicles. “He [would say], ‘Why are you sticking to your desks in the office? Why do you not touch the vehicles more often?’ ”
“He felt that if a car is not able to be competitive with those cars developed in Germany, it wouldn’t be a qualified car,” said Yurika Motoyoshi, a Toyota spokeswoman and Naruse biographer.
With the third-generation Supra, in the late 1980s, Naruse finally succeeded in convincing the company to ship prototypes to the Ring for testing. After that car’s success in the market, he assembled a squad of top test drivers, nicknamed the Naruse Team, that would travel to the Nürburgring for skill development. The team had its own rules. One, established early on, said that one Nürburgring test lap had to be completed for every rated horsepower of a new model. For a car like the Supra, that meant more than 300 laps. At roughly 10 minutes each.
In 2000, when company heir Akio Toyoda returned from a stint in the United States, preparing to assume the presidency, his father, former president Shoichiro Toyoda, suggested he meet with Naruse.
At the time, Toyota was deep in the throes of the Prius revolution. Much of the company’s engineering and culture were focused on a model that would legitimately change how the world viewed green cars. Toyota had not produced a competitive sports car since the Supra, and Naruse privately bristled at this drought. He also disliked the new hobby that Akio had picked up in America: golf. In his time there, the future president had barely touched a steering wheel.
If it wasn’t clear that Naruse had established himself as a hallowed presence within the company, that fact was cemented by one of the first things he said to Toyoda: “I don’t want to be preached to about cars by someone who doesn’t even know how to drive.”
So when the opportunity came to create the LFA, he jumped at it. Naruse was given complete authority of the project, even over the chief engineer—the first time anyone could recall that happening. Naruse insisted that the LFA be fully developed at the Nürburgring. He was not a damper engineer, but he chose Japanese supplier Kayaba (KYB) to build the dampers and helped them engineer every part. He was not a tire engineer, but he called Bridgestone engineers to Toyota’s testing facility and showed them exactly where to improve the tires—so many times that his colleagues lost count.
“Bridgestone engineers are thinking about tires 24 hours a day, but Mr. Naruse is not shy,” Katsumata said. “Then it turns out, he’s right.”
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