How you found your way to your current car obsession might have been handed down from a parent, could be a product of your peers or, if you’re anything like artist Jun Imai of Kaido House, it was the miniature version of the cars you’ve come to love that managed to draw you in. Able to hold your short attention span, even in your earliest years, for many, once it sets in you’re all but hooked on modifying and personalizing your machinery of choice.
For Imai, it all began with R.C. cars, his first real encounter occurring at just 5 years old. While living in Japan, his parents handed him a Tomy Skyline Silhouette and having gone through more sets of batteries than he can possibly remember, it proved to be money well spent. Fun as it was, the real experience was discovered at age 11, when a Tamiya Blackfoot was the one birthday present that fascinated Imai most – an R.C. car that he still owns today. He adds, “That experience of assembling the kit from start to finish, painstakingly painting the body, applying all of the stickers, then doing that first wide-open throttle pass down the street sounds extremely familiar to us in the 1:1 world. Once you get into the option parts in RC, it’s game over. Plastic was replaced with FRP and graphite, steel replaced with alloys and titanium. Motors doubled or tripled the top speed and repairs became very expensive. One can easily tell how the passion of “build, race, rebuild, repeat” in R.C. transfers to real cars.”
Discovering a Hidden Talent
Those early days influenced Imai’s entire life and his growing stable of full-size Japanese cars is proof, but along the way he discovered an incredible talent for dissecting and modifying diecast cars. “I rediscovered diecast cars while in college at Art Center College of Design. I was out looking for some inspiration for a car design project and happened to come across the Hot Wheels section at a local drugstore in Pasadena. I found one of my favorite cars, a ’64 Lincoln Continental – it was white, with a red interior. I’ve always wanted to build a black ’64 Continental bagged on whitewalls, so I disassembled the Hot Wheels car and made it the way I wanted it. That set off a feeling of accomplishment, a satisfaction in a way, and scratched that customizing itch I couldn’t get to at school. I found more diecast cars I liked- a Mercedes 190E, Pikes Peak Celica, ’69 Chevy C10, and started cutting them up and having fun. It was a great way to blow off some steam from the stress of design. It’s interesting to think that after college and brief periods in the car studios, I’d end up working for Hot Wheels.
Imai’s 14-year tenure at Hot Wheels began as temp designer and ended as Director of Product Design. “Working my way up the ladder to Director at Mattel was a crowning achievement in my career. I took pride in leading a world class design team and contributed to the product that earned the status as the #1 selling toy in the world. I felt that I had gained all the expertise I could in diecast design.” Wanting to explore other opportunities, he would eventually part ways with Mattel to head in a completely different direction. “I was tapped on the shoulder to enter the world of A.I. and build something that had never been done before – an autonomous race car series. I joined Roborace in the summer of 2018 as Product Director, and it was mind blowing. I had the experience of a lifetime with the group and am forever grateful. In 2020 I was invited to join a growing EV startup, Canoo, as Program Director and decided to join them. I’ve been working on some incredible vehicle projects there. But the role SS readers are likely more interested in is “Head Chef” of Kaido House, a car culture brand I created some time ago but has recently become somewhat of a thing in the 1:1 and 1:64 world.”
More than just a “thing,” the Kaido House brand is on fire as of late, with Imai churning out some incredible scratch-built, one-off customs that fans and collectors purchase moments after they’re released, and there’s no shortage of collectors. In fact, a waiting list was originally put together, and had over 100 buyers committed, but Imai moved away from that business model and instead began offering each of his customs through his website on a first-come basis in order to avoid lengthy waiting periods for those that might end up at the bottom of the list.
For a better idea of what drives the brand, Imai explains, “Kaido House is “Car Culture For All Scales ” and that is exactly what it is. At first, it was a very personal brand where it was my creative space to express freely in the form of diecast and full-size car projects. A space with no limits. Kaido House challenges the status quo. Why do what everyone else is doing? It’s all about that character. I strive to have Kaido House projects drip with distinctive flavor. I try to apply this concept in every car project I do, which is why many of my builds take on a sort of unexplainable look that makes it “Kaido House”. Now the brand has a growing fan base which I am truly grateful for, along with several top tier auto and consumer product partners who see where the brand is going.”
One of Jun Imai’s Current Full Size Projects:
Turbo KA-swapped 510 wagon
Having designed and created hundreds of small-scale customs and also managing his full-size car obsession which includes a number of old school Japanese favorites, I was curious as to which one took priority from an artist’s perspective. “The canvas doesn’t matter. When a completed diecast custom ships to its new owner, it’s the same feeling as getting that project car off the jack stands and taking it out for a rip down the street. I build for myself, the brand, and the people. We all win through the shared experiences and keep it rolling into the next one. I’ll be working on my real cars in the garage, then go to my build table and start work on the diecast customs. The scales may be different, but the love is all the same.”
When asked about his process, Imai explains that he prefers to do what feels right, rather than sticking to any sort of specific order or guideline. “I used to approach customs methodically, but now it is purely random and by feel. I don’t take requests from individuals as this limits expression. I believe this is a very different approach as I do not offer customization as a service. It is rather a creative outlet for myself and my ideas. I view a diecast car as a blank canvas full of creative freedom. I can cut, grind, paint, and detail to whatever style I am feeling at that moment. Recently I have been experimenting with weathering and patina, and I call these works the DESTROY series. These are great fun as there is no planning. Only full commitment with paints, brushes and an airbrush. I often get lost in this process, in a good way. Doing decals and clearcoat in a pristine execution is an appreciated skill, but that can get boring. I much prefer to freestyle and build with no end target.
Not unlike many of us, a build that doesn’t function isn’t a true build in Imai’s eyes. He notes, “Every custom I do has to have the proper stance, detail, build quality and presentation. Every custom I build, no matter how slammed it is, rolls. I have a saying that many fans have picked up on, ‘don’t show me a car that doesn’t roll’. This is true. To me a custom that doesn’t roll is no better than a car that doesn’t work. A custom car at any scale is art in motion. Not a static piece.
Obviously not every enthusiast has the means to pick up a Kaido House custom, but Imai is looking to change that. The first step is the olive green and purple 510s you see here. “Our first release, an all-new Pro Street Datsun 510, is taking the diecast world by storm with many firsts, such as the alloy wheels on a mass produced 1:64 diecast car, and the unique finishes on the chassis.”
The details included on the Kaido House x Mini GT release echo those made to Imai’s personal builds. “When you pop the hood of the Pro Street 510, you’ll see the exact same GReddy KA24DET that was built for my wagon, along with the distinctive livery that appeared on my wagon almost 10 years ago. And when was the last time you saw a Pro Street 510 in 1:64 diecast, slammed on Japanese 4-spokes and a turbo I-4? This is the Kaido House way.”
Imai’s involvement with this new project covers every angle, from start to finish and he seems to relish in the hands-on effort, adding, “This product line will also serve as a way for me to create endlessly. Designing and developing the tooling, graphics, packaging, marketing programs, everything, is extremely challenging and fulfilling. I’m truly grateful for the buzz in the air around this product line. The new Kaido House x Mini GT product line represents the next level in my diecast journey. It does offer a premium, Kaido House designed and branded product at a very competitive price point with a high level of content. It’s a very different product than my 1/1 customs, but it definitely creates an opportunity for fans to own a distinctive product that’s a bit easier to add to their collections.”
There’s more to come from the Kaido House and Mini GT collaboration, as Imai notes, “Our 2nd new vehicle release will be a wide 510 wagon but modified as a 2 door with an inline 6 engine. Again, the Kaido House way. Every vehicle design that is created in this line is a representation of what I would like to build in full scale. There will be no stock vehicles in the Kaido House x Mini GT product line. In addition, there will be a diverse mix of styles and flavors which has really helped define Kaido House. Everything will be a bit on the unconventional side. I look forward to progressing the line and seeing where it takes us. The first release of OG Green and OG Purple have sold out on presale, but the 2nd release will be announced soon and that one will be a drop no one should miss. You’ll all see why soon. Stay tuned on my IG’s, @kaidohouse and @kaidohousegarage (diecast specific) for more details on when they’ll drop and where you can get them. Also stay up on minigt.com and kaidohouse.com for all of the details as well.”
Sidenote: Deconstructing a 510
Along with the box full of customs that Imai brought to our quick get together at GReddy Performance Products, he also brought a deconstructed version of the Pro Street 510 in order to give me an idea of how these start and end.
This is the interior, engine top, and wheels in their raw form.
This red body is a 3D printed version created by Imai.
From there bits and pieces are added, additional changes made and eventually it moves into a second iteration shown here in grey next to the final metal body which will make its way toward completion.
The finished product with all of its intricacies, paint, and graphics work, ready for delivery.