Timekeepers TIMEKEEPERS: TETSU IKUZAWA

Talking Porsche, Heuer, and other ‘toys’ with the Japanese motor racing legend.

5 min

In this series of interviews, we are meeting people for whom time really is of the essence. Our guests are real-life examples of how critical a millisecond can be. And it doesn’t hurt that they have some truly fascinating things to say on the subject… from entrepreneurs to some of the world’s best athletes, via time-walking wonders of all stripes (many of whom might as well be part-time philosophers), to discover how the best of the best keep, bend, or travel through time as we know it.

Tetsu Ikuzawa is a former driver, team executive, and an international style icon in the world of motorsports. He won the Japanese Grand Prix in ’64 and ’67, and was the first Japanese driver to compete in the major European championships, including Le Mans. His status as a collector is as legendary as his career, and not just as a keen enthusiast of cars – although he does own more than 70 Porsches. His “atelier” in Japan contains dozens of meticulously curated motorcycles, watches, phones, cameras, Nikes, magazines, and much more, all in mint condition.

One of the most prolific and successful drivers in Japanese history, his unstoppable passion played a large part in jump-starting Porsche’s racing reputation in Japan – and he’s been a bona fide Heuer fan for over sixty years. Join us for this truly joyful conversation with living motorsports history.

Tetsu Ikuzawa at Silverstone in 1967

1958

First of all Tetsu, no watch today? Where’s your Monaco?

 

[Laughing] My Monaco is on display. I’m at home in Tokyo.

 

Where do you keep your legendary collection?

 

50 minutes by car from here. You should come!

 

With pleasure! Sometime next year, hopefully. So to get started, tell us a little bit about your upbringing, and how you got into motor racing.

 

My first experience of motor racing was at 15, with a motorcycle. I remember I was so slow I was lapped and the race organisers started putting the next drivers on the grid by the time I finished the race. So they didn’t even allow me to cross the finish line! But I remember I had a huge smile on my face, thinking “this is the most enjoyable and the most exciting experience”, I was addicted.

Seeing all the motorcycles in your collection on your blog is incredible. What was your first?

 

There were hundreds of motorcycle manufacturers in Japan when I was a teenager, including Honda and Suzuki, but the small company that made my first one went bust a very long time ago. It was only 50cc. Really it was just a moped, but I was still really excited by it. This was in 1958.

And what was the racing scene like in Japan at the time?

 

There were no racing circuits in Japan [laughs].

 

So road motorcycles on a dirt track? Speedway style?

 

That’s right. Can you believe it ? Imagine the Wimbledon Speedway track with road racing bikes ! That was our only choice. Then I started to drive for Honda, on another 50cc bike, a Super Cub in 1959.

 

That’s amazing. The Super Cub is now one of the most widely produced vehicles in the world, but you were there at the very beginning. Did you build the relationship with Honda from there?

 

Well, one of Honda’s test drivers introduced me to Hirotoshi Honda [son of founder Soichiro Honda] when I was 14. We grew up together, rode bikes together and later went to the same university. So really the Honda company and I grew up together.

So what was your first experience of racing cars?

 

That was in 1963, at the Suzuka circuit, for the first Japanese Grand Prix. I drove for a company called Prince Motor Company, which has since been bought by Nissan. I drove for them in a Skyline Sports. And then at the second Japanese Grand Prix in 1964 I drove a Skyline GT, against a Porsche 904 [driven by Sokichi Shikiba]. That’s really when the Skyline GT started to make history known as the “Skyline GT Legend” moment.

 

Incredible. And after that you went to the U.K.?

 

That’s right. I wanted to be at the centre of motor racing. If you want to be a music star, you go to New York. If you want to be in the computer business, you go to Silicon Valley. At that time if you wanted to be in motor racing, you went to the U.K. So in 1964 I went to England, and the rest of Europe, as a tourist. I saw Formula 1, Formula 2… These were the first races I got to see with my own eyesI Then in 1966 I moved there. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t speak English very well . I had just enough money to buy a racing car. But I couldn’t hire my own mechanic. I couldn’t buy any spares. No money, no mechanic, no spares. But I loved it. I told myself “wow, this is it!”.

 

Even just getting from Japan to England in 1964 couldn’t have been an easy journey?

 

Then you had to take the South Sea route by BOAC, with a lot of stops. Hong Kong, Bangkok, Mumbai, Beirut. It took maybe 30 hours.

Ikuzawa’s Monaco next to his first Heuer wristwatch, a Chronosplit Manhattan GMT. The Monaco was a gift from his wife, and the engraving reads ‘Vive la vie de Monaco!’

And what did your family think of you doing this, were they supportive, or did they think you were crazy?

 

My father was an artist. He understood what I wanted to do, and he had nothing against it. I had saved my own money, and Prince Motor Company also supported the trip. They didn’t pay for everything, but they paid for that trip, so my father didn’t have to support me financially.

 

So how did you get started when you first moved to England?

 

First, I had to find a place to live, and I could only afford to pay 8£ per week ! For that price, all I found was a flat near Holland Park Station. Very small, very dirty, very damp basement flat. I caught 3 colds that winter.

There was a shop called Les Leston. You could buy every type of racing gear at their shop in London. Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, everybody went there. Everybody in motor racing knew that name. We had nothing like that in Japan at the time. So I got everything from there, my racing suit, my gloves, my boots and even my Heuer stopwatch!

 

Only the best! So what was it like being a Japanese guy who didn’t speak much English on the racing scene in the U.K? Was everyone very welcoming, or was that challenging?

 

It’s a big topic in the world : the issue of racism. But, I had no experience of racism growing up. I went to a Christian school run by an American priest  in Japan for 12 years, and I never experienced it. When I came to England everyone was very friendly and very kind. I had no problems or bad experiences. But then when I started to win, it was a little different [laughs]. But all the drivers were very good to me, always. I made a lot of friends through motor racing. When I joined Frank Williams’ team, in 1968, he took me to nice restaurants, high society nightclubs. I really enjoyed the London life. Frank Williams taught me well. And i’ve stayed in London ever since, it’s been 50 years now, it’s my home.

  • Regent's Park, London, 1969

And which drivers were you close to? Who were your very good friends during this period?

 

James Hunt, a little later. Tony Trimmer, definitely Trimmer. He was my mechanic at Motor Racing Stables Brands Hatch, before he started driving. We still exchange emails now. From ’68 I was racing in Europe a lot more, so I knew François Cevert, Ronnie Peterson… We used to chase girls together all the time when we travelled to different races so we were competing on and off the track (laughs). It was the good old days.

 

So when did you first come into contact with Porsche?

 

I wanted to go back to Japan for the Japanese Grand Prix in ‘67, but by this time Prince had been taken over by Nissan, and they had a lot of drivers so they didn’t want to hire me. They offered me good money to stop me from driving for another company. Since they didn’t have a driver’s seat for me to race in, I refused. So I had no money, and I wasn’t racing. I didn’t know what to do. But then a Porsche importer in Japan [Mitsuwa Motors] had a Porsche 906 – they had imported three and sold two, and wanted the other to race in the Japanese Grand Prix, except they didn’t have a driver. I went to see them, but they couldn’t pay me – they had the car, but no money. So they said I should get sponsorship. I accepted and asked around. Lots of people supported me : Pepsi, some fashion brands, lots of different companies. The importer had no racing experience, no mechanics, no money for tires. Nothing. So I talked to Bridgestone, and they agreed to come on board too. And at the time, they didn’t have any racing experience either, can you believe it?

 

So you go to Fuji and everything goes well?

 

At first, no. The engine didn’t work well, because it had been in a showroom for two years. We contacted Porsche and asked them to send a racing mechanic, and they did. But then we had no time to practice, no testing. We thought winning was impossible – just to finish would have been enough. But I did win. It was a miracle. So Nissan not hiring me was really my jumping board. Before this happened, Porsche were not a big name in the Japanese market at the time. But when I won against Toyota and Nissan, it was on the front page of all national newspapers. Since then I’ve had a great relationship with Porsche.

Japanese Grand Prix, 1967

Our relationship with Porsche is relatively new, but you have this amazing legacy with them. Tell us about your association with TAG Heuer. You mentioned buying a Heuer stopwatch at Les Leston in 1966.

 

Even before that, I knew someone who had bought a Heuer stopwatch travelling in London that was very very rare, and I bought it from him, so I was using one from maybe ’62 or ‘63.

 

The first year of the Carrera, so coming up to 60 years now. You, Derek Bell and Walter Röhrl are probably the only big names who have had a connection with Heuer for that many decades. Tell us why you initially chose Heuer, and what’s your relationship to our watches now? 

 

For me, there’s no choice. Accuracy is important. And Heuer watches are so awesome, design-wise. I wanted to be a designer myself, so naturally I was drawn to Heuer. I graduated from the Art University in Japan, with a degree in industrial design so I’m very passionate about that. I was supposed to be a designer, following in my father’s footsteps, not a racing driver ! But in Heuer designs, I found something that suited my taste.

 

And your first Heuer wristwatch was a Chronosplit Manhattan GMT, is that correct?

 

That’s right, I bought that watch on Bond Street. Obviously at that time we had no internet, and I often had to speak to sponsors in Japan, or other motor racing companies, so I always needed to keep track of the time in different time zones. That’s why that watch was so important to me. So Heuer and I have been together in lots of ways.

Ikuzawa’s Chronosplit Manhattan GMT

Why else do you think TAG Heuer has such a close association with people like you, and motorsports in general?

 

Maybe for some drivers timekeeping is just about racing equipment, but for me it’s also about fashion, and design. In the 60s not many people cared about stopwatches like I did. As I said, I wanted to be a car designer, and I want a watch to be designed in the same way a car is designed. So Heuer and Porsche together, I understand perfectly.

 

Talk to us about your legendary museum.

 

It’s not really a museum. I prefer calling it my ‘atelier’. Many kids have a toy box. My grandmother always said to me, everything is valuable. Everything has meaning. Don’t throw things away, and look after them. So I’ve kept everything. Even my original stopwatches and even my socks from high school [laughs].

 

So how many cars and motorcycles are in your toy box?

 

Do your kids count how many toys are in their toy box?

 

You’ve lost count?

 

I don’t count! Kids don’t have toys to show other people. They have them to play with, to enjoy. I started collecting for myself. Some people collect stamps. It’s the same thing.

Heuer chronometers from Tetsu Ikuzawa's personal collection

Lastly, your daughter Maï Ikuzawa is very involved in the automotive world now. Are you proud of what she’s doing?

 

She’s very famous and popular in the U.K. now in the automotive, fashion and design worlds, she’s the queen of cars! If you go to press days at any motor show you will find her. If you go to the Goodwood Festival you will find her. She’s always loved cars, and always wanted to be a racing driver! At first, I didn’t know what she was thinking, but then she went to racing schools in Silverstone, and Donington, and all the boys got very upset because she was quicker than them! And she loves Porsche even more than I do!

 

So the legacy continues! That’s a perfect place to finish Tetsu, thank you so much for talking to us.

First Japanese driver to take part in a race at Le Mans in 1973