Shige Suganuma- 1970s Kalifornia Dreamin’ and MOONEYES

Story: Mike McCabe

Images: Shige Suganuma

California culture has always been associated with the impulse to move. The possibility to move faster got complicated during the 1960s around cars and motorcycles in youth dominated Golden State moto culture and permanently changed the world. Key creative personalities Dean Moon, Kenneth Howard (Von Dutch), the Barris brothers, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth and others merged krazy fabrication ideas with “Hey Daddy-o” hipster lingo to create a new Hell on Wheels, Kustom Kulture individual.

Ed Roth’s Rat Fink image became a weirdo alter-ego mascot for a generation in need to reinvent itself. Roth said, “Whenever I looked at that drawing (Rat Fink), I felt I was looking, for the first time at reality, my reality. The world that my parents, teachers, and responsible type people all around me belonged to wasn’t my world. Why did I have to be like them, live like them? I didn’t. And Rat Fink helped me realize that.

Today in Japan, Shige Suganuma and his Yokohama based MOONEYES has dropped nostalgia, style, velocity and sense of self into Kustom Kulture overdrive, but his story stretches back to 1977 California. At twenty-one years old with little English language ability, Shige boarded a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles for a three week trip in search of parts for his 1960 T Bird. He traveled LA free-ways and was completely overwhelmed (kid in a candy shop) by the scale, historical depth and diversity of California moto-culture. He was literally surrounded with the shiny, iconic, preserved cars, vans and bikes of his dreams. Dizzy from the intensity of the situation, Shige pulled over more than once to catch his breath. His camera documented everything: he thought without the photos, friends back in Japan wouldn’t believe a word of it.

Shige somehow found his way to a drag strip where he witnessed the drama of high octane fuel elimination racing for the first time and met an enthusiast also from Japan, Chico Kodama (who would later become president of MOONEYES USA). Shige returned to California in 1978 as an exchange student until 1981

History writes itself sometimes── a young, motivated Shige followed his gut into Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs and became an inquisitive regular visitor. Shige learned Moon was a legend in SoCal drag racing culture and had designed a twin carb fuel block system of increased fuel delivery and horsepower. Moon’s marketing flair combined innovative ideas with a sense of the showman to sell his products. His funky barefoot shaped MOON gas pedal and small 3.5-gallon MOON dragster gas tank (A front mounted system using natural rear-forced gravity to literally push the fuel into the twin carbs), MOON Disc wheel covers (to reduce wind drag and shave off time) quickly became must-have hot rod accessories and sold in the thousands. Shige also learned the double eye MQQN logo started at a local drag race during the late 1950s: Dean’s car was numbered 00 but as a joke, somebody painted in eyes and the MOON EYES logo had been born.

During the Korean War, Moon was in the Air Force photography unit and he was skilled with a camera. The walls of Dean’s Santa Fe Springs MOON Equipment shop were covered with his framed black and white photos of cars at local drag strips but also on the dry alkali lake bed at El Mirage and on the salt at Bonneville. El Mirage was only one-hundred miles from LA in the western Mojave and a favorite destination for illegal street racers who congregated there instead of being arrested on LA streets. Speed trial culture at Bonneville had long been legendary since the 1930s. These photos became a pictorial history lesson for Shige about how Dean’s ingenuity, speed products and personal sense of flair influenced the early days of California hot rod culture with mythological status. Dean took the enthusiastic Shige under his wing and guided him through the horsepower learning curve. Soon after, Shige became a fixture at the shop and good friends with both Dean and his wife Shirley.

Dean Moon passed away at 60 in 1987 and Shige and Chico purchased the company in 1992. They split the company with Chico maintaining the original MOON Equipment shop in Santa Fe Springs, California and Shige developed MOONEYES in Yokohama, Japan. Shige sensed there was an opportunity to nurture interest about exotic California hot rod culture and the MOON brand. Mathematically, the physical force of horsepower could be reduced to the cold, simple equation: H= T x rpm/5252 (horsepower equals pound feet of torque multiplied by rpm and the constant 5252). Dean, and now Shige and Chico understood there was a deeper emotional preoccupation not explained by that equation.

“This growth of interest in Kustom Kulture has been an interesting thing to watch,” Shige said. “Japan is an interesting place in terms of how it processes cultural information from the outside world. In Japan, there has been this unique relationship with America among many young people. The myth of space and freedom and driving that is seen as an act of transformation has always fascinated me. Japan is a small place and the culture has strictness to it. Young people in Japan see America as this place that is big── big, powerful, cool looking cars; long highways that go across huge expanses of space like Route 66 through the desert. The whole thing is a dream to Japanese young people.”

Within a few years Shige developed a calendar of well attended hot rod, motorcycle and car accessory events and his annual Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show (30 year anniversary 2021) served to educate and empower a curious Japan and world. The process has come full circle for Shige── international moto-subculture is intrigued by the same California mystique he explored and photographed as a kid during the 1970s. MOONEYES Yokohama now boasts of a deep collection of iconic cars and motorcycles that express the relationship between humans and their kustom life.


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