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The Coolest Man In Japan, The Extraordinary Real-life Story of Toyota Racing Legend Sachio Fukuzawa: Part One

as told by R.J. O’Connell and Hiroshi Fushida

There’s little doubt that what follows here is a work of some passion from RJ O’Connell.

He’s been researching this piece for some time, and it shows! And to do so he’s had some excellent assistance from the always approachable and excellent Hiroshi Fushida, ex Maki F1 driver before holding senior roles at TOMS Toyota and Dome, and now guiding the racing adventures of his friend Nobuya Yamanaka.

Put aside a moment, or for as long as it takes to read this, and read on about the extraordinary story of a man little known outside of Japan, but idolised there.

“Racing driver. Fashion designer. Model.”

“At the time, Sachio Fukuzawa was an idol. He had many titles. First, being a racing driver.

Furthermore, being an executive director of the fashion brand Edward’s. He was also a male model. He often worked late nights to pursue his many passions.”

“On 12 December, he was scheduled to shoot a video for TBS TV’s morning show, Young 720, at 2 PM. But the shoot was rescheduled to 9 PM. Around 9 AM, Sachio woke up in Tokyo, and had a late breakfast before going to the Toyota Motorsports Club office located at the Toyota Motor Sales building in the Kudan neighbourhood of Chiyoda ward.”

“He rolls through the city in his Toyota 2000GT. It’s a car fitting of his style. The passersby look in awe as he drives through the city.”

From the editorial team of auto sport Magazine, 15 April 1969.

Sachio Fukuzawa was one of the greatest drivers to emerge from the formative years of motor racing in Japan, but there’s more to his incredible true story than just a blossoming racing career cut short by his tragic death in a testing accident at the age of 25. He was a gifted, fiercely competitive driver on the track, and he was a sharp, devastatingly handsome gentleman away from the track. He was a Japanese interpretation of Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. Beloved and respected in his time, celebrated in racing and fashion, his true story is greater than any fictitious tale could ever embellish.

He was, as the Weekly Sankei Magazine wrote in a headline story published a month prior to his death: “The Coolest Man in Japan.”

Little has ever been told of the early life of the man known simply as Sachio (often erroneously known in some publications as “Yukio”), who was born in Paris during World War II, on 18 June 1943. His father, Shintaro, was a Japanese law professor working abroad in the Japanese foreign embassy. His mother, Acrivy, was a Greek musician, studying her craft as a classical soprano vocalist across Europe. Sachio was the oldest of two children – his younger sister Emi, born three years later in Japan, would become a renowned artist and sculptor. And then there’s his great-grandfather, Yukichi Fukuzawa – the celebrated scholar, author, educator, philosopher, and social reformer who led the cultural and societal transformation of modern Japan during the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century.

Though Sachio was born into a very privileged background, his youth was filled with troubles. As an infant, he along with his mom and dad were captured as prisoners of war and incarcerated at a US internment camp in Pennsylvania. Upon returning home to Japan and enrolling in elementary school, Sachio was frequently bullied by classmates, primarily due to his mixed ethnicity. It led him into a few fights in the schoolyard, and as he grew older, he grew resentful towards his teachers who seemingly did nothing to protect him. Shintaro worried for his son’s future.

Young Sachio would find his calling in childhood, thanks to a frequent visitor of the family’s large home in Tokyo. Word of Acrivy’s landmark recitals and her fame in post-war Japan travelled quickly back to her homeland in Greece. It was a volunteer soldier of the Hellenic Expedition Forces, stationed in Japan during the Korean War, who drove their Jeep to the Fukuzawa home to pay homage to their compatriot – and it was on this military vehicle that Sachio first learned to drive, placing a cushion on the seat to reach the steering wheel, and a crude device to reach the throttle.

When he was 14 he’d purchased his first motorcycle, and when he enrolled in Keio University (the school founded by his famous great-grandfather) in 1962, his father Shintaro bought him a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle, which he maintained with his own caring hands. Having already taken part in grassroots Dirt Trial events, Sachio wanted to enter his Volkswagen in the inaugural running of the Japan Grand Prix, held in 1963 at the new Suzuka Circuit. However, his parents in no uncertain terms disapproved of their son going racing while he was still in school.

Unwilling to let his aspirations of racing wither away, Sachio dropped out of Keio and departed for Paris in 1964 to study his other passion – his burgeoning love of men’s fashion – and to get closer to his racing dream. Sachio left his family’s acre-sized Tokyo mansion for a small, cheap, sixth-story Parisian apartment, living off of a steady diet of instant noodles to save what pocket money he had on food – living a lifestyle now more relatable to the common university student.

Photograph © 1967 Sohsuke Shimazaki

While in Paris, he picked up a magazine and read about a story of Japanese drivers who’d made the trek to Snetterton, England to study in the Jim Russell Racing School. He wrote a letter to the drivers – his college mate Keitaro Miho, and Nissan factory driver Tetsu Ikuzawa, one of the stars of the second Japan GP in ‘64. They soon formed a friendship out of a mutual love of motorsport, even spending time watching the Summer Olympics together from Sachio’s apartment.

And by the autumn, Sachio learned that there was another racing school that was open near him, south of Paris in the provincial commune of Magny-Cours: The Winfield Racing School, future proving ground to countless Formula 1 and Le Mans legends. Upon enrolling in the autumn of ‘64, Sachio mastered the difficult curriculum of L’Ecole Winfield’s instructors and sharpened his racecraft from a virtually blank canvas.

By the time Sachio had returned to Japan in 1965, he signed his first factory racing contract with the Isuzu Motor Company. Driving the lightweight Isuzu Bellett GT coupé, Sachio made his official race debut on 18 July 1965 at the inaugural All-Japan Car Club Championship Race held at Funabashi Circuit. The day prior, in time trials, Sachio qualified an impressive sixth place. But on a rainy race day, Sachio was caught out by the treacherous conditions, spinning and crashing out on the opening lap.

But with every race he drove, Sachio kept improving. He scored his first podium in a one-hour endurance race at Suzuka in August. On 24 October, Sachio won his first race, a 15-lap touring car clubman race at Funabashi. Then on 7 November, he finished 2nd in a 300-kilometre enduro at Suzuka. Many observers were awestruck by his lightning-quick starts off the line, and his ability to carry speed through the corners, allowing his underpowered Bellett coupe to keep up with the more powerful Prince Skylines that dominated his category. One such observer was a man named Jiro Kono, who was the head of motorsport at Toyota.

In January 1966, Sachio Fukuzawa was introduced as one of three drivers for Toyota’s first full-fledged factory racing programme, known simply as “Team Toyota”. Even though Sachio had just six months of previous racing experience, Kono believed in the potential of his new young superstar. Joining Team Toyota captain Shihomi Hosoya and fellow Japan GP veteran Mitsuo Tamura, Sachio was slated to race in the third Japan Grand Prix, to take place at the new ultra high-speed Fuji Speedway. This was to be the debut race for Toyota’s new flagship supercar, the 2000GT, a car whose legacy will be shaped by young Sachio Fukuzawa.

On 27 March, Sachio took part in his first official race meeting for Toyota, the 270 kilometre Fuji Clubman Race, an informal tune-up for the Japan GP. Driving one of Toyota’s three Corona 1600GT RTX sports saloon prototypes, Sachio qualified on pole position and finished the race in second behind senior teammate Hosoya. Awaiting Sachio on the podium was a handshake from Fuji Speedway’s guest of honour: The two-time and reigning Formula 1 World Champion and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, Jim Clark. This performance validated Sachio’s skill to the world’s greatest racing driver – and to his new boss Kono-san.

But just days later, Sachio would be forced to withdraw from the Japan GP after a freak accident in a private test at Fuji. While his Japan GP-spec 2000GT race car was being completed at the Toyota factory, he was at the wheel of the very first 2000GT prototype, when it started leaking fuel on his way out of the pits. After being guided back to the pits by Captain Hosoya, the after fire ignited in the exhaust, and aggravated by the combustible magnesium wheels, the car erupted into flames. Sachio was pulled from the burning car and taken to hospital with burns over his hands and body. He spent the next four weeks in the hospital recovering from the injuries, lucky to have survived his fiery brush with death, but deeply disappointed over having to miss the biggest race of the season.

Once he recovered from his injuries, Sachio Fukuzawa returned to racing. On 28 June 1966, just three months after the testing accident, Sachio and newly-recruited co-driver Tomohiko Tsutsumi made history by winning the inaugural running of the Suzuka 1000 Kilometer Race in their silver 2000GT, the first long-distance endurance race ever held on Japanese soil and the first competitive victory for the 2000GT. Sachio qualified on pole position and battled senior teammates Hosoya and Tamura for the lead all day before taking control in the second half of the race, completing the thousand kilometres in just over eight hours.

It was a testament to Sachio’s toughness, to get back to competing just three months after his brush with death. The victory in the inaugural Suzuka 1000km was the start of a brief, but successful endurance racing career for Sachio: In just five races of 1000 kilometres or longer, Sachio won three of them, in three different cars: The ‘66 Suzuka 1000km in the 2000GT, the 1967 Suzuka 12 Hours in the RTX, and then in 1968, a second Suzuka 1000km victory in Toyota’s first prototype race car built to FIA Group 7 specifications, the 415S, better known simply as the Toyota 7. Those latter two victories were won alongside Hiroshi Fushida, who transferred to Team Toyota in the summer of ‘66.

“I do not remember much about when I’d first met him, but over time, after two or three months, I found his character to be very interesting,” recalls Fushida. “He was intelligent, smart, he liked to joke around. As a driver, he was very fast, intelligent beyond his years, and a relentless challenger.”

“He was very sensitive as a driver – but in a good way, which allowed him to provide good feedback to the engineers. He was always pushing himself and his cars to the limit during tests, yet, he was always steady and fast during races. Our driving styles and approaches towards racing were actually very similar, so we never really needed to change the car’s settings between us.”

“It was only fitting then, that I drove with Sachio the most out of anyone at Team Toyota at that time.”

Sachio & Fushida formed a young, electrifying duo of drivers. They won the ‘67 Suzuka 12 Hours after a heated battle with the sister car of Hosoya & Yoshio Otsubo. Sachio had now won the two longest legs of the short-lived Suzuka Circuit Endurance Series, consisting of the 1000km, 12 Hours, and 500km.

“At the start we were a bit behind in comparison to our teammates. But halfway through the race we were in first place and kept the position until the end. One thing I definitely remember was that the livery of the car was Sachio’s choice – he specifically requested the dark green stripes!” That dark, British racing green colour soon became Sachio’s signature car colour, which contrasted perfectly with his bright red crash helmet.

But ‘67 was also a year of trial and hardship for the duo. Two weeks prior to winning the 12 Hour, Sachio was driving the 2000GT in the inaugural 1000 Kilometers of Fuji (the predecessor to today’s 6 Hours of Fuji). The conditions were awful, with non-stop rain and fog – enough rain that drivers were aquaplaning on the main straightaway. Sachio had an almost unassailable lead later in the race, he and Fushida were assured of victory – but with 13 laps to go, Sachio hit a patch of standing water at the left-hand S-Curve, spun out and crashed through the guardrail down to a parking lot below – miraculously escaping injury.

“When I drove to where his car landed to pick him up, Sachio didn’t seem like his usual self,” said Fushida. “He was typically upbeat and full of confidence as a driver. But at that time, he felt dejected and depressed, a shell of his usual self.” The Toyota 2000GT’s final race, the second Suzuka 1000km in October proved to be a nightmare – as all three 2000GTs dropped out, including Sachio & Fushida’s car, retiring halfway through the race when Fushida crashed into a backmarker out of second place.

The following year, Sachio & Fushida drove a truly masterful race and won the third Suzuka 1000km aboard their first-generation Toyota 7. “Sure, it did not have enough horsepower for the Japan Grand Prix, and it was a bit heavy,” says Fushida of the original three-litre Toyota 7, “but it was a good handling car that was quite easy to control. In its final spec, the car had a new front nose and a wider track for more downforce, and better cooling and exhaust which gave it more horsepower.”

Sure, they had some good fortune, as the rival Nissan R380-IIs and Porsche Carreras all dropped out early, including the pole-winning R380 of Moto Kitano & Tassu Yokoyama which suffered a terminal oil leak on the opening lap. But with that open goal, Sachio and Fushida made history. They became the first team to break the seven-hour barrier at the 1000km. Their twelve-lap margin of victory still stands as an all-time Suzuka summer endurance race record. In the combined history of the Suzuka 1000km/Suzuka 10 Hours, Sachio Fukuzawa will be remembered as the race’s first champion and first two-time champion.

But jumping back in the timeline to the autumn of 1966, Sachio was part of an even greater feat of endurance. Sachio drove alongside Fushida, Hosoya, Tamura, and Tsutsumi to 13 FIA speed and distance records in the Toyota 2000GT Speed Trial, conducted at the famous Yatabe High-Speed Test Track on 1-4 October 1966. After three months of training and countless setbacks that threatened to abort their record run, Toyota and Yamaha engineers and mechanics pulled together to demonstrate to the world that Japan could build a reliable, high-performance sports car to rival anything else on the road.

Monsoon conditions lashed the track during the run, and the team still had a few minor mechanical hiccups, but they still managed to complete 16,000 kilometres in 76 hours – longer than the 72 hours they originally planned to run – at an average speed of 206 kilometres per hour. Even though these records would eventually be broken, the legacy of the Yatabe Speed Trial is still fondly remembered as a watershed moment in the Japanese automotive industry, and established the Toyota 2000GT’s own legacy as one of the greatest Japanese sports cars ever built.

“At the end of those three days of running, we did it,” said Fushida, who had the honour of driving the last stint of the Speed Trial. “We had set three new world speed records and broken ten more records in the Toyota 2000GT, and not only us drivers, but the entire team – we were all very proud of our achievements.”

By the time the 2000GT went to production in 1967, Sachio had also contributed to yet another important component of the 2000GT’s automotive legacy, the Bond car. Sachio was the point of contact between Toyota, and Alfred “Cubby” Broccoli, producer of the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Broccoli saw the prototype 2000GT at the 1965 Tokyo Auto Show and instantly fell in love. His negotiations with Sachio secured the 2000GT’s place in the film – with a specially-made roadster built to house Sean Connery’s 6-foot-2 frame.

It was only fitting that Sachio owned one of the 351 Toyota 2000GTs ever built. Even if he stood much shorter than Connery at just 5 feet, 5 inches tall, Sachio’s debonnaire persona made him a Greek-Japanese James Bond come to life.

Part Two tomorrow

With special thanks to Hiroshi Fushida.