All too often you'll hear the phrase, "They don't make it like they used to." It's clear that the aftermarket industry isn't what it used to be and trends have definitely gone away, come back, and left again. We can mock the youth who want to be famous on social media, but in reality, there are only a handful of people actually taking action and building cars "how they used to be" or better yet, doing cooler shit than what our tuning forefathers built. Jonny Grunwald is among a slowly dying breed of extremely passionate car builders. His '94 Mazda RX-7 goes beyond the Instafame criteria of suspension mods, wheels, and bolted-on fenders. He and his FD are something much more.
SS: This is definitely not your first time with a high-caliber build. Can you tell us about your history and past project cars?
JG: My former employer was Bulletproof Automotive, where I was a project manager. My first specific project for the company with that role was the "Concept One" Scion FR-S, which was featured by Import Tuner and traveled across the world to Japan. I managed every car build from the Concept One until SEMA '15, which was the BMW Z4 as well as the M4. Everything from engine specifications to interior, exterior, disassembling the cars, and putting them back together was under my spectrum of responsibilities. I was able to be a part of the Overtake carbon-fiber GT-R and the red GT-R that was featured in pbskids two years ago. It was a positive experience being with the company during my time there, and I was exposed to high-end brands and now have the support to see what I can potentially do. I actually don't have any other past personal project cars. I only have my paddleboard, my bicycle, and my skateboard. My FD was my first and only car. I've been ridiculed for it. I've been stressed out. People would tell me sell it and get rid of it, but it's my baby. You could offer me a million dollars for it and I wouldn't sell it. It's been through so much with me.
SS: So what turned you into a rotary fan?
JG: The rotary wasn't your typical out-of-the-box engine, and even the RX-7 wasn't an out-of-the-box car. At the time, I was getting really into the Japanese tuning scene, and Evos and STIs were the most popular cars out there. I wanted to be different from everybody else. That and I was a big fan of Initial D.
SS: Rotaries have a reputation for being unreliable and certainly the current trend for FD owners is to do a swap. What made you retain the 13B-REW?
JG: (laughs) Yeah, rotary engines have a stigma of being unreliable. Even myself, I maintain my cars and I've been through three engines. This is my fourth. But again, the response you get and revving up to 8,000 rpm, the sound and feel are unique and it just calls to me. If your engine is ported and built properly, it can go all the way up to 10,000 rpm! I know there are people doing 2J swaps and LS swaps and everything under the sun, but I wanted to keep it real with Mazda. Just like I'm hoping Mazda will produce a new RX-7, or RX-Vision, whatever it is. I hope they bring back the rotary as well. It's cool to cut from the cloth and stand out from the crowd.
SS: We noticed you have a thing for JDM brands. What inspired you to build your car this way?
JG: Having an affinity for Japanese tuning in the first place and the rare, high-quality brands that are hard to find. My experience in the past visiting Tokyo Auto Salon, seeing how Japanese tuners build their cars, inspired me not to cut corners but push the limits of my car as far as possible. If you were walking around Tokyo Auto Salon and saw my car, you'd think it was just another tuner from Japan, which would be unique and contrast from the U.S. style. They build complete cars, meaning every aspect of the car is touched. So I wanted to do something that speaks to that and build something that would make Japan proud.
SS: So what makes your RX-7 different than the rest here in the States?
JG: It's the TCP Magic demo car in the U.S. and the second completed TCP car in the world outside the one in Japan. It also debuted several all-new add-ons at SEMA this past year. The TE37SL Black Edition Version 2 wheels. I actually talked to Mackin [Industries] about what would be a good fit for the car and they didn't have exactly what I was looking for. I asked a favor from RAYS Japan to see if they could help and I got a set before it was even available to the public. That unique wheel is only made for the U.S. market and on top of that, I asked Mackin if they were willing to let me switch the luminous yellow decals to the TE37SL red just to match theme of my car and give it a personal touch. Also, the Brembo monoblock big brake kit is not an off-the-shelf item that you can just buy like a Gran Turismo kit. Brembo and Race Technologies actually go over downforce numbers, aero numbers, and power-to-weight ratio to set up a brake kit that fits your car. I believe stock rotor diameters are around 296 mm in the front; this rotor is actually 350 mm. It's GT-R size and extremely large, so it was extremely important that they are balanced with the car.
SS: What are some of the smaller details on your car that an untrained eye might miss?
JG: It would probably be the hints of carbon fiber like the intercooler piping. It's used to complement the TCP Magic kit. I did custom carbon-fiber interior and some parts from Evo-R Motorsports like the doors. The entire rear section of the interior is all done in custom carbon so it gives you a feel that you're in a carbon shell or reminds you of being in a high-end car like a Pagani or a McLaren. I got the inspiration from seeing the RE Vision concept. I think going with custom high-end parts and blending a race car and luxury car is how a car should be. I also had the Recaro SPGs redone in Alcantara with diamond stitching in white to contrast the interior and exterior. Most people would think my steering wheel is a Personal wheel, but what makes it unique is that it's actually a Top Secret steering wheel from tuning legend Smokey Nagata. Although it doesn't match with the rest of my car, it has history behind it and that's why I wanted to get the particular part.
SS: Do you see a difference in the way enthusiasts build their cars today compared to when you started?
JG: Ten to fifteen years ago, it was neon lights, Hot Import Nights, and shows like that. I remember seeing shows like that everywhere. It even spread to mainstream television where you had shows like Pimp My Ride. It was cool to introduce the mainstream to tuning culture. You even had manufacturers like Scion putting out cars, inspiring to customize and holding different events. It showed that it had trickled into mainstream culture. But now you have social media where you can be exposed to what people are doing all over the world. You're seeing four-rotor builds casually, which probably wouldn't happen 10 years ago. These things that seem really small for the hardcore JDM head 10 years ago have sort of blown up now. It's awesome to have outlets push what's real to the consumer and to inspire what's possible. Then you can support small companies in Japan and have people aspire and build from it.
SS: Any last words on the future of our car scene?
JG: There is a serious element to individuals just following fads, starting lifestyle brands with phrases and that aspect can cheapen our lifestyle. There's more to builds than being "famous" or following trends. As you can see, my personal and car Instagram pages are oriented around my life experiences, friends, and traveling to automotive events instead of just a hype beast deal or trying to sell something like a lifestyle brand. But then you also have young guys doing crazy builds like four-rotor RX-7s and VR38 swaps into S15s, things that are out of the box are happening now, casually. Ten years ago, 1,000 hp was a unicorn; now you can see a 1,000hp GT-R on the street. Now you can see, for racing purposes, cars pushing up to 2,000 hp. It's totally insane. It's really limitless right now. It makes you wonder what will happen in the next 10 years. It could be electric cars we'll be tuning. Or it can still be us gearheads with gasoline in our veins.
Do you believe in magic?
When you think of JDM Mazda specialists, Total Car Produce (TCP) Magic might not be the first name that pops into your head, but instead something more along the lines of RE Amemiya or Fujita Engineering (FEED). Kaisuke Kawato is the brainchild behind TCP Magic located in the countryside outside of Osaka, and this year marks the company's 15th anniversary. He is a one-man shop, designs all the aero by hand, and builds everything from the standard two-rotor engine to one of the most popular RX-7s today, Mad Mike's four-rotor, twin-turbo "Humbul."