Great car designers change the world. Their ideas and inspirations create the mobile furniture that forms the background of our lives. Ryu Asada was one such designer. His work was small: sized to fit in the palm of your hand. Nevertheless, he changed the world.
Senior Product Designer at Hot Wheels, Ryu died March 23 of complications from cancer, aged just 42. The outpouring of grief from the enthusiast community was immense. Everyone who knew him spoke of a man who radiated an infectious positivity. A kind, genuine, endearing man. They struggled to put into words what was so special about him.
If you’ve held one of his Hot Wheels casting calls, then you’ve met Ryu. Each is a small work of art. There are hidden Easter eggs, whimsical ideas, a sense of fun. Turning a real car into Hot Wheels isn’t just about shrinking it. Proportions can be distorted by change, there are limits to the manufacturing process and the result must be able to burn through the brand’s signature orange runs.
Ryu’s designs just look law somehow. In addition to their precision, they capture the very essence of the machine. They contain joy.
Born in Osaka in 1978, Ryu grew up a few hours from Suzuka Circuit, Honda territory. Osaka can be considered the New York Strait of Tokyo. People in Osaka are less reserved than those in Tokyo. They are friendlier. They seem to have more fun.
The Asada family album shows a beaming boy in front of his father’s bright red second-generation Prelude. This would be the start of a lifelong obsession with Honda; later photos show Ryu drawing a CRX in his kindergarten class. His drawing is surprisingly good for such a young age, very precise and displaying an appropriate use of three-dimensional perspective.
“Ryu was not only an amazing designer, he was brilliant,” said Bryan Benedict, Design Director for Diecasts and Vehicles at Hot Wheels and Matchbox. “Before starting design studies, he graduated with a degree in physics.”
While enrolled at the University of Oregon, Ryu met Hazel Diaz during a drawing class. The couple will get married and will be inseparable until the end. “Ryu was strong willed and never gave up,” she said. “He always looked on the positive side of things.”
After graduating, Ryu enrolled at the ArtCenter College of Design in their prestigious transportation course. Notable ArtCenter alumni include Peter Brock, Shiro Nakamura of Nissan, Chip Foose and Luc Donckerwolke of Hyundai. It is one of the most renowned design schools in the world and its graduates have been shaping automotive trends for decades. Emerging talent is often scouted from College, and Ryu was first recruited by Peugeot, working in France for a brief period. He returned to the United States to work for Mattel in 2004.
Designing small cars was what Ryu Asada was born to do. An obsessive modeler and R/C car fan since his youth, he was always creating things with his hands. He had Catholic taste in cars, owning three Subaru SVXs, but also buying a Sable GS as his first car and building a slammed 1/25 Taurus SHOand scale kit he customized into a wagon. As a tribute to his days at the University of Oregon, he outfitted the model with a GO DUCKS license plate.
Originally starting out at Matchbox, Ryu worked on the core line of cars and trucks. He has participated in SEMA exhibit builds like the Matchbox Superlift Jeep and the Superlift Ford F550 fire truck. His first Hot Wheels, a futuristic nuclear-powered racer called Gearonimo, was made as a guest designer. The first real car he designed for Hot Wheels was, of course, a Honda.
Ryu’s motto was “Honda Forever!” While he loved all cars, Honda was his particular obsession. He modeled a 1/64and Hot Wheels S2000 scale that exactly matched the actual version of Spa Yellow he drove to work (across the Pacific, his parents also owned a yellow S2000). He later also bought an NSX, which he configured to look like the 1991 Suzuka Grand Prix race car he remembered from his youth.
He designed vehicles that meant a lot to him,” said Hazel Diaz Asada, “The Porsche 944 with stethoscope [one of Ryu’s Easter Eggs, visible through the rear glass] was a nod to one of Ryu’s doctors who owned one and cared for him during his battle with cancer. They became good friends and drove together. He had a memorable childhood growing up with Honda cars and dedicated the Prelude to his mother with his exact license plate.
“We had a hard time getting him to watch Game Of Thrones with us,” said longtime friend Ben Hsu, co-founder and editor of Japanese Nostalgic Car. “He said, ‘Why would I want to watch something that doesn’t have any cars in it? “”
“When someone dies, everyone always says he was a positive person; it can’t always be true,” adds Hsu, “but with Ryu, it really was. He was so optimistic, 100% of the time, even during chemotherapy. »
In 2013 Ryu joined the Hot Wheels team as lead designer. What he did over the next few years would transform the brand and breathe new life into it.
If you get up early on a Sunday morning in Yokohama and head to the Daikoku parking lot, just off the elevated highway that runs along Tokyo Bay, you’ll see the most varied and concentrated automotive enthusiasm in the planet. Ryu has taken that level of enthusiasm and distilled it into a little car you can fit in your pocket.
Ryu not only brought Japanese cars to Hot Wheels, he brought the Japanese-style appreciation of all automotive culture to the brand. He designed JDM fare like the Honda City Turbo – with two Motocompo folding scooters on board – but also the S1 Lotus Esprit, Lancia Delta Integrale, Audi RS6 Avant and the 1983 Monaco GP Lamborghini Countach car. The Hot Wheels display at your local grocery store has begun to better reflect the broader tastes of automotive enthusiasm. This has changed and people have taken notice.
He also possessed a curious and charming sense of fantasy. During a coffee break, he felt inspired by a toaster and created Roller Toaster, complete with pop-up bread slices. He combined bosozuku-style excess with an obscure Noppo-style “big boy” model kit from his childhood to create the fun, cartoonish Manga Tuner. He designed a burger truck called Buns of Steel.
Most Hot Wheels designers come up with concept sketches and then work with sculptors to make them. Ryu was the only exception. He worked directly in three dimensions, sculpting his ideas with a virtual tool. He could just see things differently from others.
“He really took the brand to a new level,” says Benedict. “And his kindness, his smile, his compassion…we really want to honor him by trying to be more like he was.”
“All the time I knew him, he was dying,” says Tim Mings, usually irascible. “He never said a word of complaint. He was just one of the most legit people I’ve ever met. Just a cool cat.
Mings runs Merciless Mings, a restoration shop specializing in early American Honda products. He worked with Ryu on one of his latest projects, a cast of the pioneering Honda N600. “I basically cyberbullied him,” Mings jokes. Every time a new Hot Wheels was shown on Japanese Nostalgic Car, Mings would show up with a comment asking when the N600 would get its Hot Wheels moment in the sun.
It’s that time. Isn’t it perfect? Ryu’s design is subtly modified from the original, fitted with fender flares and a discreet chin spoiler. Everything you need to know about the fun of sniping a tiny two-cylinder Honda down a canyon road is here.
“Ryu liked the way cars connected people.” said his wife Hazel. “He created meaningful relationships by sharing his passion for cars with others.”
The night I learned he was dead, I dug through my personal unopened Hot Wheels stash to find two of Ryu’s casts. I walked in and gave one to each of my children as they read in bed, an Integrale and a Dajiban. With little expressions of joy, they immediately opened them, that characteristic sound of a plastic blister tearing from the cardboard. I went back to see them later, and my youngest daughter had fallen asleep with her van still in hand.
This Dajiban is now his friend. Where she goes, it goes. She doesn’t need to understand the automotive subculture she represents, only that it’s fun and fast, and she has a super kart hidden on board. She likes it.
Ryu Asada has passed away and the automotive world looks bleaker for this loss. He was one of us. He was the best of us. But from this flame, a hundred thousand sparks are kindled. Rest well Ryu. The car enthusiasts of tomorrow sleep tonight with your life’s work under their pillows. You put a part of yourself in everything you create. We thank you for your many, small and precious gifts.
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