BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Vintage Spirit Garage

Tucked away in a small, industrial pocket in Berkeley, California is where you’ll find Vintage Spirit Garage. It’s a moderately sized shop space with a charming waterfront view. Hazy silhouettes of spanning San Francisco buildings can be seen across the water. The building also doubles as a home for owners and classic car enthusiasts Ivan Jaramillo and Nicole Shigeta. From the outside, it looks rather inconspicuous, and the chances of guessing what’s stored behind the shop doors is slim to none.

While Vintage Spirit Garage may appear low key and even sleepy, there are marvellous things that go on behind the roll-up door. Ivan is a young, inspired automotive enthusiast with a penchant for classic Japanese cars.

'My passion for cars began at a young age,' he explains. 'My father played a big role.' Ivan recalls riding in his dad’s 1971 Chevelle as a child, and being thrilled at the V8’s massive rumble. His affliction for autos continued to foster up through high school. When his teachers and guidance counsellor began to note his immense fascination with building, and his exquisite eye for detail, they knew which direction to show him in. Positively reinforced through his courses in automotive technology and body repair, Ivan pressed on to turn his love into a career. It was with this experience and passion that he opened Vintage Spirit Garage in 2004.

The art of building while being respectful of a car’s history is truly becoming rare. What defines Vintage Spirit is the genuine appreciation of a car’s roots

Courtney Cutchen

But why imports? Surely if he enjoyed his childhood Chevelle so much, he would choose to restore American cars. The truth of the matter is that Ivan has always been immersed in import culture, as well as domestic. 'My neighbour owned a ’77 Celica Liftback,' he reflects. 'I remember sitting in the back seat and seeing a dragon logo on the inner trim panel.' Ivan attributes his import preference to the differing styling from that of American domestics. This is not to say that Vintage Spirit would turn away from domestic customers, though.

Vintage Spirit is a haven largely for those who have a special vision for their classic import. Ivan labels himself a purist, and he takes pride in restoring, building, and maintaining these seasoned imports. Firm in his statement that there exists a 'cult following' for the foreign cars here in America, he strives to set a respectable example for the community. We seem to live in the age of rampant engine swaps, RWB fever, and the modification of cars so heavily that the chassis is hardly recognisable. While none of these things are bad by any means, the art of building while being respectful of a car’s history is truly becoming rare. What defines Vintage Spirit is the genuine appreciation of a car’s roots.

'I feel when you modernise a car too much, it takes away from its original spirit, and what made us fall in love with old cars to begin with,' he says.

If you haven’t already gathered, most of the shop population consists of old Nissans/Datsuns. The array is a combination of Ivan’s own builds, vehicles he’s imported, and customer projects. With building these classic Japanese cars comes the eventual need to source from overseas. Whether it’s rare parts or entire vehicles, Ivan is well versed in seeking out what he or his customers are looking for. Still, this is no easy task.

'The most challenging part is the language barrier,' he notes, referring to overseas searching and buying. 'The second hardest part is finding someone you can trust with helping you locate or obtain one-of-a-kind parts or cars.' With the help of websites like Yahoo Auctions Japan, Facebook groups, forum threads, and much more, Ivan has reached numerous sources and established valuable business connections for his craft.

As of recently, the shop also serves as a home for the Ivan and Nicole. For a moment, can you imagine waking up in the morning, inching on your house slippers, shuffling sleepily to your door, and seeing a half-restored Hakosuka right there? I can, and it’s glorious. This is a reality for the two, every day.

'The whole living arrangement is something new,' Ivan explains as he shows us their quarters – and clarifies that it was Nicole’s idea to move into the shop, adding that she has a fondness of industrial architecture and enjoys the cars equally. Looking in from the front door, you’re met with a beautifully cozy den. A couch lines the wall across, with various decorations, lights, and plants. There is a bedroom off to the right, hidden behind curtains. All of this setting permeates a warmth that truly elicits the comforting feeling of being at home. 'We’ve combined our weird, quirky collections to create a personalised space we call home. Visitors, friends, and family have been thrilled. It’s an adventure.'

The passion for these cars radiates from everything about Ivan and Nicole’s lifestyle. Although they may be young, Ivan feels that there is room for everyone in the classic car community. He holds fast to his belief that it is best to present yourself and your work humbly. I was curious to know how he felt about the generational bias between younger builders and those who have been around longer. While he believes that something does exist in that gap between the ages, he believes that his work and knowledge speaks for itself. This isn’t to say that he’s overly confident, though. 'I make the effort to constantly learn something new about my trade,' he adds.

Ivan and Nicole together are a wonderful testament to the power of community (even across oceans), the passion for cars, and the idea of fully immersing yourself in what you love.

Photography by Courtney Cutchen