THE impression one gets upon meeting Carlos Gono for the first time is he is hardly into fast cars. For one, he does not have the customary swagger of the stereotype who is into fast cars and actually drives such cars to their maximum performance envelope. Let’s face it – motorists who want to portray themselves as fast with their cars will have a certain swagger. They may wear flashy clothing, walk like the Terminator, and even have a certain loud tone in the way they talk. But not Gono.
Talk to him about the fast cars and you will be awed at how serious he is in his trade to make cars go faster, or insanely faster. Is 500 horsepower enough?
By the time Fast Times interviewed Gono, the heavily-modified Nissan Skyline GTR R34 V Spec Nurburging of his partner at Autoplus Sportzentrium Jun Go had already become a legend of sorts among enthusiasts of fast cars in the Philippines – it has almost 1,000 horsepower on tap at the wheels. And Gono has driven it past 300 kilometers per hour (187 miles per hour). If that was not enough, Autoplus, the tuning company behind the modification of the 1,000-hp GT-R, is looking at 1,500 hp for a Nissan GTR R35.
To the uninformed, the GTR R34 V Spec Nurburging is a rare variant of the Nissan Skyline, which was aptly called “Godzilla” in Japanese motoring race circles during its heyday when it was mopping up the competition. The previous version of the Skyline, the R33, was even banned from racing in Australia after race regulations failed to make it go slower against its competitors on the track.
“It was in 2001 that the last series of the Nur Spec was released, so it’s ‘the last of the last.’ I think only 250 units were produced. But they never built a left-hand drive [LHD] version of the R34,” Gono said adding his partner Go, an architect, had to convert a standard right-hand drive unit in the United States to LHD.
Gono owns a Ford GT40 that was acquired off the shelf with about 500 hp. When Autoplus did all the modifications it could do to Gono’s GT40, its engine eventually pumped out 1,000 hp.
But why take pains in creating a 1,000- or 1,500-hp monster of a sports car when a Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini with more than 500 hp is enough to turn heads? And where are the roads where a monster of a sports car can run past 300 kph?
And why modify a Skyline R34 Nurburging when its engine already produces a respectable 450 hp? In fact, driving even an unmodified Skyline R34 in the streets of Manila at a slow pace is enough to invite envious stares from sports cars aficionados and speed maniacs.
Maybe you can call the people behind Autoplus insane if you wish. Or is calling them passionate more accurate?
“It’s our 20th year this year now. Imagine we won’t last that long. There so many shops that came and copy [then]competed against us. Many of them closed down, they came and they’re gone,” Gono said.
The GT40 and the R34 that were modified to produce 1,000 hp and the R35 tuned to produce 1,500 hp are actually showcases of how Autoplus can make fast cars go much, much faster, and the passion of the people behind it, particularly Gono and Go.
STARTED AS A HOBBY
The Autoplus Sportzentrium located on the automotive row along the southbound lane of EDSA traces its roots to the Autoplus established in the San Francisco area in the United States.
“It started in San Francisco in the 1970s after Martial Law [declaration]. My uncle loved cars and his barkada were all affluent Filipinos,” Gono said.
“After [the declaration of]Martial Law, many rich families went out [of the country]and San Franciso was their meeting place,” he added.
Gono’s uncle then thought of putting up a shop in San Francisco to modify cars to make them go faster. The shop eventually became Autoplus.
“My uncle thought of building a shop, a tuning shop, [sell]high-performance wheels, accessories, it was quite famous in the San Francisco area,” he said.
After the fall of the Marcos regime, things started to look up for the Philippines and in 1991 Gono’s uncle thought about putting up a tuning shop in the country. Naturally, the Philippine tuning shop would also be called Autoplus.
Gono was eventually prodded by his uncle to head the Autoplus operations in the Philippines. A warehouse in now San Juan City (Metro Manila) owned by his cousin who had a printing press was where Autoplus started operations in the Philippines.
Autoplus in the Philippines also started joining local races and made its mark in the Super Saloon category of the races held at the Subic International Raceaway.
In tuning circles during the 1990s, extracting one horsepower from one cubic centimeter of engine displacement without resorting to turbo- or super-charging was already a feat in itself.
But Autoplus was able to squeeze out more than one hp from every cc of engine displacement for the Honda Civic hatchback it fielded in the Super Saloon races at Subic. Although that category saw fewer than five powerful cars usually competing, the race-modified Civic hatchback driven by Jody Coseteng that Autoplus fielded most of the time pulled away from the field to register rather easy wins.
The Civic hatchback Coseteng drove at the races in Subic was first powered with a 1.6-liter engine that produced 210 hp, and later a 1.8-liter engine cranking 230 hp and a 2.0-liter engine pushing out 260 hp.
“In terms of power-to-weight ratio, the Civics were really fast. The Honda engines, they really rev very high up to 9,500 rpm [revolutions per minute],” Gono said.
Among the cars Autoplus-tuned Civic hatchback went up against were a modified Porsche 911 and a tuned Lancer Evolution.
The stellar performance of the Autoplus-tuned Civic hatchback at the races in Subic from 1996 to 1998 turned out to be good advertising mileage for the tuning company, and it showed that its products and experts can deliver results in making cars go faster.
Gono said the stint of Autoplus in the Super Saloon races at Subic marked the first time a professional racing team participated in the Philippines.
“It was the first time that somebody joined the [Philippine] racing scene in a professional way. Because we [Autoplus] made it like a team. Our competitors, they owned the racing team and they were the ones who drove the cars,” he said.
“[Our driver] Jody Coseteng, he worked with my uncle in Autoplus America, and he came home to drive for us,” Gono added.
MORE OF A PASSION
Gono can claim Autoplus remains the most respected car tuning company in the Philippines because they have stuck it out in the business for 20 years.
“When we started all this in 1995, there was almost nothing about tuning cars in the local scene. The tuning days were there in the 1980s from late 1970s. The favorite engines to tune at that time included the 2TG of Toyota,” he said.
The revival, however, of the art of tuning during the 1990s proved quite a challenge because there were those who took advantage of the ignorance or eagerness of motorists who wanted their cars to go faster.
“Actually, when we started this high performance thing, it came to a point that other shops copied what we were doing, and many of them were very unscrupulous,” Gono said.
“So when we started, we educated the normal people, we tell them what this exhaust system can do to your car. We educated the people,” he added.
Gono explained, for example, that there were sellers of performance parts who claim a change in the exhaust or intake system of a vehicle can result in gains of up to 20 horsepower.
“We don’t do that. Most of those who love cars are young people, and they can be easily conned,” he said.
To bolster the reputation of Autoplus, it installed the country’s first dynamometer, a machine that measures the horsepower and torque output of a car from the wheels that propels the vehicle. With the dynamometer or dyno, Autoplus was able to make accurate horsepower and torque claims on the modifications it does on the cars of its clients.
And when it came to the dragstrip, the cars modified by Autoplus had a good reputation.
“People respect our shop, especially with the cars with the Autoplus stickers, because they know if a car has the Autoplus sticker you will surely have a hard time against it because we claim the right [horsepower and torque]numbers. [On the other hand], other tuning shops will just claim numbers,” Gono said.
Besides selling exotic tuning and modification parts, Autoplus is also the sole distributor of Motul products in the Philippines since 2006.
“We lean toward US [brands]because we were colonized before, so not all of us know that there is a Motul brand. But in 1853 they had the company running already,” Gono said.
Motul first used oils from whales to produce oils and lubricants before crude oil was discovered from the early 1900s.
Today, the French brand Motul is distributed nationwide by Autoplus and can claim leadership in the synthetic oil market niche.
Although marketing the Motul brand in the Philippines proved to be a good business proposition for Autoplus, making already powerful machines go faster will always be a major preoccupation of the people behind the tuning company.
“The thing with high performance, it’s making something that’s not broken become better,” Gono said.
And he and his business partner even took out their beasts for a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) race at an unused portion of the Subic airport runway to find out who has the faster machine. In one corner was Gono’s modified GT40 and at the other corner was Go’s tuned R35.
“The GT40 reached 330 kilometers per hour and the R35 with 1,200 hp [at the time]did 324 kph,” Gono said.
He explained that while the R35 had more power on tap than the 1,000 hp of the GT40, the Ford sports car had a lower height and better aerodynamics.
“If you reach 300 kph, your car starts to fight the wind,” Gono said.
And that’s the reason why the R35 was fitted with an engine that can crank out 1,500 hp. In this era where the more established car brands like Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini have started to put out cars with the potential to produce 1,000 hp right after the Bugatti Veyron did it a few years ago, it looks like Autoplus knows exactly what it is doing in so far as creating really fast cars is concerned.
“It’s really all about passion. If there was no passion [in what we do], it won’t last that long,” he said.