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At first glance, there’s nothing special about Capt. Daniel Nigolian’s car, sitting in the "Lemon Lot" on Yokota Air Base, outside Tokyo.

But take a peek under the hood of the 1995 R33 GT-R Nissan Skyline, and you’ll find a monster of an engine — one that helps explain the $21,500 price tag.

"I’ve got a 500-horsepower Mustang back home that can’t even touch it," he said, adding that his GT-R will go from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds.

"It’ll go up to 90 kilometers per hour (55 mph) in first gear," he laughed. "It’s a beast."

Nigolian is part of a small community of people in Japan who invest thousands buying, improving and juicing up their cars.

Most have spent their whole lives working on cars, and take advantage of being stationed in Japan to finally get their hands on a true Japanese vehicle — right-side steering and all. In some circles in the States, they say, an imported Japanese car is worth its weight in gold.

Movies like "The Fast and the Furious" brought that underground car scene into the mainstream, and young troops reporting to Japan often think taking one home when they finish their tours will be easy.

"I don’t think they have a clue," said Greg Williams, a retired sailor and government contractor who’s been into the car scene in northern Japan near Misawa Air Base since 2002. "They’ll buy the first car they see with a scoop and a wing."

He said it’s possible to bring certain Japanese cars to the States, but that the young troops rarely do any research.

And even if they bought a model that can be imported, they have to be able to pay to have it modified to U.S. safety and emissions standards.

“The hardest part is not shipping the vehicle,” he said. “It’s having the cash” to have everything done to it.

It is possible to make a smart investment — to buy the correct car, bring it to the States, invest into bringing it to U.S. standards, and still profit from selling it.

If you spent between $10,000 and $15,000 on a Nissan GT-R, brought it to the States and spent $30,000 bringing it to standards, you could still sell it for more than $75,000, he said. (See graphic at end of story.)

“Why? Because it’s full-blooded Japanese,” he said. “GT-Rs … they’re like gold.”

Michael Da Gama, a young airman at Yokota, considers himself one of the core group of 25 to 30 true car enthusiasts at the base.

He arrived with one car on the top of his shopping list: a Nissan Skyline.

“I just wanted a Skyline, because they don’t sell them in America,” said Da Gama.

But he knew enough about the system to realize he couldn’t afford to take it to America when he eventually moves.

Instead, he plans to buy an older Toyota Sprinter Trueno. Japanese vehicles at least 25 years old don’t have to be modified to U.S. safety standards because they’re considered “classics.”

Robert Smith, a former military member who runs Eagle Auto Works outside Misawa, has been in Japan for nearly 20 years. He’s watched the scene morph from small groups of enthusiasts who gathered to race at night, to folks who are now more interested in looking cool. The purists call it “parking lot pimping,” he joked.

“I blame it on ‘The Fast and the Furious,’ ” he said.

Smith said he often has troops show up at his store looking to spend thousands on a car with the hopes of bringing it home. He tells them, “it’s not that simple,” and reminds them to do their homework if they’re really serious.

If not, they’ll just “spend thousands,” modifying a car and “nobody’s going to want it,” when they’re eventually forced to sell.

Stars and Stripes reporters Grant Okubo and Bryce Dubee contributed to this report.

GraphicGraphic by Christopher Six / Stars and Stripes

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