Heavy Metal Affliction - 2001 Nissan S15 Mona Lisa
“You know that famous painting? The one with the woman smiling all the time?” If you know who said this in the classic car culture film The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, you will probably quickly equate the film’s car-building character Han Seoul-Oh to Leonardo DaVinci himself. Han’s Mona Lisa, this 2001 Nissan S15, had a short and tragic role, but gave rise to the race-winning car in the film’s climax.
This is one of six-known remaining S15 Silvias used in the film. The one seen most in the garage drift scene lives in Oklahoma, one is somewhere in the Ukraine, and three others have unknown fates. Given the fact that more than 100 cars were wrecked in the making of the film, this Mona Lisa’s survival is that much more special.
Its most recent owner is Tanner Berg, owner of Praxis Wheels, who found it while hunting for a Nissan R32 GTR. When the previous owner told him the car’s history, he jumped on the deal. In the film, you can see this exact car in a scene where Lucas Black’s Sean Boswell is talking to Twinkie, played by rapper Bow Wow. Of course for the film the interior was stripped down to little more than a race seat and some aluminum panels.
When Berg bought the Mona Lisa it had already been converted back to a regular street car and the full interior had been replaced. It also lacked all the exterior details that made it famous. Berg wanted to have a car that would represent his business and show off the custom wheels Praxis has been building wheels since 2014. So he went about recreating its famous look, and what he calls the 2017 update, a vision of what Berg perceives Han would have done to the car these days.
The car is strictly used for car shows, and although it could, it doesn’t go drifting. When people see it, they always recognize it and usually say it’s a neat clone. When he tells them it the real thing, people either call him a liar, or freak out like they just met a celebrity. He gets a similar reaction on the restyling. “Some people are upset we didn’t restore it exactly to its former self,” Berg said. “Others welcome our vision of a 2017 update.”
That vision includes not only a wrap in the blue and orange colors that inspire a love it or hate it response, but a V2 Rocket Bunny wide body kit. The conservative wing from the film is updated with a wing that Batman himself would be proud of, numerous GT-style aero accents, and of course Praxis wheels.
Under the hood is the same SR20DET with a few goodies that bump the already conservatively rated 280 hp to well over 300 at the wheels. The stickers are updated to reflect the shops and components that contributed to the new look. As the parts on the spec list reflect, this car is JDM right down to the unmistakable right-hand drive.
I had the opportunity to photograph the car when a Turn 10 teammate, Aaron Leavitt – whose awesome Datsun 510 Wagon was previously featured in HMA – was tasked with hand crafting the canards, side-skirts, front splitter, and rear spats to finish the look. Appropriately, we shot the car on the top floor of a nearby parking garage before Leavitt gave the car a proper drift down the four floors of parking space. Okay, Leavitt actually gingerly exited the garage with this treasure, but that’s not how I choose to remember it.
While the livery is probably the most notable feature of this S15, Berg said, “To me, wheels are one of the biggest stand out features when you first get an overall look of a car. Wheels are, in my opinion, what can make or break the look and overall feel of a car.” Praxis is a small company Berg started with co-owner Tanner Evans. (Yes, they are both named Tanner). It began when Berg was working at a brewery and went off on a long rant about the lack of original wheel designs in the marketplace.
Praxis makes truly custom wheels. Whether it is a personal design submitted from an owner, or one of the models they have done in house, like the RDO3’s on the S15, the goal is always to be pushing the envelope of design. If you are perusing their website, you may notice influences from the 1980s in Japan. Hiyashi, Advan, Enkei, SSR, and OZ are just a few brands in the immense list of wheels Berg has been inspired by.
“In our eyes,” Berg said, “the idea was the ability to really put new designs within a circle, without recycling old designs.” They make three-piece modular wheels which are made up of an inner (barrel), outer (lip), and face that are bolted together with 6-8 mm hardware. The layering of these three pieces can be juggled to create different looks on top of the almost limitless face designs.
The early Fast and Furious movies brought JDM car culture to the mainstream. Remember, even Dominic Torretto drove a Veilside Mazda FD long before we were ever introduced to his love of Mopars and V8s that now dominate the films. Without that Mazda we never would have heard Paul Walker utter the epic one-liner, “Dude, I almost had you.”
Where the newer films have turned into an epic action-packed romp, the original trilogy brought drifting to light and some might even say it started a movement. The style of those movie cars weren’t over the top, they reflected the cars you would see in the underground racing and drifting scene, and the characters had wisdom to be passed on as well as a few punches to throw.
Han told Boswell in Tokyo Drift: “There's no 'wax on wax off' with drifting. You learn by doing it. The first drifters invented drifting out here in the mountains by feeling it. So feel it.” Perhaps some of that wisdom died with Han in the movie, but it lives on in the Mona Lisa and in the smoke of millions of tires that gave up their own existence in the pursuit of getting sideways.