In recent years, America has developed a fast-growing interest in Japanese cars from the 1960s and ’70s. It used to be that only the most obsessive of auto aficionados were even aware such cars existed, but now they’ve begun to appear in an increasing number of books, TV shows and magazines. Car shows dedicated to them are popping up all over the country as well.
Fifty years ago, no one could have predicted that a small island in the Pacific would, in a few short decades, dominate the automotive industry. Japan now makes more cars than both Germany, where the horseless carriage was invented, and America, where mass production of the automobile began. Moreover, Japan even outsells American cars on their home turf, which happens to be the largest car market in the world.
Japan has gained a reputation for producing the most efficient, economical and reliable vehicles money can buy. Brands such as Toyota and Honda have become household names, synonymous with quality.
However, in spite of these accomplishments, Japanese cars have never been regarded as particularly desirable. Fuel-efficient, yes. Dependable? Absolutely. But classics? Not a chance. In fact, it is often said among collectors that a Japanese car can never be a classic. When they hear “classic,” most think of high-end European names such as Porsche or Jaguar, long-dead coach-builders like Duesenberg or Hispano-Suiza, or even muscle cars such as the Corvette or Mustang.
Japanese cars, on the other hand, are commonly thought of as A-to-B modes of transportation, meant to be used and sent to the crusher when finished. This view is largely due to their perceived lack of prestige, a trait that depends on things like racing pedigree and heritage. And while Japanese autos do possess these qualities, even the most fanatical car nuts are usually unaware of them.
After all, Japanese cars were nowhere to be seen as Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz fought for supremacy in grueling motor-sports contests throughout postwar Europe. Back then, very few were aware that, a continent away, Toyotas and Nissans were battling just as hard in Honshu’s mountains or at Fuji Speedway.
Also, while the earliest Japanese car dates from as long ago as 1907, they didn’t reach U.S. shores until Toyota exported the 1958 Toyopet Crown there. Unfortunately, it was engineered for Japan’s many (at the time) unpaved and narrow roads. The Crown was completely unsuited to America’s high-speed freeways, and returned dismal sales numbers. It didn’t help that memories of World War II were still fresh in Americans’ minds, and that “Made in Japan” labels were associated with the kind of low-quality goods we associate with “Made in China” today.
During the next decade, more Japanese automakers entered the U.S. market while quality improved at an exponential rate. Still, their vehicles barely made a dent in Detroit’s market share. That was until the 1973 oil crisis. Suddenly, Americans were forced to line up for miles at filling stations for a ration of gasoline. Fuel economy became a top priority overnight, and Americans rushed to buy Japan’s small, fuel-efficient machines. Fast-forward three decades and those gas-sippers are starting to be appreciated as classics by a small group of car enthusiasts.
The reason is a confluence of several factors, the most obvious of which is nostalgia. There was once a time when a 1957 Chevy Bel Air was regarded as a mere appliance, too — nothing more than a working man’s stepping stone to a Buick. But people of a certain age had fond memories of their Chevys on family vacations, or of driving one to their high-school prom. As those people grew older, they used their increasing incomes to buy a small slice of that bygone era in the form of a classic car — driving up prices and making the ’57 Chevy a collectible. The phenomenon repeated itself among those who grew up with muscle cars in the ’60s. Today, it’s slowly happening with Japanese fuel-savers that carried people through the ’70s.
Additionally, there’s now an entire generation of drivers who have grown up with Japan’s cars, not Detroit’s, as the default mode of transport. They don’t even know that there was a fuel shortage in the ’70s, but they’ve spent their teenage years hot-rodding Hondas and Nissans. They’re curious about the background of their favorite marques, including models that were never sold in America.
For die-hard auto enthusiasts, there’s a thrill in discovering a rare classic in the lineage of a modern, commonplace vehicle such as the Toyota Corolla. For a music buff, it would be like unearthing a lost Rolling Stones album.
In 2005, this movement reached a new level when the Japanese Classic Car Show was held in Long Beach, California. The JCCS was the first event of its kind, a celebration of Japanese cars 20 years or older. The organizers, Koji and Terry Yamaguchi, are Japanese expats who have been living in California for eight years. As enthusiasts who grew up surrounded by the cars honored in their show, they weren’t burdened by American collectors’ bias against these vehicles. Though small compared with gatherings of American or European auto fans, the JCCS quickly developed a loyal following, and has increased in size each subsequent year.
The show managed to bring together various car clubs dedicated to specific models under the banner of “Japanese Classics.” This drew much-needed media attention to the scene, and as a result the rich histories of these cars are beginning to see the light of day in the English- speaking world.
There’s still a long way to go, though. As one of America’s most famous car collectors, talk-show host Jay Leno, once said of his 1964 Honda SM600, “If this thing had a Porsche badge, it’d be worth $250,000.” Instead, it’s worth less than a tenth of that figure. This gap may never be closed completely but, at the very least, Japanese car enthusiasts are glad that their cars are finally earning some long-overdue respect — and that fewer will be sent to the crusher.
Benjamin Hsu is the editor and cofounder of Los Angeles-based Japanese Nostalgic Car, the first U.S. magazine devoted solely to Japanese auto classics. For more information, visit www.JapaneseNostalgicCar.com and www.JapaneseClassicCarShow.com