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The 20 Most Important Japanese Classic Cars

Vukasin Herbez July 27, 2018

Although the Japanese car industry is one of the biggest in the world with many successful models and brands, it wasn’t always like that. Half a century ago, Japanese car companies were obscure in the car industry. In fact, they were almost completely unknown to American and European buyers. One problem was that Japanese cars were available in limited quantities in the late ’50s and early ’60s on the American market.

Japanese brands wanted to export to America, which was the biggest, most profitable market. But their cars were diminutive and slow. Also, they had almost no brand recognition among domestic buyers. However, the Japanese determination to succeed led to the production of more advanced, engineered and marketed models. So, they finally introduced the world to a new car superpower in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

This list of cult classic Japanese cars shaped the whole industry in just a few short years. These cars turned those obscure far Eastern brands to mainstream European and American market contenders. They also showed the world there was a new force in the car industry. They sold most of these models in the U.S., but some were JDM-only. However, all of them are equally important for building the Japanese car empire.

    1. Toyota Corolla

The Corolla has been one of the bestselling cars in America for decades now. Toyota takes special pride in this model since it is one of the bestselling cars in history. In fact, they built more than 40 million of them across 11 generations since 1966. This is a fantastic achievement and real proof of the success of Toyota.

They introduced the Corolla in 1966 as a small, inexpensive economy car. The first models went unnoticed on the American market. But some people got the sense of Corolla’s qualities, durability and affordability. However, when the early ’70s experienced the economic recession, oil embargo and inflation, the Corolla was the perfect car for the time.

The first models had straightforward mechanics and a diminutive 1.1 and later 1.6-liter engine. But they were easy to drive, economical and durable. The success of the Corolla in America launched Toyota. Today, the company holds one of the top positions ever since.

    1. Mazda 1100 S Cosmo

Back in the ’60s, the biggest news among car engineers was the Wankel rotary engine. It was a single piston engine that was lighter and smaller than most conventional units. Yet, it had more power and a revving capacity that captivated the major manufacturers. One of the first companies to introduce this engine in mass production was Mazda in 1967. They did that with their little sports coupe they called the 110 S Cosmo.

The Cosmo was a sharp looking two-seater with a modern design. It had a tiny 982 cc engine producing 110 or 130 HP in later versions. Since the car was extremely small and light, the performance was vivid, especially for the standards of the day.

They imported the Mazda 110 S Cosmo to the U.S., but the reception was nonexistent. Mazda was a new name to American customers, so the Wankel-powered two-seater for a Corvette price was hard to sell. That is why they only made around 1,300 cars, so left-handed Cosmos are rare today.

    1. Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40

The car that made the Land Cruiser nameplate world famous entered the automotive market in 1960. It was a purely utilitarian, short-wheelbase off-roader. During the production run between 1984 and 2001 in Brazil, the J40 had dozens of iterations. Because some of the unmatched off-road performance, the Land Cruiser gathered a cult status among mud-loving enthusiasts.

One of them was the FJ40, a version powered by a 3.8L inline six engine. But the ultimate version was the 2FJ40 with the power coming from a 4.2L inline six. The J40 had a few memorable diesel versions as well. But the biggest was the 2H 4.0L straight six. The J40 series was available as two or four-wheel drive with two or four doors, or even as a pickup.

However, the two-door four-wheel drive model is generally the most sought-after model. Even so, all versions can provide drivers with endless fun. Especially the J40 Land Cruiser, which is easy to modify and customize. It is the first Japanese off-roader/SUV model that became globally popular even in the U.S.A.

    1. Datsun 510

The 510 is an interesting car. Today, it is popular among the JDM enthusiasts in America. However, this wasn’t a proper sports car. In fact, standard 510s were just regular, affordable, compact sedans or wagons. But they were popular choices for cash-strapped buyers in the late ’60s and the early ’70s.

The small, lightweight body, lively engine, independent rear suspension and rear-wheel drive transformed it into a small performance car similar to the BMW 2002 or Alfa Giulia Ti. The base engine was a 1.6-liter four cylinder with 96 HP. But with the 1.8-liter unit with twin barrel carburetors, this little car had power and a convincing performance.

It was also available as a two-door coupe and became a popular basis for modifications. The 510 was one of the first successful racing cars in America. And it was an SCCA champion in hands of John Morton from the Brock Racing Enterprises team.

    1. Honda Civic

Just like the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic has been one of the most popular compact cars on the American market. And it’s been like that for ages. However, the Civic started its life as a subcompact, tiny car in 1972. With a 1.1-liter four-cylinder and just 50 HP, the first Civics were painfully slow, yet economical and durable.

And this was exactly what Honda needed at that time. It was also exactly what American buyers needed during the oil embargo and the rising gas prices. But the Civic grew from an inexpensive urban runabout to a fully developed, competent hatchback.

Toyota filled it with modern technology, power and performance. It looks like Honda has forgotten about its humble roots. But there are still lots of first and second generation Civics to remind car fans that the Japanese car industry has risen to the top.

    1. Datsun 240 Z

The 240Z was the first highly successful Japanese sports car on the American market. And it’s a legend that is still highly desirable, even today. The 240Z was a proper sports model featuring a bigger engine and better construction. And it had more power and performance than anything coming from Japan in those days. Critics said it was a copy of several European designs.

But nevertheless, the 240Z won car buyers over and created its own segment. Datsun introduced it in America in 1970. And the 240Z was a perfect car for the times. The muscle car craze started to wind down and safety regulations killed the domestic performance cars. So people were looking for alternatives that could provide similar driving excitement with better handling and affordable prices.

The European models were too expensive, so the Datsun 240Z was the best car for the moment. The early models had 150 HP from a 2.4-liter six-cylinder, which was more than enough for a lively performance.

Over the years, Datsun improved the original model with bigger engines, 2.6 and 2.8-liter units, and several restyles. The demand was always fantastic. So when Datsun discontinued this first series of Z cars in 1978, they made over 300,000 240Z. That makes it one of the most successful sports cars in history.

    1. Isuzu 117 Coupe

The gorgeous Isuzu 117 Coupe was never offered on the American market, which is a shame. But even with the limited production, it became one of the early Japanese classics and an influential model. But back in the late ’60s, Isuzu sold passenger cars they later abandoned in favor of trucks and pickups. The company needed a halo car to turn the attention of the industry on Isuzu.

So, they used their existing passenger car rear wheel drive platform with 1.6 and later 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. Then, Isuzu went to Italy to find a fashionable suit. The famous designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, provided them with an elegant, cool-looking coupe design. This was the final piece of the puzzle so, in 1968, they presented the beautiful Isuzu 117 Coupe.

The car stayed in production until 1981, selling in reasonably large numbers. Although it wasn’t particularly fast or agile, the 117 Coupe was a comfortable car perfect for a relaxing cruise.

    1. Toyota 2000 GT

Back in the 60’s, Toyota was an obscure little factory that began selling cars in America in small numbers. But in 1967, Toyota introduced one of the most interesting sports cars of the decade – the 2000 GT. Think of it as a Lexus LFA of the 1960’s because that is exactly what this little coupe was. It was a superb driving machine in a perfectly balanced package with a lively engine and astonishing build quality.

The 2000 GT turned the eyes of the car world to a small company from war-torn Japan. All car magazines of the period praised the ride and driving dynamics. And despite having only 150 HP from a high revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine, the 2000 GT delivered a decent performance and had almost racecar-like handling. In the late 60’s, they entered this car in the SCCA championship where it enjoyed much success.

Unfortunately, due to high prices and poor brand recognition, the numbers of 2000 GTs they sold are low at 351 cars until 1970. It didn’t even help that it was in a James Bond film, but it wasn’t exactly a failure. The 2000 GT did what it was supposed to do. In fact, it showed the world that the Japanese car industry was the next big thing in the car world. Also, it proved that Japan is capable of producing fantastic sports cars.

      1. Datsun 620

      Japanese car manufacturers established their presence on the American market with compact economy cars, affordable sports coupes, utility vehicles and small trucks. Today, they offer full-size trucks like the Tundra or Titan. But back in the early 70’s, the idea of a Japanese pickup was strange. However, the Datsun 620 changed all that.

      Datsun introduced it in 1972 and discontinued it in 1979. The 620 was a modern-designed, tough compact truck with a small but durable 1.6, 1.8 or 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The performance wasn’t great. But it didn’t have to be since the 620 was a workhorse with amazing toughness and versatility. The Datsun 620 was popular due to its modern qualities as well as its low price and inexpensive running costs.

  1. Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Hakosuka

Possibly the most famous model name in the whole history of Japanese performance and sports cars is Nissan’s Skyline GT-R. They introduced it in 1968. The Skyline GT-R started as a performance version of the upscale Skyline model. However, it came with many significant design and mechanical changes, transforming it into a JDM performance legend.

They called the first GT-R the Hakosuka, which is Japanese for “box.” They called the car that since it featured squared lines and a boxy profile. But underneath the sheet metal was some serious sports car technology. It had a high revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine delivering 160 HP. The Hakosuka GT-R had race tuned brakes and steering, too. It also had an independent rear suspension, making it capable on the street and race tracks, too.

Unfortunately, they never imported this model to America. But today, it is highly collectible, expensive and desirable since they only produced it in a righthand configuration. Nissan offered the GT-R from 1969 to 1972, making approximately 2,000 of them.

  1. Honda Accord

When most people think of a Japanese mid-sized family sedan, chances are the Honda Accord will pop into their minds. The Accord has been one of Honda’s bestselling models and one of the top cars in its class for decades. But, its beginnings were humble. In 1976, Honda introduced the Accord as a hatchback and later as a compact sedan. It was a little bigger than the Civic.

They developed the Accord as a grown-up Civic from the start with a slightly bigger engine and more interior room and equipment. Yet it still came with an affordable price and undeniable quality. As car customers grew to like the new model, Honda was quick to introduce bigger and better versions. And they continued to develop it further into the world-class sedan it is today.

  1. Datsun Fairlady Roadster

Most people know that Japanese cars started as downsized copies of European and American cars. But one of the most interesting Japanese copies of European cars was the cute, compact Datsun Fairlady Roadster. They built them from 1959 to 1970 and the car was also known as the Datsun Sports.

The design, technology and feel were directly borrowed from British roadsters, especially from the Triumph and MG. However, Datsun did more than just copy the British. They gave this little roadster significant power with a 2.0-liter engine. This motor improved the handling and driving dynamics.

And, most importantly, it guaranteed the quality of their cars. This is something that British cars had difficulty doing. Datsun made over 40,000 of those cool little cars over an 11-year production period. They sold most of them in the U.S. with left-hand drive.

  1. Mazda 1500/1800 Luce

The Mazda 1500/1800 was an interesting model they sold in America for just a few years, from 1971 to 1973. The Mazda brand entered the U.S. market in 1970 and the 1500/1800 sedan was their biggest model. To be honest, the Luce wasn’t fast or powerful, thanks to it 98 HP engine.

But what makes this car great is its design. Mazda, like Isuzu, went to Italy to have the famous Italian design house, Bertone, design their new sedan. This gave the Mazda the elegant, sleek look of European cars. It was the first globally popular model from this factory. And it is still is one of the best looking classic Japanese cars ever.

  1. Toyota Century

The beginnings of the Japanese car industry included inexpensive, tiny cars. In fact, American buyers from the ’70s thought of Japanese cars as disposable economy transportation. However, there were some real luxury models they produced in Japan. One of those high priced, desirable cars was the Toyota Century.

You could compare the Toyota Century to a Rolls Royce, which was the symbol of automotive luxury in those days. They hand-built the Century and limited its production to highly formal limousines for the Japanese royal family and high-ranking Yakuza members. Toyota presented the first Century in 1967. And it stayed in production for 30 years with minimal changes to its technical layout or design.

The first generation Toyota Century came with a 3.0-liter V8 engine with 170 HP. They filled the interior with the finest leather, wood and chrome trim. Also, each car came standard with climate control, which was an advanced option at the time. The ride was extremely comfortable and quiet since the Century cruised effortlessly, even on the roughest terrain.

  1. Toyota Hilux

Toyota introduced the Hilux in 1968 as a dependable, affordable compact pickup truck. They wanted to be a major player in the compact truck field. So, they produced a modern-looking and tough truck with a small, four-cylinder engine.

Over the years, the quality and usability of the Hilux became world famous and they exported it to all continents. The Hilux even became popular in some third world countries. It also served as a military vehicle. Today, Toyota sells the Tacoma in the U.S., which is a direct descendant of the Hilux range.

  1. Mitsubishi Colt

One of the first compact cars from Japan to receive international fame and popularity was the Mitsubishi Colt. They released the Colt in 1962 as a Kei Car, but only for the Asian market. But in 1970, Mitsubishi presented the Colt to America and Europe.

And soon, it gained a cult following due to its low price, lively engines and dynamic handling. Over the years, Mitsubishi has produced numerous generations. In fact, they renamed the Colt model the Mirage, which is still in production today.

  1. Prince Skyline Sport Coupe

The car industry in post-war Japan was modest, so they concentrated on small and Kei Cars. But there was one factory that produced luxury vehicles that looked like high-priced European models. And that was the Prince Motor Company.

The best, most influential model was the Skyline Sport Coupe with its sleek design. It had a perfect stance and a luxury feel, too. They powered it with a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine with around 100 HP. Despite its effect on the market, the price was high, so they made just a few hundred of them.

  1. Toyota Celica

The Toyota 2000 GT was too expensive and obscure for most American buyers, so Toyota realized they needed a budget-friendly, smaller sports car. And they wanted a design similar to the muscle cars of the early ’70s.

So, they presented the Celica. It was a compact sports car with small engines, a nice interior and a look that resembled the Ford Mustang. Needless to say, the combination of styling, equipment and affordable price proved to be successful and Celica became a global bestseller.

  1. Honda S600/800

Honda introduced the S600 in 1964 as their first sports car. Its diminutive engine displaced just 606 CCM and 57 HP. But they designed the S600 as something between a motorcycle and a car. This roadster was light and even with a small engine, it managed to deliver a decent performance.

They called their improved version the S800. Honda presented it in 1967 as a better, updated car. It remained in production until 1970 and they exported it worldwide.

  1. Mazda Repu

Not a lot of people know about Mazda RePu, which stands for Rotary Pickup. Mazda decided to install a small Wankel engine in its B-Series pickup truck in 1973. The B-Series was a common Mazda compact truck they sold globally. But this version with the Wankel engine produced 110 HP from the diminutive 1.3-liter engine.

However, that was plenty since the whole truck weighed a little over a ton. And, the red line on this little engine was 7000 rpm. This made driving a B-Series truck just like driving a sports car. Unfortunately, a truck equipped with this kind of engine couldn’t carrying a lot of weight. But, the Repu looked cool and sounded awesome.

These are the 20 most important Japanese classic cars in automotive history. Did you find your favorite? Perhaps you can find the U.S. version of such cars, but you’d better hurry because these cars are highly desirable.

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