Even before retro thinking was a thing in global car design, it was popular in Japan. Several domestic manufacturers introduced retro-inspired models for the local market. However, the most interesting and unique was the Nissan Figaro. It was a crazy, cool one-year model they produced as a right-hand only drive car.
When Nissan presented the Figaro in 1991, it immediately caused a stir among Japanese car fans. Nissan announced that it would be a limited edition car they would base on the Nissan Micra platform. However, it would come with a bespoke interior, automatic transmission, full options list, and stylish new body with a big sunroof as standard. When the Figaro arrived, car buyers lined up and Nissan couldn’t keep up with the demand.
The company even organized a lottery for interested buyers to win the chance to buy the car. The unique aspects of the vehicle were visible even under the metal. The Figaro was powered by a diminutive 987 ccs turbocharged engine with just 77 HP. But it still provided a lively performance thanks to its small weight.
The Chrysler Motor Company wanted to participate in the Australian muscle car class, so in 1971, they presented the Valiant Charger. They based it on the regular Valiant platform but with a sporty new two-door body. The Charger got its name from its American cousin, the Dodge Charger. To keep up with the mighty Falcon GTs, Monaros, and Toranas, the Valiant Charger had several performance engines.
They started with a hot version of Chrysler’s six-cylinder engine featuring new cylinder heads and updated intake systems. In the R/T version, the 4.3-liter six delivered over 240 HP, but the most powerful version was the Charger 770 SE E55. Under the hood was Mopar’s famous 340 V8 delivering 285 HP with a three-speed automatic. This engine was commonly found in the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda in America.
If you are a fan of Kei cars, Japanese micro automobiles with diminutive dimensions, small engines and lots of fun, now is the time to show it. This is a tiny roadster they built out of aluminum with rear-wheel drive, cramped interiors and small trunks. You probably think that the smallest Japanese convertible is the Mazda Miata. But in fact, the Cappuccino is almost half the size.
The engine only gets 64 HP from a 670 cc three-cylinder unit, but it likes to rev. Thanks to weighing only 1,400 pounds, this car has solid performance and unbelievable driving dynamics. Suzuki produced it in a right-hand-drive configuration for select markets in Asia and Europe with a total production of around 28,000.
The BMW 333i E30 was the true example of a factory hot rod. It followed the muscle car philosophy of installing the biggest engine in the smallest body to create a performance car. Back in the late ’80s, the smallest BMW was the 3 Series coupe and the biggest engine was a 3.3-liter from the 7-Series luxury sedan. Buyers could get the 325i with six cylinders, but that was it.
That engine was not available for BMW South Africa, at least in 1988. The SA BMW introduced the 333i E30 coupe with 3.3-liter straight six, 194 HP and vivid performance. The 0 to 60 mph sprint took around seven seconds, which was better than the M3 E30. The 333i came with a plush interior but only two options, air-conditioning or power steering. Apparently, the big six-cylinder took so much space in the engine bay, buyers had to choose between an air-conditioning compressor or power steering pump.
At first glance, the Toyota Sera looks like a generic Japanese compact from the early ’90s. But when you open the door, you see why this little car is so special. Toyota based it on a regular Corolla platform and powered it with an ordinary 1.5-liter four-cylinder, technically making the Sera quite common. However, the design and technical solutions of the cabin, doors, and roof are unique.
Toyota needed special tools and machines just to fabricate the door mechanisms and make the specially curved glass. They introduced the Sera in 1990. It stayed in production until 1996 during which time they built over 16,000. Unfortunately, they sold almost all of them exclusively in Japan.
One of the most famous Australian muscle cars was the mighty Ford Falcon GT HO 351 they introduced in 1971. Despite its performance portfolio, it was still a four-door sedan but with proper muscle car equipment. Under the hood was a Ford 351 V8 with a shaker hood, beefed-up suspension, and brakes. The power output was 300 HP for the standard version, but Ford offered Phase II and Phase III options.
The car looked the same, but with the mechanicals in the ultimate Phase III version, the Falcon GT HO produced over 350 HP. The performance was astonishing with 0 to 60 mph in six seconds range and a top speed of over 140 mph. As expected, the Falcon GT HO was successful at racing, dethroning its arch-enemy, the Monaro GTS 350.
Perhaps the most famous model in the history of Japanese performance and sports cars is the Nissan Skyline GT-R. Debuting in 1968, the Skyline GT-R started its life as a performance version of the upscale Skyline model. But, it came with significant design and mechanical changes that promoted it into a JDM performance legend.
Nissan named the first GT-R the Hakosuka, which is a Japanese term for a box since it featured squared lines and a boxy profile. But underneath the sheet metal, there was some serious sports car technology. It came with a high revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine producing 160 HP. The Hakosuka GT-R had race-tuned brakes, steering, and independent rear suspension, making it capable on the street and racetrack too.
Unfortunately, they never sent this model to the U.S. But today, it’s highly collectible, expensive and desirable, especially because they only produced in the right-hand configuration. Available from 1969 to 1972, Nissan made nearly 2,000 of them.
The late ’60s brought the muscle car wars from Detroit to Australia. Soon, the Holden engineers decided to present their muscle car with a bigger engine and better components. In 1968, the first Australian two-door muscle car was born, the Holden Monaro GTS 327. This car looked and sounded like a proper muscle car coupe. It featured a two-door Monaro body with bigger wheels and graphic package.
It had a sportier interior and Chevrolet’s 327 V8 engine under the hood. The V8 produced 250 HP to deliver exciting performance numbers. Immediately, Holden pitted the new Monaro muscle car against the Falcon GT in Australian touring car races. The GTS 327 won the 1968 Bathurst race, which was the first Holden victory on that track.
The Cerbera was one of the best affordable sports/muscle cars on the British market in 1996. They designed it as a two-seater coupe with a V8 engine in the front. It was a cross between a classic coupe and a muscle car. The design was retro-futuristic with a long hood and aggressive silhouette.
Today, over 20 years later, this car still looks great. The best engine option was the TVR 4.7-liter V6 engine. It came with the interesting “Red Rose” performance pack delivering 440 HP for exhilarating performance.
The first GT-R, the Hakosuka proved to be a good halo car for Nissan. It showed how competent and fast the cars Nissan could build. That was despite limiting its appeal on the domestic and some select Asian markets. So, in 1972, Nissan introduced the second generation of its fantastic 2000 GT-R they named the Kenmeri.
It was a redesigned car with almost unchanged mechanics. This means the high revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder retained its 160 HP rating. However, the suspension, brakes, and steering received some minor modifications. The Kenmeri nickname came from a popular Japanese TV commercial.
It showed a young couple and the new Skyline. The viewers found this ad interesting so the car got the name from the two characters from the marketing campaign. This generation is extremely rare since Nissan produced it for one year only in 1973. The total production number was just 197, all in RHD configuration.
The Century was a hand-built, limited production and highly formal limousine Toyota designed for the Japanese royal family and high-ranking Yakuza members. They presented the first Toyota Century in 1967. It stayed in production for 30 years with minimal changes to its technical layout or design.
They built it only as an RHD model, selling it in Japan and a few select Asian markets. The first generation of the Toyota Century was powered by a 3.0-liter V8 engine producing 170 HP. They filled the interior with the finest leather as well as wood and chrome trim. Each car came standard with climate control, which was an advanced option for the period. The ride was extremely comfortable and quiet since the Century cruised effortlessly, even on the roughest terrain.
You may remember the Ford Sierra. It was the definitive ’80s Ford mid-size family model with rear-wheel drive. They sold it in America as the Merkur XR4Ti with a 2.3-liter turbo engine with modest success. But in South Africa, they had a different idea.
Ford SA produced a limited run of Sierra XR8 models featuring the 5.0-liter V8 engine straight out of the Mustang with 220 HP. In a light body with a manual transmission, the Sierra XR8 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than seven seconds. That made it perfect as the basis for a successful racing car.
The late ’90s brought a rise in power levels, as well as new technologies and materials. The result was a bump in performance and a new lease on life for Australian and American muscle cars. But one of the best Aussie performance machines from that period was the HSV GTS 300. Despite being limited to only 100 copies, the HSV GTS 300 was a big milestone in the Australian muscle car scene.
First, there was the engine, a Callaway-produced LS1 5.7-liter V8 with 400 HP. Packed in a sedan body with beefed-up suspension and brakes, the GTS 300 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds. All that made it one of the fastest sedans in the world.
The Falcon GT XR was the first Australian muscle car they introduced in 1967. That year, the Falcon was a new model, visually similar to the American version. On the Australian market, the Falcon was a popular family sedan they equipped with straight-six engines and one V8, the 289 V8 from Ford Mustang.
Even though most Falcons were modest six-cylinder sedans, Ford offered a special “Police Interceptor” version. It featured a 225 HP 289 V8 engine and four-speed transmission. Also, it had bigger brakes and a stiffer suspension. With this hardware the Falcon was capable, so Ford thought it would be great to enter the Falcon GT into the famous Australian Bathurst race. The new Falcon GT demolished the competition with a 1-2 win and a legend was born.
As you might know, like Americans, Australians adore big engines and rear-wheel-drive platforms. Australia’s Ford and Holden, a GM brand, deliver such vehicles. But Australians introduced a few body styles Americans have long forgotten.
They include light pickups they base on rear-wheel-drive sedans. If you remember the Chevrolet El Camino or Ford Ranchero, you will recognize the idea. In Australia, they call it the Ute. It is a popular vehicle for work and recreational purposes. However, the most interesting model Holden offers is the crazy SSV Ute. It comes with a GM 6.3-liter LS3 engine bringing 412 HP to the rear wheels. Think of it as an El Camino SS for the 21st century.
They never offered the gorgeous Isuzu 117 Coupe on the American market which is a shame. But even with its limited production, it became one of the early Japanese classics and an influential model. Back in the late ’60s, Isuzu offered passenger cars that were later abandoned in favor of trucks and pickups. The company needed a halo car to attract attention and present them in the best possible light.
So they used the existing passenger car rear-wheel-drive platform with 1.6 and later 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. Then they went to Italy to find a fashionable suit. There, Isuzu contacted famous designer Giorgetto Giugiaro who provided them with an elegant, cool-looking coupe design.
This was the final piece of the puzzle. In 1968, the beautiful Isuzu 117 Coupe debuted. The car stayed in production until 1981 and they sold it in reasonably large numbers. Despite the fact it wasn’t particularly fast or agile, the 117 Coupe was a comfortable, fast GT perfect for relaxing cruising.
Most people know the Nissan Silvia for its widely popular S14 and S15 versions from the ’90s. They became the definitive drift cars, but the Silvia was one of Nissan’s most legendary sports cars dating back to the mid-60s. Debuting in 1964 at the Tokyo Motor Show, the Silvia CSP 311 was a big step forward for this still obscure manufacturer. The car had European looks and proportions. It was a luxurious sports coupe by the Japanese standards of the time with rear-wheel drive. It was powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 96 HP, giving it decent performance.
However, the first Silvia was an expensive car for the Japanese domestic market. They only sold 554, most of which stayed in Japan. Today, people regard it as one of the most influential early Japanese sports cars.
These were our 30 fantastic right-hand only drive cars. They’re so impressive, in fact, that you may want to move to Australia, South Africa, Japan or even the UK just to drive one.