How and why did Japanese cars become collectible?

(Editor’s note: During the month of January, the Journal plans to present a series of stories related to and perhaps explaining the recent increase in interest in collecting cars produced by Japan-based automakers. That series begins today with this Introduction.)

Historians tell us that although Torao Yamaha built a steam-powered bus as early as 1904, the first made-in-Japan passenger car was the gasoline-fueled Takuri, produced by Komanosuke Uchiyama in 1907. 

What was considered at the time to be “mass production” didn’t get going until 1917, when Mitsubishi rolled out fewer than two dozen examples of its Model A, and from 1925 until World War II, Japanese automotive production was dominated by Ford- or General Motors-owned assembly plants, which were producing nearly 20 times as many vehicles as Japan’s domestic manufacturers.

Things changed during the post-war recovery as Japanese companies developed cars, especially small cars, for the domestic market and thus were in a good position to launch a strong export effort in the 1970s when oil crises and international exchange rates made Japan’s compact vehicles attractive to drivers around the world.

Attractive, perhaps, from a getting from point A to point B basis, but not necessarily attractive as in adding to a car collection that, at the time, likely was focused on pre-war American and European classics, perhaps some post-war sports cars and hot rods, and perhaps some recent Detroit muscle cars that were going into collections because of the rise in the cost of gasoline to keep them on the roads.

Hundreds of Japanese cars turn out annually for the Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach, California | Larry Crane photo

That was then but this is now, and as we launch in 2021, Japanese cars are very much part of the collector car mix, from early Datsun 240Zs and Toyota FJs to Nissan GT-Rs and from Subaru’s WRX rally cars for the road to the latest in exotic Lexus coupes.

Blame it on, or perhaps more properly, credit the rising tide of young Japanese car enthusiasts who have been souping up their daily drivers but who also have become attracted to vintage models, especially performance cars and pickup trucks and SUVs, largely produced before many of the new owners were born.  They are the ones driving the collectability, and they represent a generational sea change for the collector car hobby that was needed and should be welcomed. 

Our series will examine the cars and how they became popular with collectors. The first story, publishing tomorrow, will feature the car that really got things started, the Datsun 240Z.

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