Journal: 7 Japanese Classics Styled In Italy

7 Japanese Classics Styled In Italy

By Michael Banovsky
July 27, 2016

Rarity, among other things, is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s one of the reasons why I think Japanese cars built with help from Italy are some of the most interesting vehicles around. Why? When Japan got serious about building cars, automakers often called in the best help they could find.

As we’ve been witnessing for decades now with the Chinese auto industry, it doesn’t take that long to learn how to build great cars—as long as you’ve right people. After the Second World War, Japanese automakers did just that by hiring Italian styling houses to help with various aspects of vehicle design, from engineering to refining bodywork styling.

While you may have fallen in love with better-known designs from, say, Vignale or Giugiaro, it’s fascinating to see their talents applied to cars made for Japan. At one point, Italian styling was so prevalent on cars from different countries that Fiat took out an actual advertisement questioning why one would want a car that’s just “half” Italian.

Daihatsu Compagno by Vignale

The Compagno came in very traditional flavors: two-door Berlina, four-door sedan, Spider (convertible), wagon, and truck—with a swoopy Sport coupé variation sadly left on the drawing board.

Using Vignale’s help during the early to late-’60s, the Compagno was a simple ladder chassis-with-body economy car, its shape just hinting at its Italian influence.

And yes, at one point the Spider brochure uses the evocative slogan, “Let’s start with shooting line”…a likely difficult proposition with—at most—1,000-cc.

Honda Hondina by Zagato

Actually a revised version of the 1969 Fiat 500 Zanzara (mosquito) concept, it’s likely Zagato did what many carrozzeria did (and still do): update its styling proposals in order to drum up work with different manufacturers. Keep in mind, this car never reached production…but represents a tantalizing look at how the powersports world may have influenced car (and beach buggy) design into the ’70s.

Based on the N360 kei car, buyers would have enjoyed all of 360-cc and two-cylinders at their disposal. It’s not clear if multiple cars were made (or the “Honda” version was just a body swap), as the earlier 500 Zanzara is currently being enjoyed in the hands of a European collector.

Suzuki L40 Carry truck and van by Giugiaro

The Suzuki Carry has been a fixture in Japan since 1961, with the fourth generation released only in 1969 representing a shift in how the company regarded its predominantly utilitarian vehicles.

Giugiaro styled the Carry L40 truck and van, with the latter strangely familiar—at least to my eyes—and bearing the hallmarks of its time. Here, the Car Designer of the Century mixed extreme angles for the front and rear glass in a space long and wide enough to slip into the smallest kei vehicle class.

Stretch it a little bit in each direction, and you may start to notice how it provided a great hint of what the next 50 years of MPVs would look like.

Isuzu 117 Coupé by Ghia

Who’s responsible for this one? Ghia, but it’s another Giugiaro design. Finally released in 1968 after years of development, it set a new standard for Japanese coupé styling and luxury, with sales in the 100,000-unit range until it was retired in the early ’80s and replaced by the also-by-Giugiaro (albeit at Italdesign)…

Isuzu Piazza by Italdesign

How much more interesting is this car when I tack on the “…by Italdesign” to its name? Evolving from the 1979 Asso di Fiori (Ace of Clubs) concept, it shows how the idea of “personal luxury” changed in just a single decade.

The 117 Coupé’s GT-line bodywork and focus on comfort for four adults soon gave way to a Volkswagen Scirocco-aping idea: a sporty, economical, practical car for a couple and their stuff.

Suzuki Go by Bertone

No, you can’t buy one. This concept was a collaboration between the motorcycle specialists at Suzuki with the ski run-loving designers at Bertone, mixing a 750-cc bike motor with a svelte body that (presumably) only a John Deere Gator would love.

Looks like a great idea, too bad we didn’t see it put into production after its 1972 unveiling.

Isuzu Bellett MX1600 by Ghia

Another concept, the MX1600 was done by Tom Tjaarda—notice the Pantera in its lines?—while at Ghia, and shown across the 1969 and 1970 show seasons.

It’s so cool, too: it’s mid-engined, had active aerodynamics, and powered by the latest in Isuzu engine technology: the G161W 1.6-litre dual overhead cam 4-cylinder engine with roughly 120 horsepower.

Photos courtesy of their respective manufacturers

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Christian Geuecke
Christian Geuecke(@cbg)
4 years ago

This is the most beautiful one you have missed.

The Prince Skyline Sports designed by Michelotti

David Mitchell
David Mitchell(@enzo1240)
4 years ago

You missed the most significant and the best design out of that ugly lot, Mazda’s 1500 sedan. It was designed by Beryone originally as the Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina, but Alfa rejected the design.

5 years ago

Better having Italian designed Japanese cars than Japanesed designed Italian cars.
The Alfa Romeo ARNA comes to mind , puke ?

5 years ago

You missed Mazda ,I suzuzu 117 and Subaru SVX..

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves(@cacem)
5 years ago

exceot (maybe) for the Isuzu

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves(@cacem)
5 years ago

But still fugly…

5 years ago

I miss Isuzu. I really do. Such great looking cars and trucks.

alan m
alan m(@redlinecars1)
5 years ago

Hino Contessa 900 Sprint Coupé.

alan m
alan m(@redlinecars1)
5 years ago

You forgot the Michelotti-designed Contessa 900 Sprint Coupé.

5 years ago

The Isuzu 117 is beautiful, although the square headlights on the zenki (later) models weren’t quite as pleasing to look as the gorgeous joining (earlier) models. The front of a 117 is a view I could enjoy for hours, with clean, gorgeous lines.

5 years ago
Reply to  HitTheApex

That should say “kouki (earlier) models”. I *hate* autocorrect!

5 years ago

We, as a family, owned 117 Coupe for, crap, I don’t know, over 30 years. 117 Coupe was my dad’s pride and joy, and also his big love. The first one, that was blue, my sister and I used the beautiful coupe shape as a slide and ruined the body work. My sister and I, we were just little kids then, I remember my dad teaching us how to properly say D-O-H-C. A few years later, he traded for the second one that was red, had a speedometer that went up to 220km/h, that was really something in Japan back when. Mom would show up to parents day at the school in that, and attention she got from kids and teachers were pretty amazing. Dad traded that one when at last, 117 Coupes were discontinued. Our Isuzu salesman tried to sell him a new Piazza, but my dad wouldn’t have it, so he got the one of the last produced 117 Coupe. We had that for a long time. My sister learned to drive in it, and she became the guardian. When I visited Japan, it was my wheel, thought we’d keep it in a family forever. But the parents were getting old, and my sister got assigned to L.A., and so on, it because increasingly difficult to keep the car, and my parents finally sold it a few years ago. Granted, it wasn’t a great car as such, but more importantly, it was a really lovable car. They don’t make them like they used to…