7 Japanese Classics Styled In Italy
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