Journal: What Car Announced Japan's Arrival?

What Car Announced Japan’s Arrival?

By Aaron McKenzie
January 23, 2014
19 comments

By the time Detroit noticed Japan, it was too late. Since the late 1950s, the Big Three had ignored the few Japanese vehicles on American soil, dismissing the early Datsun PL210s and Toyopet Crowns as the sales disasters they were, failing to recognize the upstarts’ potential.

Let’s be fair to the Motor City for a moment: By the late ’60s, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were smack dab in the middle of the muscle car era, a period many consider the greatest in automotive history. Who had time to fret about a rattletrap import when they were battling crosstown rivals to produce more power? Detroit was simply meeting market demand, as American consumers displayed no sign that they were willing, en masse, to swap the style, speed, and luxury of, say, a Pontiac for the barebones efficiency of a Honda.

When gas prices surged from 30 cents to $1.20 per gallon due to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, however, car buyers began to wonder just how much girth and brawn they really needed in a car. Many wandered over to the Datsun dealer — just to have a look, not that they’d ever buy such a titmouse of a car — and never made their way back to the Big Three’s fold. As the 1970s advanced, Toyota, Honda, and Datsun would continue to grab market share, while GM, Ford, and Chrysler slid into Malaise Era doldrums.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, what car — or cars — should have made Detroit uneasy about the Japanese competition? Which vehicle announced that Japan had permanently arrived in the American market?

Photo Sources: flickr.com, autoneuroticfixation.com, oldcarmanualproject.com, nicoclub.com, tocmp.org, flickr.com

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Gerald Scott
Gerald Scott
8 years ago

I don’t think there was any specific car that made a huge splash. The Japanese invasion started in the 1960s, but as was said, went unnoticed by Detroit. The invasion hit full force in the early ’70s, with Datsun, Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and Subaru all selling inexpensive reliable cars that got good mileage. Detroit started to respond, but their response was to little to late. The Pinto, Vega, and Gremlin all came out before gas prices tripled overnight. The best Chrysler could do was buy these imports and rebadge them as Dodges and Plymouths. The Pinto, Vega, and Gremlin looked a lot better than most of the imports, but Detroit has always had a thing for styling. But the imports were more reliable, and slowly started looking better. Back in 1972, My dad bought a brand new Pinto woodgrain station wagon, and I still have that car to this day.

Then in the last couple of decades, things started turning around. Japanese cars were built in the U.S., while American cars were built out of parts sourced from all over the world. The Japanese and Americans began to copy each other to the point where today there really is no difference between Japanese and American cars. Sadly that wonderful Detroit styling was one of the casualties. Today’s cars, no matter where they are made, are designed from the getgo to be disposable, to be used up and recycled, rather than being repaired. And that, to me, is where Detroit eventually won. My Pinto in now 42 years old, and I should have no problems keeping it going for the rest of my life. Try that with any late model car, or any early ’70s Japanese car, with the possible exception of the Datsun Z car, which has developed a cult following. It is a gorgeous car, but it was not designed by the Japanese.

Jono51
Jono51
8 years ago

The 240Z did more harm in Coventry than it did in Detroit. TR6 owners know what I mean …

Jake Williams
Jake Williams
8 years ago

What Japanese car looked good, sounds great, goes better than anything else, was reliable, and just generally better than American cars of the time?

The Datsun 240Z

Brooks Lester
Brooks Lester
8 years ago

Well, I learned how to drive in a Datsun 510, sitting in my dad’s lap, at the age of 12 during 1976. The 510 will always have a place in my heart but also has an empirical place in history as a very successful race car and is the street car was (is) widely acknowledged as the “poor man’s 2002”. The 510’s stable mate, the original Z, was a breakthrough sports car – it really didn’t have a precedent – and to this day is still a very impressive vehicle.

Steve Schneider
Steve Schneider
8 years ago

Middle to late sixties in SoCal you couldn’t go anywhere without noticing the Datsun 410’s and 510’s and Toyota Coronas.

Gary Groce
Gary Groce
8 years ago

I would say the Datsun 510 raced successfully by Pete Brock and driven by main stream Americans such as Paul Newman certainly introduced the Japanese car to the American Market. It definitely made the makers of BMW and Alfa sit up and take notice. The original 240Z was almost a perfect sports car for a very reasonable price. Having owned 5 510’s and 2 original Z cars in the past, I would say the Z was the most fun for the buck of any car I’ve ever owned. I’ve owned my share of classic Detroit iron in the past and my current stable is filled with a 2002tii, E21 and TR6 but I’ll never forget the 240Z’s and 510’s. After the Datsuns and Toyotas established themselves, one can’t forget the bombshell that was the introduction of the original Honda Accord. 1977 I believe. Only 3 colors to choose from and people were lined up to buy them. Sadly, by this time, the American companies quality was eroding quickly.

Zachary Simard
Zachary Simard
8 years ago

I think that everyone who said that the 240Z truly announced the rise of Japan in the American market. However, I think that one of the main features of the 240 that people missed was that it established a racing pedigree for the Datsun name. We all know the old saying, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” and nobody did this better than Datsun. Starting with the 510 in ’69, Datsun went to dominate it’s class in Trans-Am, securing the title for this prestigious race with the 240Z from ’71 to ’73. The fact that these pieces of “Jap-crap” were dominating on the official circuits-and in none too many street races too-meant that Americans had to accept that they were here to stay.

Hayden
Hayden
8 years ago

My car… hehe

The Germans started the whole “daily-driver-super-car” idea with the Porsche 911. Then BMW took some inspiration from Lamborghini to make the M1. When the road legal version came out it was very much influenced by the sensibility of a 911.
Then Japan took this “daily-driver-super-car” concept to a new market and made more of a daily driver than a super car; and as expected, they were redly available, reliable, and affordable for the average income car enthusiast. Japan responded with the Toyota MR2 in 1985, (arguably the first truly experimental, wayward, and interesting car Japan has ever made). Toyota then inspired Honda to make the more expensive, more “super”, NSX. Unfortunately, they never became as popular as the more simplistic sport cars Japan had to offer.

So in short I’ve modified you’re question to a more specific genre of automobile. The AW11 Toyota MR2 had announced the arrival of the Japanese poor man’s super car. But I always thought the true introduction to Japanese cars in the US started with the poor man’s 2002, the 510 Datsun.

Future Doc
Future Doc
8 years ago

I am temped to say the 240Z… but I think it happened later. Much Later.

Acura Legend, Q45, and the Lexus LS. Sure, the Japanese makes were healthy brands but nothing announced that the imports have “arrived” and not just as a lower-cost option.

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa
8 years ago

Over this side of the Atlantic, in Portugal and some other southern Europe countries, Toyota cars and pick-ups had a decades long image of being very reliable, always working well, without expensive and regular maintenance. As for the american cars (maybe the ones produce mostly for Europe and not for the US), they were badly regarded. I remember my dad repeating a depreciative Ford slogan, that could be used for the other american brands: [b]F[/b]abrico [b]O[/b]rdinário, [b]R[/b]eparações [b]D[/b]iárias (something like ‘weak assembly, daily repairs’)

Douglas Dill
Douglas Dill
8 years ago

The 1969-70 period when U.S. Volkswagon sales was peaking; Datsun pickup, 510 and 240Z; Toyota pickup, Corolla, Corona and Celica ST (in ’71); then the first gen Honda Civic (’72/’73?).

Julian Feliciano
Julian Feliciano
8 years ago

The Z car seems to be the car that really changed the minds of enthusiast in America. During the muscle car era the term performance car would harken to big block V8’s in fairly large cars. After everything that happened with the embargo and emissions coming in and squeezing the life out of the era V8’s the American sports car was not nearly the sporting proposition it once was. It just happen to be perfect timing that the Z car was there to win over many buyers with its overall lightness and surprising performance out of its L series engines. My Dad speaks of the 240Z as one of the all-time great cars he has ever owned because it had the total package. My overall thinking is that it changed the minds of the general public that all Japan produced where econoboxes and as a result Datsun, Honda and Toyota where then able to bring buyers into the showroom and sell those economic cars because the stigma had been shed.

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant
8 years ago

The 1969-70 Toyota Corona was a car that they definitely should have been paying attention to. It was inexpensive, reliable, could haul a family of 4 or 5 and got terrific gas mileage which became a major issue in a few short years. Both my father and uncle who were long time Detroit auto drivers and car guys bought one and loved them. For my Dad, it was the beginning of a long line of Japanese cars that followed including a Datsun 1200, 510, 610 and at least 3 Datsun trucks. He did not give up on Chryslers however for many years, though they were relegated to special trip duty.

jean caron
jean caron
8 years ago

In my opinion, Datsun at the time, in the early ’70’s, had the most complete line-up of cars to compete with a good segment of the market. That combined with the condescending attitude of the likes of Lee Iaccocca who proudly stated that they would drive these Japanese cars back in the ocean with the Pinto and the Vega, pretty well assured that the Japanese cars brands in short order would take over a slice of the market that they never relinquished.

jean caron
jean caron
8 years ago

In my opinion, Datsun at the time, in the early ’70’s, had the most complete line-up of cars to compete with a good segment of the market. That combined with the condescending attitude of the likes of Lee Iaccocca who proudly stated that they would drive these Japanese cars back in the ocean with the Pinto and the Vega, pretty well assured that the Japanese cars brands in short order would take over a slice of the market that they never relinquished.

JanMichael Franklin
JanMichael Franklin
8 years ago

I have to agree with JB21 on this. There were certainly great cars that came to The States from Japan before the 240Z, but the Z made it’s way and presented a viable alternative to European and American sports cars. No other Japanese car had achieved this before in any segment. Japan was playing in their own economy car realm before the Z and never challenged the cars from Europe and America. The 2000GT and Cosmo were great, but not on any scale that mattered.

JB21
JB21
8 years ago

I think it was a 240Z that convinced America that Japanese cars were truly viable alternative to what was available. It was fast, good looking, efficient, cheap, reliable, and even handled good – it didn’t fall apart like Italian counterpart, it was more economical and reliable than American offerings. I think, for the first time people who care about cars looked at Japanese cars and said, “I could like that over (insert what you want).” And American has bought more 240Zs than anybody else.

Myron Vernis
Myron Vernis
8 years ago

Great multi-part question. The cars that Detroit should have noticed were not flashy or sporty at all. The Toyota Corona, Datsun pickup and Honda Civic were the vehicles Americans were looking for in the early seventies which they couldn’t find from U.S. manufacturers.
The vehicle that resoundingly announced that Japan was permanently going to be a major force in the U.S. market was the first Honda Accord which rolled off the Marysville, Ohio assembly line in 1982.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle
8 years ago

Great job on the question today Petrolicious this one really made me think 😀 I cant really think of a answer but im stuck between two cars for my answer.i First of all is the Honda S500 sports car. Sports cars are all about fun and technical achievements. The S500 was a fun little sports that was pretty advanced for its time as well. It came with a 4 speed transmission, 4 wheel independent suspension, DOHC 4 cylinder. All components that were pretty high tech for the day. i’m convinced if this car had a British or Italian badge it would have sold like hotcakes. Next would be the Datsun 510. It was a simple, pretty looking small car that was reliable,practical, got good gas mileage but also had IRS and front disk brakes which gave the car very good performance on the street and race track at a price far less then the European brands.