What Car Announced Japan’s Arrival?
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?