Until recently, the notion of a “classic” Japanese car might have been met with derision in the mainstream collector car community. True, there have been a handful of models that have enjoyed broad acceptance for years, such as the Datsun 240Z, but for the most part Japanese cars have largely (and unfairly) been considered bland, disposable appliances, not worthy of the adoration heaped upon American and European marques. Thankfully, a reassessment seems to be taking place as a new generation of enthusiasts looks back with fondness on the sporty compacts they once owned or lusted after, while older collectors have finally awoken to the virtues of the lightweight construction, inspiring performance, and sturdy build quality offered by Japanese cars. “J-Tin” is no longer a derogatory term.
Those requiring proof of the Japanese car’s emergence as a viable vintage collectible need look no further than the Japanese Classic Car Show, held this year at Harry Bridges Memorial Park at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Founded by Koji and Terry Yamaguchi in 2005, JCCS has over the years attracted thousands of the most interesting pre-1990 Japanese cars in the country. Though a loose, bring-it-as-it-sits attitude toward a car’s acceptance onto the JCCS lawn customarily has been the norm, the Yamaguchis have always had a rule on the books that cars with substantial dents or rust would be turned away. The announcement that this rule would be more rigorously enforced in 2014 created a minor controversy in certain corners of the internet, as some predicted that attendance would be depressed by a perceived “snobbishness” on the part of the organizers. Such concerns turned out to be unfounded, however, as the show was packed with cars ranging from concours-quality trailer queens to daily drivers with a few blemishes, as well as pieces from the corporate collections of the North American divisions of Toyota, Mazda and Honda (such as the pristine Acura NSX pictured above.)
If any single model is emblematic of the emerging Japanese classic car scene in the U.S., it’s the Nissan Skyline. Long-revered in its native country for its racing heritage and crushing performance in top specification, the Skyline captured the hearts and minds of America’s youth with its appearance in the seminal driving simulation video game, Gran Turismo. Among the Skyline’s many generations (dating back to the 1950s) perhaps the most popular is the C10 introduced in 1969. Affectionately known as the Hakosuka (or “Boxy Skyline”) the C10 in GT-R trim enjoyed overwhelming success in Japanese touring car racing in the early ’70s, burnishing a legend that lives on in the current-generation Nissan R35 GT-R. The C10 was never officially sold in the U.S., but with aggressive looks that recall our homegrown musclecars of the era, Hakosukas have trickled into the country in the hands of dedicated enthusiasts. Our favorite at JCCS this year was Marco Vargas’ yellow ’72 GT-R.
If any car can challenge the Hakosuka Skyline for dominance of the Japanese classic scene in America, it’s the Toyota Corolla AE86, better known to enthusiasts as the Hachiroku (appropriately, “eighty six.”) A longtime cult favorite among drift racers and other grassroots motorsport proponents, the AE86 exploded in popularity as the hero car of the graphic novel series Initial D. There’s no great mystery in the AE86’s appeal: it’s a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe that in top specification packs a rev-happy twin cam, 16-valve four cylinder engine. Finding clean, unmolested examples in the U.S. is practically impossible at this point, making John Nocum’s 1985 GT-S liftback a rare treat. Though appearing to sit on lowered springs, Nocum’s car was otherwise stock and well-preserved…even its notoriously sun-sensitive dashboard was uncracked.
Of course, with mint originals in short supply, some AE86 owners choose to go the restoration route. Few have pulled it off better than Janet Fujimoto with her 1985 GT-S notchback, which has been restored to a standard more commonly seen among six-figure Italian exotic cars. A perennial favorite at JCCS, Fujimoto finally bagged the coveted “Best AE86” award at the 2014 show.
Another ’80s classic that has become virtually impossible to find in stock condition is the Honda CRX, most of which seem to have been thrashed as commuter cars, amateur racers, or worse: victims of ill-advised modifications by teenaged “tuners.” Thankfully, a few devoted owners have preserved these wonderful featherweight performers, perhaps none more successfully than Christopher Hoffman and his well-known ’87 CRX Si. Hoffman has owned the car since new, during which time he has accumulated 109,000 miles and more than a little press coverage (including feature articles in Hemmings Motor News, Japanese Nostalgic Car, and Petrolicious.)
There are vintage Japanese cars seldom seen in stock condition, and then there are vintage Japanese cars seldom seen…period. Such is the case with the first-generation Isuzu Impulse, sold in the U.S. from 1981 through 1989. A supremely handsome coupe with styling by Giugiaro, the Impulse was a fairly popular competitor to the Toyota Celica and Volkswagen Scirocco during its production run, and eventually offered turbo power and a Lotus-tuned suspension. Yet for some reason, only a handful remain today; owners have been known to refer to their cars as “extinct.” Among the few survivors, longtime Isuzu employee Jeff Shein’s ’85 Turbo must be one of the best. (Looming in the background is another popular Isuzu favorite, the 1991 Trooper 4×4 of Bart Wilkus, whose collection also includes an immaculate Impulse Turbo.)
Another rare sight on these shores is the Toyota Sprinter Trueno, a high-performance variant of the Corolla made between 1972 and 1974. Russ Capulong’s ’72 was actually born a lower-spec Corolla, but was painstakingly converted over a three-year period into a Trueno clone using original Japanese-sourced parts (including a set of authentic 1970s Watanabe alloy wheels.) The result is striking, and was our favorite early Toyota at the show by a wide margin.
One of the few Japanese classics to have enjoyed longstanding popularity among American enthusiasts is the Datsun 1600/2000 Roadster. Launched in the late 1960s as a competitor to contemporary British sports cars, the Datsun Roadster offered a degree of quality and reliability that were unheard of among the English brands. As always, there were numerous examples shown at JCCS; our pick was Rich Scharf’s gleaming white 1970 1600. Like many other classic Japanese car owners, Scharf had previously owned a Datsun Roadster in his pre-parenthood days, and purchased his current ride as an “empty nest car.” Complete but rusty when he bought it, Scharf subjected the 1600 to a three-year restoration which he describes as 95% complete. After viewing the car’s beautifully finished interior and truly spectacular powder-coated undercarriage, we’d be hard-pressed to find the other 5%.
With hundreds of amazing cars to choose from at this year’s JCCS, it would seem that picking an overall favorite would be difficult. Surprisingly, it wasn’t…the winner very literally stopped us in our tracks. That car, and its fascinating backstory, will be revealed tomorrow!
Parking On Grass is the Desktop Concours’ irregular series on California’s vibrant car show scene. Occasionally, cars will not actually be be parked on grass.