Japanese Sports Cars, Part 1: When Japan Started to Build Performance

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Japan joined the mainstream automotive industry only in the '60s and used performance, rally, and even F1 cars to gain recognition and acceptance.

A nation's automotive heritage is reflected in a nation's character. Therefore, German cars are overloaded with technology, American cars are manufactured efficiently and bombastically, French cars are delicate and fragile and Italian cars are attractive and seductive. But what are Japanese cars? What kind of identity card do they carry? Unlike those other nations, Japan was late to join the mainstream automotive industry.

In the first seven decades of the last century, Japanese cars were dull and small contraptions. Only the constraints of marketing these cars in the American market forced senior managers to reconsider their philosophy and adapt it to American customers' expectations. Japanese designers didn't develop a style of their own but instead looked specifically at what Americans liked and were willing to pay for. They then tried to do it the Japanese way: efficiently built with sound quality and maximum reliability. They were further assisted by European and American car designers that helped them find their way in Western markets.

Japanese performance cars were also a part of that new approach. Although Honda built small sports cars already in the '50s, the first mass produced Japanese performance car was the Datsun 240Z. From then on the Japanese industry was involved in all sorts of sports cars. A few of them were convertibles like the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the most popular roadster ever. Honda later developed the powerful but short-lived S2000 as well as the adored NSX supercar. Toyota did more mainstream jobs such as their Celica and Supra and even tried to challenge Mazda with the MR2 Spyder.

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Smaller manufacturers, like Mitsubishi and Subaru, chose the shortcut formula that simply improves existing and popular models into performance and rally cars. Nissan used the Z cars, inherited from Datsun, as its image builder as well as a moneymaker. Taking part in motorsport was used by the Japanese in order to gain credibility they so desperately needed in order to attract new customers. The Datsun 240Z's two victories at the Safari Rally in the beginning of the 1970s were landmark achievements in the acceptance and recognition of Japanese cars.

In addition, Honda's participation in Formula 1 during the '60s with their highly sophisticated racers also proved that the Japanese were serious about taking on the established superpowers in the automotive world.

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