Saturday, November 14, 2009


I remember a longtime Canadian reader of mine asking me if I felt any anger, hatred or animosity when the importation of Japanese automobiles as well as other wheeled vehicles suddenly went into overdrive back in the late-sixties and early-seventies. To his surprise I responded a hearty "no"...y'see. this particular fellow was under the misguided impression that, perhaps due to patriotic doody or deeply-held provincialism I would have been a rabid opponent of vehicles such as the Datsun Bluebird and Toyota Corolla roaming the streets of These Here United States, but being an auto buff since way back when I had a totally different opinion regarding this new breed of foreign imports. For one thing, just about every item from Japan that made its way into my paws seemed really exotic to me at the time, and while most people used to see the label "Made in Japan" and automatically deem it as junk I thought said item was a mystical relic from halfway around the world. And when automobiles from the Far East began making their way to our shores with increasing numbers I thought of them as welcome additions to our showrooms and parking lots! For one thing they looked cooler than the American cars and in many ways seemed to retain a lot of that early-sixties styling that was fast rusting away. Also, these vehicles seemed to take the place of the Studebaker and other long gone Amerigan marques whose demise somehow signaled the end of a certain era not only in motoring, but in mid-Amerigan fun and games. And since I didn't have the same sorta inbred hatred of anything outside my own ethnic enclaves like many of my relatives (some who even fought in Europe during World War II) these cars just seemed all the neater to my barely double-digit self.

I remember my grandmother's neighbors who had a farm which they drove to in a dull blue Toyota pickup, a 1963 model the kind which has been recently revamped and reintroduced to an auto-buying public looking for old designs in new wraps so to speak. My father used to point out all of the so-called cheap handiwork in the vehicle and say how this truck was prone to rust, but those neighbors sure kept the thing for a long time and got rid of it after a good twelve or so years of usage. I also remember seeing my first actual Japanese automobile in the parking lot at Idora Park in Youngstown Ohio, a Honda sports car which surprised me since I knew about their motorcycles and had no idea they were in the automobile biz. It seemed like a rarity of such a magnitude it might as well have been a Maserati or some other six-digit sports car rather than a "cheap" Japanese import! And after thinking about about such important watermarks in my life all these years later all I can say is never in my wildest dreams did I think that we'd be swamped with these kind of Asian-born and bred cars that, for all practical purposes, have taken over a big chunk of the national market! And for one thing I am sorta glad about it considering some of the turds that the Big Three have been churning out for a longer time than I can imagine.

The Japanese auto industry has been cranking 'em out for quite a long time now, and just like here inna US or in Europe they also went through their own Golden Age, one which I would roughly say was the late-fifties to mid-sixties kinda like everywhere else. And they produced some great lookers too, cars that unfortunately weren't available over here or if so in limited quantities just like a good portion of imports from England, France and Italy that were ultimately squeezed outta the market by the Japanese cars which I'll admit had a lot more going for them than all of those World War II vets would admit. Anyway, here are but a few I thought were really snazzy in their own way, some for their basic utility and others for their luxurious flash, and if you don't get a buzz looking at these cars (or any other great cars from that long gone era) that I do then why don't you just skedaddle over to some blog that's more worthy of your intellect and emotions, like maybe DECADE OF CHILDHOOD ANAL CAVITY RESEARCH ENDS or something along those lines, eh shorty?

The 1958-72 SUBARU 360!

You wanna talk absolute basic? Naturally there were a ton of mini-cars coming out of Europe and Japan during the postwar years due to gasoline and other resource shortages but none of 'em (with the stark possibility of the Isetta) can hold a candle to the Subaru 360 when it comes to low budget looks and craft! Designed by the same people who drew up the dreaded Zero back inna forties, the 360 was Subaru's entry into the Japanese "People's Car" market along with such other low-fidelity stalwarts as the Mitsubishi 360 and the Mazda R360. However, when Japan got back on her feet and the need for such disposable vehicles was made obsolete, Subaru was on a roll with their 360 and kept it into production well into the early-seventies!

In fact, the 360 surprisingly became a hit inna US of Whoa, at least until those killjoys at CONSUMER REPORTS put the kibosh on by printing an article which more or less called the car a hunkin' piece of junk. If the Corvair was supposed to be unsafe at any speed then this 'un was unsafe just standin' there, since it hung so low to the ground that its headlights were about the same height as a "normal" car's bumper and who knows what else. Well, I guess this one outlived its usefulness anyways and Subaru were more eager to concentrate on their other small cars which were easily enough finding a niche in the Amerigan car buying world.

Imagine if you will a strange prototype Volkswagen Beetle only smaller, with tail lights situated near the rear window rather than on the fender. And old-fashioned suicide doors as well as one of the basest dashboards you can imagine, and you have the Subaru 360

Besides the standard sedan there also was a 360 station wagon which does bear a striking resemblance to those special order Beetle wagons that were availabe via the Beutler coachbuilders in the early-sixties. I dunno if this one could function as a standard station wagon, y'know, the kind you'd pile the kids into in order to take the brood to McDonalds. In fact, I doubt if you could pile one kid into the back of this one. There was also a Subaru 360 minivan which did resemble the VW variant, an item that I'm sure made it big with the budget-conscious hippies of the day.
1961 MAZDA R360!

Somewhere in between producing three-wheeled trucks and the Wankel engine came Mazda's first entry into the "serious" vehicle sweepstakes, this variation on the aforementioned "People's Car" budget automobile. I must say that even though it does look like an inverted bathtub there is a certain sway to it, and if you do catch a rear view shot there seems to be a bit of an experimental Italian influence to the curved, airflow styling. And most interesting of all is the fact that this one was available inna US early on, though I'm sure any surviving vehicles would probably be worthy of the Christie's treatment. Not surprisingly enough, soon this Mazda was phased out in lieu of a newer model, the Mazda Carol, which looked more like a Ford Anglia fetus (late-second trimester) than anything else to these eyes!

Yeah, I know that Prince Gloria sounds like some strange breed of lezbo royalty but we're talking about the once-famous Prince automobile company, and those Japanese automobile names always had that classic sorta snobbish sound to 'em (like the aforementioned Carol, Cedric, Fairlady, Debonair...). And when it comes to classy names, the Gloria lives up to its moniker for sure! The first Japanese luxury car, the Gloria boasts a design by none other than Giovanni Michelotti and had quite a reputation not only given its design but the fact that Prince was known for its well-built automobiles, a rarity in an industry that seemed to have a fall-apart and rust-out reputation known far and wide. The car really does resonate inside my bean in a positive, early-sixties cool fashion reminding me of what an early-sixties Rambler aspiring to be an Imperial might have looked like.

Anyway, in order to give you an idea of just what this vehicle meant to the highways and biways (calm down Dave!) of Japan, here's a vintage tee-vee commercial that ran in the land which shows this Japanese boss who looks like Nippon's answer to Mr. Drysdale driving around in a Gloria, and even a good forty-five years later it still looks inspirational enough to make me want to go out and buy one!

While I'm champing at the bit, I might as well tell you about Nissan's take on the Gloria, naturally created after that corporation gobbled up Prince on behast of the Japanese government in order to thwart any hostile takeovers by foreign competition. When it comes to the Japanese (or any other nation) trying to ape the Amerigan styles of the day this late-sixties variation's got 'em beat hand down, from the sixties dimensional aspect to a front that looks straight offa the Chryslers of the day. I kinda get the feeling that Japanese automobiles woulda been thought of highly at the time if they were importing these 'stead of Bluebirds and Corollas. The station wagon variant (pictured here) was an obvious tipoff that this was a foreign job since it sported one of those European lift-up tailgates that weren't seen in the USA for years on end and seemed kinda neato to a Matchbox-collecting kiddo such as myself.

Here's one I probably would have ignored had not someone on an internet site posted a comment remarking how much this was "borrowed" from the original Studebaker Lark!
Being a fan of the Lark ever since I was a wee lad I naturally decided to look into this particular model which I guess does come off like an Italian coachbuilder's idea of what a Lark should have looked like. Well, I gotta say that the Crown does look a lot smarter than that Lark that the Lombardi body design team did for Studebaker around '61 (which looked too much like a Fiat, nothing against that marque) and if someone were to present the Crown as an actual contender for the "new" Lark look that debuted in the '64 season I'd fall for their hoax hook line and chromium plating!

Not a bad looking vehicle which does have that non-Big Three early-sixties appeal. A whole lot better than the previous Crown design which was just a bad swipe of the 1954 Ford and dare-I-say smarter than some of the Toyotas that were being cranked out in the early-sixties. Yet another vehicle that woulda looked great roaming the USA highways of the sixties complete with a backseat fulla yammering kids asking "are were there yet?"

What do you get when you take the basic body of the 1962 Lincoln Continental, add a grill influenced by the 1960 Ford Fairlane and shrink it down to the size of a Falcon? You get Mitsubishi's entry in the Japanese luxury car sweepstakes! Again, the American-esque styling would have gone over well here making me wonder why Chrysler didn't think of importing these 'stead of the Colt. Nice albeit boxy, but a whole lot roomier than a Daihatsu 3-wheeled pickup if you ask me!

Speaking of which, this must have been the king of the Japanese three-wheeled pickups that were all the rage in Japan back in the late-fifties. Mazda and Mitsubishi had models that were so similar that I'm surprised there wasn't a lawsuit brewing, and the reason for the proliferation of such trucks seems to be rather obvious. After all, I can see some Japanese fisherman loading up the back of his Midget with ice, spending the morning catching a nice batch then driving with his wares to market for the afternoon supper-hunting crowd. I'll bet someone in Japan feels extremely nostalgic over this model, and in my own downhome corny way I don't blame 'em!

Proof positive that you can even market a truck with a snazzy, Italian design making me wonder if this is yet another Michelotti venture! Also getting hefty design points in the truck division is the Prince Miler, which is classy enough to merge typical early-sixties pick up looks with the slanted quad headlight design of the then-contemporary Plymouths! Not as nice looking as the Mitsubishi Jupiter Junior which looked like the results of a mating between an early-sixties International pickup and the very same Plymouth/Dodges, but wonderful enough to have me zoning back to those days when cars and trucks had their own special personalities and didn't look like those styrofoam boxes they used to put McDonalds hamburgers in!


Bill S. said...

Wow, who needs the "Smart Car" (have any of those appeared in the greater Sharon-Hermitage area? wonder how they'd get through a PA winter!)---the Japanese need to get these designs out of mothballs PRONTO and start shipping them over here.
True story: when I was about 13 in Colorado, the Subaru 360 (which had a two-stroke engine, like my weed-cutter) was still being sold in the US, and as I remember it was incredibly cheap, maybe $1300. I saw one on display at a mall, and thought "gee, if I saved up my lawn-mowing and fence-painting money for three years, I could buy one of these when I was sixteen and I could drive it legally." I remember telling my Dad about this and dragging him down to the display to see the egg-shaped Subaru 360 and asking him what he thought of my plan. Needless to say, he did not think highly of my plan. Many years later, in the late eighties, I was looking at a new Yugo, which cost about $3400 (this was in Virginia). It was so poorly made that even I could see about 25 flaws in the design and manufacture in the first minute of looking at it. Still, it was $3400.
I then dragged Kathleen down to look at one, and when we finished looking at it, she said, after I told her I might surprise her with one some afternoon, "if you ever bring one of those things home, I'll shoot you!" Not wanting to be shot, I did not buy one.
I think some of today's Asian cars such as the Kia Soul and the Nissan Cube will appear as odd to future generations as the Subaru 360 does to us today. And that larger Scion still looks like a Tokyo bakery truck to me!
As for the Mitsubishi Deboniar (which has a curiously Studebaker-like look to it), I've seen those being driven by diplomats and rich people in 1960s Japanese science fiction movies. They always bring a touch of class to the proceedings.

Great piece, Chris.


Christopher Stigliano said...

Thanx for the kind words Bill. Hey, did you ever notice that many of the same WW II generation vets who hated Japanese cars were the ones who fought in Europe hence my comment in the first paragraph in case nobody got it????? My father was in South Pacific and he never had any great animosity towards the Japanese for as long as I could tell!

Your Subaru 360 story was pretty funny. I remember seeing the 360 around a lot back before CONSUMER REPORTS did that hatchet job on them, and yeah it was a cheaply made vehicle!!! I remember seeing one with my father parked in the lot across the street from the downtown post office, with my father pointing out the cheap interior where you could see electrical wire taped together hanging loose under the dashboard! I think the car could only hit 55 mph max before blowing up!

Anonymous said...

In the '60s, there were many Japanese cars - like Debonairs and Glorias amongst others - which got imported to Hawaii but nowhere else in the US. I remember reading old issues of Road & Track in which people were complaining about the high end Japanese cars not being available in the mainland US. Much of the sentiment against Japanese cars in the 70s/80s had more to do with the displacement of US jobs, especially in the Great Lakes industrial heartland, than memories of WW2, and in the 60s Japan was not a threat to the US auto industry. - Michael S.