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Collecting Japanese Cars

A few cars to keep an eye out for

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2010.

When you wander through an antique shop you’ll invariably hear someone say: “Gosh, I had one of those when I was a kid.” There always follows a pause, followed by a gasp when the price tag is sighted. The person often then emits a rueful laugh, probably wondering how much they’d be worth if they’d kept all the ephemera from their youth.

The point of the story is that it’s very hard to think ahead, to pick up collectables before they are in fact regarded as collectable! That sentiment applies in spades to cars: collectable cars are expensive; old cars are often very cheap. The point at which one starts to turn into the other is moot, and depends on a whole heap of variables including scarcity, desirability, parts cost and availability, and so on.

But what I’d suggest is that now is the right time to be buying some older Japanese cars – not to make a profit on, but simply to enjoy as a classic... before anyone actually realises that they are classics and prices shoot up.

Here in Australia, Japanese cars fetch lower prices than Europeans of the same vintage and condition; they don’t have the cachet and when new they were cheaper. But all the reasons that you might have for driving an old car – it’s fun, it’s different, it’s stimulating – apply to Japanese cars of the Sixties, and increasingly, the Seventies.

This story doesn’t attempt to be a detailed review of sales figures, engine specs or original or current selling prices. Instead it’s an attempt to point you towards a few Japanese cars that are now increasingly rare, but where the prices haven’t yet started really rocketing.

Before buying any car, always check on local spare parts availability, support clubs and workshops, and international support (eg by web-based clubs and suppliers). It is absolutely no use buying a car that cannot be driven, all for the sake of a missing part that proves impossible to replace.

Furthermore, unless the car has had a full restoration (very unlikely with the cars in this article), it is much better to buy an ‘honest’ car – one that has been well maintained, has relatively low kilometres, and shows some signs of its age. Cars that present too well are often hiding accident damage.

Mazda RX7

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Mazda made some very interesting cars in the Sixties and Seventies. One of the most interesting was the RX7 – the very first model of a car that went through a number of subsequent iterations. Sold in large enough quantities to be much easier to get than the earlier R100, RX2, RX3 and RX4 rotary-powered models, it’s also a sweeter shape and is demonstrably a sports car.

Released in 1979, almost 29,000 RX-7s were sold worldwide in only the first 8 months of production! The X605 RX7 (retrospectively dubbed the Series 1) came equipped with a twin-rotor 12A rotary power plant that developed 77kW at 6000 rpm. Torque was rated at 147Nm at 4000 rpm. A vacuum secondary four-barrel Nikki carb was used for induction (EFI wasn't available on the engine until 1983) and the engine had a compression ratio of 9.4:1.

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There wasn't a lot of torque below 3000 rpm, but the engine had a terrific willingness to rev to its 7000 redline. In straight-line performance, the RX7 could manage quarter mile passes in around 17.0-17.4 seconds and reach 97 km/h in 9.2-10.3 seconds. But it was thirsty, averaging 13.5L/100km.

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The greatest difficulty in finding a Series 1 RX-7 will be locating one that’s not been modified. Of course, you may be quite happy with a modified RX7, but I for one would want a dead-standard car – that way, I’m experiencing the car as tens of thousands of others did. You’d also want to source a good rotary workshop (they’re becoming increasingly rare these days) and do some spare parts price checking.

Personal note: my brother, a huge fan (and owner) of the rival Datsun Z-cars, always referred to the Mazda RX7 as ‘the tampon’. I am not sure why.

Mitsubishi Colt Fastback

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Released in 1967 in Australia (and just a few other countries outside Japan), the Colt Fastback had style and, in its last 1100 SS form, decent point-to-point performance for the time. It was also a car that achieved rallying success, and with its lift-up hatch and fold-down rear seat, had great practicality.

In the flesh the car looks better than in the pics - and I think it looks pretty good in the pics! The rear roofline styling has touches of Fiat in it; the tail-lights a whiff of Ford. But the side glass area is pure Colt – I’ve never seen another car that has (from front to back), a wind-down window, a window that pivots open hopper-style from a horizontal roof hinge, and then a fixed window.

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And what is the Colt like on the road? The driver’s seat has a fixed, very reclined backrest – if you adjust the seat for enough legroom, you’re forced straight into a long-armed driving style. The pedals are offset to the left, the instruments are clear and the visibility – well, the visibility is just fantastic. With the thin pillars, low waistline and immense areas of glass, there are no blind-spots. The Colt is a small car but it feels light, airy and spacious – far more pleasant than any small car of today.

The steering is light and reasonably direct (the latter not normally associated with recirculating ball designs) and the car feels nimble and responsive. The ride is excellent: even on bumpy bitumen you can get a feel for how the car would have been on dirt – long travel, relatively soft suspension and seats with perfectly matched springing.

Finding one will be the biggest difficulty – it’s the sort of car where you’d best flag down the owner when you see one passing by.

In automotive history, the Colt is a forgotten car. But not only was it amongst the world’s first modern era hatchbacks, it also showed innovative body styling and achieved sporting success.

Personal note: it’s now just a vague memory, but I reckon back in the early 1970s my Year 5 teacher had a Colt Fastback. I remember its round tail-lights and raunchy exhaust – it was a rally car that she drove to school on a daily basis!

Honda Civic

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Released in Australia (and around much of the world) in 1973, the Honda Civic was really the first successful Japanese front-wheel drive car. Yes there had previously been FWD cars from Japanese makers (for example, the tiny Z and N600, and the complex 1300, all also from Honda) but these were never successful in the way the Civic was. The Civic also proved itself to be durable and effective, again not traits of those earlier FWD Hondas!

Unusually for the time, the Civic was available from Day 1 in two-door and three-door sedan forms, and as a two-door wagon. In addition, you could buy cars equipped with a manual 4-speed transmission or a 2-speed (yes, two speeds) auto trans. A four door (with wheelbase extended by 80mm) with a 1.5 litre engine appeared in 1974. Nowadays, the manual two-doors and three-doors are the most desirable.

The 1.2 litre engine developed about 37kW but a kerb mass of 680kg and short gearing (including a 4.6:1 final drive ratio!) made the car nippy and fun. The first generation shape stayed until 1979.

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The suspension was fully independent (using struts front and rear) with front discs and rear drums. Steering was sharp rack and pinion with 3.1 turns lock to lock. Fuel consumption was exceptional for the time, ranging from 7 – 9.3 litres/100km. In the way of Japanese cars, the Civic was well equipped as standard, with niceties like reclining front seats, locking fuel cap, trip meter, radio and centre console.

The car is mechanically simple and easy to work on – Honda learnt from the un-needed complexity of its earlier cars.

The Honda was a far better car than current pricing suggests; one contemporary account describes it as “one of the most brilliant small cars yet produced... with excellent comfort, handling and braking for the class”.

Personal note: my girlfriend (now wife) owned a 1974 Civic two-door. I couldn’t believe how nippy it was – and also how when you braked hard, the rear tried to overtake the front. Maybe the brakes needed adjustment...

Datsun Skyline

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Back in the late 1970s Nissan was still known as Datsun, and the Skyline – especially in two door ‘hardtop’ form - was one very sweet bit of gear. A replacement for the 240K, the C210 ‘78 Skyline used similar mechanicals to the older car – semi-trailing arm rear suspension, front struts, 2.4 litre overhead cam six cylinder motor – but had a much prettier and more refined body. The car was available with a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed auto.

The Skyline was lavishly equipped and most came with the (optional) air con and power steering. An overhead console, adjustable steering column, velour interior and dash containing no less than ten gauges (including a then-rare electronic digital clock), front and rear inertia reel seat belts and a day/night mirror are just some of the goodies.

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Contemporary reports on the car were positive. Wheels magazine in its June, 1978 edition called it ‘the best Datsun sold in Australia’. Modern Motor agreed, saying that the only factor which would stop the Skyline selling well was the quota system, which then limited the number of imported models able to be sold in Australia. “The best Japanese car we’ve had the pleasure of driving” was the August 1978 Motor Manual assessment. In June it was their cover car.

And what’s it like to drive now? The instruments are good, the suspension so soft that it squats, dives and rolls at the slightest provocation, and the driving position comfortable. However, even with the soft suspension, the handling is quite respectable.

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Apart from body panels and special trim bits, parts are straightforward to obtain – all the mechanicals are the same as other 6-cylinder Datsuns of the time. Whether it’s because of the car’s clear lineage to later (and vastly faster!) Skylines, or because of its wedge-shaped sleekness, the C210 – especially in 2-door form – is a great collectors’ buy.

Personal note: About 14 years ago I bought a C210 Datsun hardtop. I replaced the engine with a water/air intercooled RB20DET turbo six, fitted bigger front brakes and tweaked the suspension. Because it was a busy time, I never really finished the project, but I have fond memories of the resulting grace and pace.

Conclusion

As I was writing this story, suitable cars kept popping into my head – the 1960s Isuzu Bellet 2-door, the 1970s 1600 Subaru Coupe, a 1960s Datsun Bluebird ute, a Suzuki Mighty Boy ute (from the mid-Eighties but get them while you still can). And then, along with the Mighty Boy, you tend to start thinking of later cars – like a first generation Mazda MX5, or even the original Lexus – before it even had the LS400 name. Maybe also the first FWD Celica – regarded at the time as a monumental breakthrough in Toyota sports cars?

There are certainly plenty of cars to think about – but remember, get in before everyone else starts thinking the same!

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