Historiography: The Long Hard Climb of The Japanese Automobile in America

There was a time when we did not think of Japanese cars as we do today.

Translation: Japanese cars were thought of as cheap tin boxes that would never make it through a Minnesota winter. That was the mentality of the American consumer until the last couple of decades. It does help that several Japanese automakers set up shop building vehicles on our soil to change our collective minds.

We are at the point of maturation with respect to the Japanese car. The mainstream automakers have made their presence known globally with production facilities practically everywhere you find them. Smaller manufacturers found success elsewhere to leverage what they can on our shores.

A lot have changed over the past six-plus decades of the Japanese automotive industry. Looking back would reveal a world where anti-Asian sentiment limited the arrival of the first products sold in the USA.

"Anti-Asian Sentiment?" As film critic Alonso Duralde pointed out back in 2014 upon the death of Mickey Rooney how the famous actor took an Asian character to its worse stereotypes in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." That characterization alone was exactly how so-called mainstream America felt about anything from Asia in the post-World War II era. America beat the Japanese, made them surrender and we made complete fools of them – that was what the status quo thought in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Sochiro Honda already sold motorcycles by the time Toyota and Nissan sent their first vehicles across the Pacific. While lighter and smaller than their American and European counterparts, Hondas were found to be reliable and durable despite our view of Japanese and Asian products.

The first Toyopet Crowns certainly looked like American, even European cars. If you were my size in 1958, you would have some problems getting comfortable behind the wheel of one. The typical American car had twice the room behind the wheel, and were fractions larger than anything Toyota and Nissan sold here. Even I had room in a Volkswagen sedan.

This was the challenge for the Japanese – how to satisfy the taste of their intended markets outside of home? What they learned was to go back every time they developed a new car to understand what we wanted in one. Though their vehicles would fit well in other markets – Europe, across Asia and other parts of the globe – Japan wanted to concentrate on the USA, as it was still seen as the land of opportunity.

Not all of America was willing to embrace Japan's automobiles. Toyota, Honda and Nissan established their American headquarters in California for a reason. It is easy to ship across the Pacific than try to establish a huge national network in the early going. Also, Californians were more likely to embrace imported cars than most parts of the country – an assumption that would be easily challenged, but not far from the truth.

Using California as the platform for growth, Toyota went to work on products that would satisfy both home market and export needs. The 1965-66 Corona spurred that growth by upping performance and interior space. They were also proven to be durable and reliable – two adjectives never given to a Japanese-made automobile until the Corona debuted.

From the Corona, Toyota’s floodgates opened up with a lineup of vehicles that would forever change the company’s image in America. Though not intended for series production, the 2000GT demonstrated what was possible for Toyota. A few were sold, but its legacy created a stir towards reversing the image of the Japanese car. In 1968, the Corolla was introduced. Though smaller than the Corona, it would open up the company to a new set of customers looking for further efficiency than the Volkswagen lineup and other European competitors in America.

Toyota also had a reputation for making tough trucks and SUVs. By 1965, the Toyota Stout arrived showing progress in pickup manufacture. Through the Stout, they began to look at how to make the pickup product more robust not only for America – but for a worldwide audience. That would create the conditions of introducing the Hi-Lux pickup by the end of the 1960s.

The Land Cruiser was originally designed as a knock-off of the Jeep – with its own grille and such. Though a low volume offering, the Land Cruiser found a crowd amongst off-road enthusiasts with its strong in-line six-cylinder power and the ability to follow a Kaiser-Jeep CJ deep into the canyons and deserts.

Nissan was slowly catching up to Toyota's lead in America, selling under the Datsun banner. Though Bluebirds sold as rebadged Datsuns had slowly found new friends, the breakout model came with a car similar in size to the Corona with an amazing four-cylinder engine underneath to create a legend – the 510.

What the 510 did for Datsun/Nissan was to demonstrate the flexibility of the overhead camshaft 1.6-liter engine for both passenger car use and on the track. In its lifetime, the 510 won its share of Trans Am class wins, SCCA club races and a couple of world rallies. Datsun became the first successful Japanese automaker to put is reputation on the track in the USA through a series of production vehicles.

The 510 opened the door to Datsun's most legendary offering – the 240Z. With inspiration from the Jaguar E-Type, the lightweight, six-cylinder Z captured the imagination of Americans. The long hood and hatchback tail were the hook to get enthusiasts inside of the two-seat sports car. One turn of the ignition of the in-line six, and all you had to do was drive. When you drive a Z, you can feel the power from the six, as you wind your way through canyons roads or the best tracks in this country. This was one of the most incredible cars of its time – a foreteller of the future of the sports car. It also started the destruction of every post-World War II anti-Asian stereotype in one fell swoop.

This was 1970. Toyota and Nissan were joined by its home market competitors in finding inroads in America. Honda began selling automobiles in the guise of the tiny N600 and Z600. Subaru arrived with its quirky 360 minicar. Then, Toyo Kogyo began a regional push with its lineup of piston and Wankel Rotary engine offerings. The latter you might know of its more familiar name – Mazda.

In the face of impending oil crises and rising fuel pump costs, Isuzu and Mitsubishi arrived with different, more familiar names. These captive imports were brought in to help provide fuel efficient offerings to the Big Three, while finding ways to combat the growth of Toyota and Nissan in America. Isuzu already had an agreement with General Motors, sending Chevrolet a compact pickup called the LUV. Mitsubishi rebadged the 1971 Galant as the Dodge Colt, a counterpoint to Plymouth's British built Cricket. Mitsubishis would eventually show up in Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms after they dropped the unreliable Hillman.

Ford partnered with Mazda to sell a compact pickup stateside. It was an interesting proposition, since Mazda already sold the same product in the USA with the rotary engine. Instead, Toyo Kogyo shipped the pickup with a piston motor and called it the Ford Courier.

With the growth of Japanese cars in the USA, one would think that old stereotypes that scoured the image of these products would simply go away. It dod help that the OPEC Oil Crisis opened up more sales of more efficient Japanese cars and that the products have been improving by every step. You would also think that these automakers have found how to satisfy American tastes with spacious interiors and more power from their efficient engines.

Not exactly. Because of the demand for more efficient vehicles, the marketplace began to shape towards a showdown between the US Government and the Japanese auto industry. In the middle were European importers who found fortune by selling in the luxury car and sports car field instead of competing in the mainstream. Those who remained in the mainstream marketplace did not last long.

Fear became a motivator to restrain imports from Japan. Threats of tariffs, new taxes – the Chicken Law, for example – and quotas threatened the growing popularity of Japanese cars by the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, the domestics began to compete with their Japanese rivals by producing their own efficient automobiles – to mixed results.

With the threat of further actions and accusations of "dumping," Honda came up with a great idea: Why not build cars in North America. Nissan has been producing cars in Mexico – why not Honda in the USA? In a town northwest of Columbus, Ohio – Marysville, to be exact – the first American made Honda Accord sedan came off of the assembly line. Thus changed the image and the fortunes of Japanese automakers in America.

Is the rest history? Perhaps, but even the mighty Japanese industry had to go through a couple of major economic challenges to get to this point of maturity. Their leadership expanded into many different segments – the luxury and performance car markets, included. As much as one would like to knock the Japanese today for some minor detail on execution, design, quality, brand cache and so forth – remember their tough climb to get to where they are today in this automotive marketplace.

All photos by Randy Stern

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