The rise of the Japanese sports car: how Japan dominated.
When we think of a sporty car, what do we think of? Is it a low, nimble convertible? Or maybe a coupe that can laugh in the face of the laws of physics? And when you think of those cars, do you think of a BMW or Mercedes? Maybe something domestic? I bet you will have at least thought of one Japanese car.
Since they first hit our shores, the Japanese OEMs have built some of the most impressive cars to ever lay rubber. From the Miata, to the WRX, to the Nissan GT-R, Japan has made amazing machines, at costs far lower than their European counterparts.
The rise of the Japanese sports car can actually be traced back to a single Toyota, made famous by the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. The 2000GT. While the movie version was a convertible, only the coupe was ever offered for sale. Built in collaboration with Yamaha, the straight six powered car was compared favorably at the time to the Porsche 911. The car is now worth over a million dollars, and is considered the genesis to the Japanese super car market. In the decades that followed, Toyota built many sports cars, such as the Celica, the mid-engined MR2, and finally, the new GT-86.
Toyota has also tried more recently to create another super car through the Lexus side of their company. With an almost unlimited R&D budget, and knowledge from their F1 team, they created the Lexus LFA. A front engined V10 monster that is as much as home on a race track, as on a long road trip. Lexus has since done high performance versions of the IS and RC, both of which feature a very muscle car like V8. Both Toyota brands are still trying to push forward a Japanese method of speed and driving pleasure.
And when it comes to driving pleasure, one Japanese marque has put that exact experience in everything they do. And did I mention they also have the highest selling sports car in the world? The Mazda Miata is on its fourth generation now, and it’s better than ever. But when the NA first came onto the scene it carried the torch that the small British roadster had in the 50’s and 60’s. The Miata is a special car because there are just so many on the road still. Every weekend people take their cars to the racetrack, or to Autocross, or even just their favorite back road. Early cars are still cheap and reliable, so they end up in the hands of younger people, helping the next generation of gear heads bloom.
And you can’t mention Mazda without also mentioning their Wankel engined cars, the RX series. With several generations of the RX-7 and the modern RX-8, Mazda was the brand that was deepest into the idea of the rotary engine. While the RX-8 might have reliability issues, and older rotors are hard to repair, the people that love their cars are very passionate. And even though the Rotary has gone away for the time being, Mazda will always try to bring it back.
If the cars you have been thinking of in this story are closer to Fast and Furious than a long coastal drive, than you must have been waiting for me to talk about the tuner scene. With turbocharged cars becoming popular and the lifestyle showcased in the F&F franchise, tuning your own car became very popular. With body kits, bigger turbos, and lowering springs, people became able to make their car their own. And Japanese cars became the canvas for a lot of this work, with cars like the GT-R from Nissan becoming a halo car for the scene. From the R34 generation driven by Paul Walker, to the brand new GT-R Nismo on sale now, the GT-R is the epitome of the JDM car.
Tuning houses have all raced to make the most powerful GT-R, and Nissan themselves have updated the car with almost an Apple like schedule. Each year the cars gets a little faster, a little better, and it shows. Nissan has gone head to head with Porsche at the famed Nurburgring in Germany, beating the Germans at their own track.
And in doing that, all of this has elevated the brand, and the Japanese sports car as a whole. New models are benchmarked favorably with their European and American cousins. They are now a breed with pedigree and diversity. From a classic Datsun, to a modern Subaru, the sports car is alive and well.