Theme: Japan – Milestones

I’m about halfway through my life or a little over, if I take the actuarial figures for Irish males seriously. Underway I have changed some opinions and made some discoveries. About time, too.

1986 Honda Accord Aerodeck
1986 Honda Accord Aerodeck: source

One of these discoveries is that fortified wines from Jerez, Spain are wonderful with sushi. A good fino like Lustau Jarana  or a Manzanilla such as Solear go really well with this class of food. And that brings me to Japan, via raw fish. I discovered that raw fish is delicious, an oriental analogue of the way Europeans consume raw beef in the form of steak tartare though sushi is not about disguising the taste as Europeans do with capers, tabasco, onion and egg. The Japanese must find Europeans rather distasteful in some ways.

Sushi brings us finally to Japanese car design which provides plenty of visual interest and more simplicity than complexity. While I feel I am certain that there is more design merit in a VW Golf than a Toyota Corolla, I understand it is possible this is merely due to my cultural baggage. It is likely that viewed from within a culture that values subtlety, the Golf appears rather coarse. Contrariwise we view the Corolla as bland while the Japanese probably detect much subtlety of form.

I have reappraised how I see Japanese design. It might be that what we characterise as typical Japanese design is in fact design done to appeal to what the Japanese think Europeans want. How many people who discount Japanese design have ever seen what was sold thirty years ago or what is on sale in Japan today? Turning this around, if you want to know what they think our cars look like, consider a 1983 Toyota Crown or a 1971 Nissan 130-Y. BMWs must look crass to the Japanese.

With that in mind I will pick a few examples of fine Japanese design from down the years. I was unaware of these vehicles’ merits so long as I was misled by received wisdom. I have half my time on earth left to enjoy them now.

1965 Nissan Silvia CSP: source
1965 Nissan Silvia CSP311: source

The Datsun Coupe 1500 prototype evolved into a production car as the Nissan Silvia CSP311 (above) and enjoyed a very limited run. Notice the rather clever way the front wing runs into the B-C pillar before fading out. The proportions are perfect and if you squint you can see that it might have influenced the last Honda Prelude. Even if they only made about 500 of these, it had influence beyond its short life and restricted distribution. The car is small but not dainty. Actually, it’s a bit of a hand-grenade suggesting speed and power without the need for length, heft, bulk and girth. It’s not a Mustang, is it?

For 1966 Mazda showed the world the Luce saloon (below). Again, this challenges our conception about gaudy or tinselly Japanese design. It is unfortunate these cars sold in small numbers in Europe and, like their peers, rusted fiercely. That’s a neat and tidy car which evokes a similar feeling to the mid-size BMWs… of a decade later. It’s a small, tight sport saloon that is the antithesis of stodgy Cortinas and Victors.

1966 Mazda Luce in Brussels: source
1966 Mazda Luce in Brussels: source

The 1967 Datsun 2000 (below) is a landmark in that it introduced British car buyers to quality and luxury that was not dependent on wood and leather. The car is crisply styled and, in comparison to what Jaguar, Wolseley and Rover were offering, very restrained. Again, we see a vehicle that bucks the stereotype that established itself in the 70s of chrome-decked oddities. This is a car that almost might have come from somewhere between France, Italy and Germany. The C-pillar curves down to the booth in a delicious fashion. The car seems to move even when standing still – was that Kinetic design?

1966 Datsun 2000:source
1966 Datsun 2000: source

Now we turn to concept cars (briefly). From 1981 we have the Mazda Aria (below), a flight of Japanese fancy, yes, but evidence of deep creative thinking. Only 35 years later are Opel pushing the boundaries again of what you can do with the side-glass on their pretty GT. In 1981 the idea was to maximise the side-glass, something that we could do with today as the shoulder line and roof of the car get closer and closer together. In this car you can see Japanese values of simplicity, harmony and honesty. And not a lot of brightwork. I like the location: it’s an ancient European church and not a desolate concrete wasteland. Those were the days.

1981 Mazda Aria MX-81: source
1981 Mazda Aria MX-81: source

There’s a bit a of a hiatus in landmarks until we get to 1987. Honda have a remarkable back catalogue of inventive designs such as the diminutive S200, the Civic, HRV (Mk1), Insight and the Prelude. The Aerodeck (below) revived the shooting-brake concept that Lancia had explored with the HPE. Something of a throwback, the car is very much about razor-sharp edges (unlike the 1985 CUE-X we discussed recently.) It’s sheer, dynamic with a great stance and it’s practical too. I keep on saying this, that it is often too late when we finally appreciate some car designs. At the time this seemed like a longer Civic. Today I think such a shape would be even more desirable than it seemed then. I haven’t seen one in a really long time.

1987 Honda Accord Aerodeck: source
1987 Honda Accord Aerodeck. Notice the subtle curve of the base of the side glass. It´s like a Japanese professional chef´s knife. The raked bonnet is exquisite: source

For 1989 Toyota presented the Aristo. This is the moment that organic forms really started to break out from the radii of primary transitions and affect the main surfaces too; the whole car has a soft-feel which looked radical compared to the harder-edged cars that would have made up the streetscape in 1989. This car is very clearly inspired by the shinto understanding of transformation. That concerns the idea that things are always in flux: emerging from nothing and disappearing back again.

Think of waves forming and sinking, flowers about to bloom, a cigar slowly burning out, the sun disappearing behind the skyline. The metaphor works here because the Aristo was also the Lexus GS, a brand appearing out of nowhere to scare the wits out of complacent European and American luxury brands. As such it had to be the essence of Japanese design.

1989 Toyota Aristo
1989 Toyota Aristo: source

Finally, the 1999 Mitsubishi Pajero TR 4 (it had other names) brings us to an appreciation of the Japanese cult of cute.

1999 Mitsubishi Pajero TR4: source
1999 Mitsubishi Pajero TR4: source

This is an off-roader that won’t offend. In 1999 I thought it was silly. Today it’s obvious it’s a high-riding car on a hatchback base giving the advantage of a raised H-point and none of the socially disturbing signals of conventional off-roaders. The forms are neatly expressed and the colour break-up on the two-tone cars very appealing. As time goes by I see more and more point in light, small cars that you can use like a bike for short trips; the car equivalent of putting on your sandals to go to the local shop.

If American designers gave the world the best expression of big, Japanese designers have been working intensively on small. It’s a bit tougher to do as one has less space to explore ideas and only the most important theme is allowed to dominate. There is less room to give a design a visually powerful element.

So, in the space of five decades and a handful of cars we have some of the main touch-points for an understanding of Japanese car design: simplicity, refinement, attention to detail, honesty and even humour. We really have to get the Corolla out of our way to see what Japanese car design is really about.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

51 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – Milestones”

  1. Not all Corollas have been offensive. The GT-S AE92 was quite a sweet coupé spin off:

    Obviously I chose the image above as a calculated bid to offend Richard’s sensibilities. I believe the car was a variant of the Sprinter Trueno, familiar to fans of Gran Turismo.

    1. I’m sure there’s a comment involving the fact that it’s odd to see a pair of pop-ups on display during daytime – but I’ll leave that to another site.

  2. I really like that early Silvia .. it also looks like a 1970s BMW,(particularly at the front).

    1. Yes itis a real beauty, i think there are some italian styling elements too. The Pininfarina-like light-breaking sideline.

  3. Great article Richard.

    On the topic of milestones, a personal milestone I recall most vividly was my first encounter of the Isuzu brand somewhere in the early 80s. I was taken by the rakish lines and the agressive face of the Piazza coupe/fastback? apologies, not sure of the correct nomenclature. Not sure how to upload a photo to convince you of my argument.

    Likely the attraction was due to my own personal penchant for the VW Scirocco (mk2) of the same era. The only other european counterpart I can recall was the Renault Fuego.

    What ever happened to the Isuzu’s venture into the traditional car market, they appear to have focussed on the SUV audience since the early 90s?

    First post, please be gentle.

    1. Hi and welcome, normally we are very friendly here and encourage good behaviours – it’s only when we get to know each other a little better that we enter into a little gentle banter/ abuse.

      Very good call the Piazza! Re Isuzus venture into mainstream, I had always assumed that it was because they decided to leave that to Subaru (I might have made an incorrect assumption that they are all part of FHI??? Will rush off and check that now.

    2. OK, in my defense, they do share the same UK importer, the lovely IM Group, I subliminally knew there was some link.

    3. I bow to your subliminal knowledge S.V. Thanks for the kind welcome and forewarning! I hope I’m able to banter with the best.

    4. I had a look at the second generation Piazza as well as the first. I can see Giugiario recycled a bit of his Scirocco in the Mk 1and in all likelihood it was probably intended as a Scirocco.
      Isuzu “peaked” with the Vehicross. And there was a concept called the Zen which went nowhere even if Geoff Gardiner´s design had a lot going for it.
      These days Isuzu do light commercials having seen how tough the passenger market was. Yet in the interim unknown brands like Dacia and Kia have emerged and done well and Skoda has been rescued from a poor reputation.
      How about the Subaru XT? There´s another bit of Japanese imagination run riot. All these cars get a bad rap from the Europress. If I ran a car magazine I´d have a Japanese-based writer delivering reviews regularly. These cars are often fascinating.

    5. If you hadn’t mentioned the XT here, I’d certainly have. Apart from it being a very marked design, I somehow doubt if I’d call it a milestone in the sense of being influential. Do we see hints of it in the XM?

  4. Despite being based on an original proposal from Bertone, don’t you think there’s a hint of Michelotti in the Mazda Luce’s crisp lines? It’s a very attractive car. Curbside Classic has a fascinating article on its conception. Mazda’s designers must have also had a good poke around Bertone’s 1979 Tundra before coming up with the Aria. That or they were thinking along very similar lines.

    Additionally, I’ve always believed Giugiaro/Ital Design was credited with the Toyota Aristo body style and of course, Pininfarina built the little Pajero for Mitsubishi – the Pajero Pinin.

    Keeping with the Italian theme, the Izuzu Piazza was a replacement for the earlier and very pretty 117 coupe, both cars emerging from the studios of Ital Design/Giugiaro. The Ace of Clubs/Piazza was a lovely shape shoehorned on the dreary GM T-Car platform. Shades of Alfa’s latter-day Brera perhaps?

    Welcome to DTW, by the way Sanjay…

    1. Thank you Eóin,
      That 117 Coupe is indeed very pretty. Reminds me somewhat of one of my all time favourites, the Audi 100 Coupé S (C1).

    2. There´s a good one. It seldom gets name-checked and I might only have seen one in the metal, ever.
      They look amazing in orange and for some reason attract pleasant-looking ladies in dirndl costumes.
      I wonder why the coupe never attracted as much interest as Alfas of the same time period?

    3. I think at this time Audi was still considered not very upmarket and with the 100 they ventured into bigger cars for the first time. This car had a reputation of being driven by conservative teachers. So a coupé was probably a bit too frivolous for this kind of car.

  5. The Cedric 130 (Datsun 2000) was Pininfarina’s work. Very Peugeot 504 in the side elevation and centre section, particuarly at the C-pillars and rear window. Nissan were nearly three years ahad of Peugeot, probably because they moved faster than Peugeot to get to market.

  6. I’d mention the Mazda Cosmo Sport 110.

    There are various possible influences, notably Pininfarina’s Alfa Spider, yet am I being fanciful to see it as being very Japanese?

    Many of the examples above weren’t designed in Japan, yet we might see them as being different from the sort of vehicles the European design houses produced fo their home clients.
    The Japanese take on Western culture – films, fashion, even hijacked words – has a different emphasis. It sees things that ‘we’ miss. Somehow my Cube seems very Japanese. Even disregarding its Shoji screen type roof blind, it’s hard to see it originating as it did from a European manufacturer..

  7. Simon: the XT has a Bertone look about it, doesn´t it? We might have covered this topic before. For me the XM has roots (somehow) in the XT and even some late 70s Lotus cars.

    1. The timelines is that the car appeared in the autumn of 1984, meaning it might have been announced at a car show in the spring of that year. Mid 1984 then. The design development of XM started in September 1984 according to one of my XM bibles. Open and shut case?

    2. Yes, definitely influential. Although the XM was kind of a dead end as well, wasn’t it? Bringing all these angles at a time when everyone else started with organic designs.

  8. Isn´t this Subaru 360 cute?

    If you are searching for a very discreet investment – buy a Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Hakosuka. I am pretty sure, your neighbours won´t realise the amount of your new investment…
    http://www.rmsothebys.com/lots/lot.cfm?lot_id=1067939

    Speaking of japanese milestones i remember the Toyota Tercel Station Wagon of 1983 – a station wagon built not only for transporting things but also built to look good and to give the owner the feeling of starting an adventure (even if it is just to pick up your stepmother).

    1. Well, look at that. Is it four-wheel drive? I can imagine these living happily in Alpine areas so long as the roads aren´t salted. That´s very robust looking. The dropped window line at the back causes me to hesitate. And then again I see what they were getting at. It´s ambiguous (non-obvious and is that not a Japanese quality?)

  9. I mentioned exactly this Tercel a few days ago when we discussed Toyota’s FWD venture. It was a huge success in Switzerland. By the way, the XT was quite common, too. And its successor SVX can still be seen on the road here from time to time.

    1. If we speak of the Tercel, we also have to mention Subaru (again) – the ones that came even before the XT. Even before Audi they made 4WD popular for cars that weren’t off-roaders. And then we have similar examples that pioneered MPVs. Nissan Prairie or Honda Shuttle come to my mind.

  10. I don’t mean to spoil Richard’s argument, but quite a few landmark Japanese cars have enjoyed a strong Italian influence. The services of Bertone and Giugiaro were employed by the nascent industry as early as the early 1960s. Count Goertz too was hired during that era, but as we all know, his credits are to be taken with healthy pinch of salt.

    The Aristo/Lexus GS is known to be a development of Giugiaro’s Jaguar Kensington concept, hence the advent of soft design also marks the last major styling trend he helped create.

    Far less well-known is Pininfarina’s role in the creation of Honda’s late 1980s range, which, of course, included the sublime Accord Aerodeck.

    This isn’t intended to lessen the value of Japanese car design at all – a deep respect for those one perceives to be masters of his craft, as well as a willingness to learn from them, is a stock element of Japanese culture. The Italian influence is therefore quite a logical consequence.

    1. Right to the point, Kris.
      The Aria MX-81 doesn’t appear to be too dissimilar from that lovely thing (one year earlier)

      and, ultimately, that one (a year later):

      That doesn’t mean I don’t like it. The 80s saw Bertone on a run, arguably for the last time in their history (exceptions prove the rule).

  11. Simon: yes, those Subarus before the XT were designed before anyone had the sort of fixed ideas about brands we have now. The Leone is an example. Audi was another entire brand unmoored in the brandscape.

  12. “The Japanese must find Europeans rather distasteful in some ways”

    Is there really a need for this type of comment? The Japanese have their own gastronomic idiosyncrasies which a lot of us would find plain disgusting. In other words, they don’t just eat sushi over there.

  13. If you are searching the www for pictures of older japanese cars, you are always entering the world of Bosozoku….

  14. Another milestone is the Honda Insight.
    I think they realized that a car with a different technology has to look different too. Like the NSU Ro80. An electric car without an independent look will never be really successful.

  15. Insight Mk1, yes we like that here. Honda Beat anyone? Thanks to Simon for introducing the SVX into the mix, very exciting design.

  16. Just realised…. No mention so far this month of the S-Cargo! A gem of design, wit and practicality. Surely worth an article….

  17. Markus: i had another look at that Insight. First, I´ve never seen one that was not red or a zany green metallic. The dark metallic blue works really well. Second, at the time I took the rear spats for granted. Yet today such a detail would be ruled out. It really is a remarkable car from both an engineering and design viewpoint. Alas it wasn´t so much a milestone as an end of the line: Honda´s zany ideas and genuinely wild styling generally.

    1. The Honda CR-Z takes the sharp and futuristic lines of the Insight – not as radical as the small Insight, but I really like the CR-Z and its hybrid-concept..
      It is still available in the US.

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