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