Theme: Japan – Tokyo, Twinned With Turin

Much has been written on the contribution of Italy’s styling houses to the Japanese motor industry in the crucial years when it went from being a tentative exporter to a seemingly unstoppable force.

1965 Mazda Familia Coupe Source:
1965 Mazda Familia Coupe Source:

I have taken a closer look at cars from the last five decades with an Italian connection. Unsurprisingly, the activity was at its most intense in the 1960s. Almost every carmaker was using the Italian styling houses then.   They were not so much a service to industry, more a regional art form, but as well as being masters of form and proportion, the carrozzieri could produce prototypes more quickly, and for less money than anybody else. The fast-growing Japanese industry needed the Italian talent more than any others, to achieve international credibility and acceptance in export markets.

Their domestic cars in the 1950s were visually unappealing – awkward looking, narrow and slab sided. This was largely the result of abstruse and counter-productive tax rules, but also down to limited exposure to the latest and best Western cars in the metal – locally built Austin A55 Cambridges, Hillman Minxes and Renault 4CVs were not exactly cutting-edge by the end of the 1950s.

By the end of the following decade, the Japanese carmakers were, at least officially, going it alone on styling matters.  Only Isuzu and Giugiaro come close (at least openly) to the sort of long term relationships Peugeot and Pininfarina, or Triumph and Michelotti enjoyed.

1968 Isuzu 117 Coupe Source: Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers

There’s strong evidence that this list is a mere scratching of the surface of the Italian contribution to Japanese car styling. Years ago I read a comment from an unidentified Italian styling house boss;  “The Japanese are strange. They pay us top money, they take our designs, but they won’t put our name to them.”  Kris Kubrick has rightly suggested Pininfarina involvement at Honda from the mid-1980s – I’d say possibly much earlier. ‘80s Nissans – Micra, Silvia, Prairie, Sunny have too much of the stamp of Ital Design to be merely “design in the style”. Giorgetto Giugiaro has said that the only major carmaker he has never worked for is Honda.

Even what can be assuredly attributed represents a solid body of work. Particular delights are Michelotti’s Prince Skyline Sport, first shown in 1960, and produced in tiny numbers from 1962, and the 1963 Mazda Familia, a product of young Giugiaro’s fecund and rapidly maturing creativity. The Skyline is reminiscent of Graber’s coachbuilt Alvises, the Mazda seems to anticipate the BMW 02 series.

So here’s the list.  Contribute, conjecture, and challenge as you think fit.


1963 Compagno – Vignale


1965 Contessa 1300 – Michelotti
1966 Contessa Sprint – Michelotti


1984 HP-X Concept – Pininfarina
1995 Argento Vivo – Pininfarina


1967 Florian – Ghia
1968 117 Coupe – Giugiaro
1969 Bellett MX1600GT Concept – Tom Tjaarda at Ghia
1971 Bellett Sportswagon Concept – Tom Tjaarda at Ghia
1981 Impulse / Piazza – Giugiaro
1985 Gemini / I-Mark / Spectrum – Giugiaro


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1963 Familia – Giugiaro at Bertone
1963 Luce – Giugiaro at Bertone
1981 MX-81 Concept – Bertone


1979 Lancer – Aldo Sessano at Open Design
1983 Starwind Concept  – Aldo Sessano / Paul Breuer at Open Design
2005 Colt CZC – Pininfarina (Production and joint development)


1963 + 1966 Bluebird 410/411 – Pininfarina
1965 Cedric 130 – Pininfarina


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1960 Skyline Sport – Michelotti


1991 SVX / Alcyone – Giugiaro


1967 Carry – Giugiaro
1972 Go Concept – Bertone
1977 Cervo / SC100 / Whizzkid – Giugiaro
2006 SX4 – Giugiaro


1993 Aristo / Lexus GS – Giugiaro
2004 Alessandro Volta Concept – Giugiaro – a proto-BMW i8!

32 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – Tokyo, Twinned With Turin”

  1. I’d be interested in thoughts on how much of the design of the 1960 Prince Skyline Sport was influenced by the 1959 Buick Invicta? I believe the Buick was an in-house design, but could be well off the mark.

  2. The main actor on this particular stage was actually a man named Hideyuki Katayama, a Japanese married to an Italian, who acted as intermediary between the Japanese manufacturers and the Italien carrozzieri. He is also in no small part responsible for the success of Italdesign.

    1. And his actual name is Hideyuki MIYAKAWA. Apologies for the mistake.

  3. My favourite cars on this list are – no doubt about it – the Mazda Luce Coupe of 1969 – just perfect

    and the – very italian – Datsun Bluebird:

    But – to be honest – if i would like to have an old car with italian roots – i would surely prefer the originals.

    1. There’s a fair bit of the Luce in the 1970 Opel Manta – though obviously they were very close. Incidentally, the then mandatory wing mounted mirrors spoil the lines of a lot of old Japanese cars.

  4. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the 1990 NIssan Autech Zagato 3.0 Stelvio, a definite case of where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Worthy of a Google.

    1. Sanjay. I’d never seen that before. It is endearingly odd. But then, at one time I had a desire for an Alfa SZ. Actually there’s one on Ebay. 41,000 miles and £28,000.

    2. At one point I hated that car. It’s not a milestone but a great example of Japanese designers going interestingly nuts. Thanks for reminding me – now I enjoy it as it is.

    3. Richard, it’s not overly offensive, but it’s the Marmite rear view mirrors that are the linchpin for garnering love or hate. For me, there is an overwhelming design similarity to the vehicles produced by Walter Treser during the wild and wonderful 80s.

  5. The Mk 1 Nissan Micra was most certainly the rejected design for the Fiat Uno by Giugiaro.

  6. Mazda Familia, Chevorlet Corvair and NSU Prinz; which came first? They all appeared about the same time but are strikingly similar in design.

    1. I always assume it was the Corvair. There’s also the Fiat 1300/1500 and the Hillman Imp that show signs of the Corvair. For a pariah, it was very influential.

    2. Corvair – October 1959
      Fiat 1300/1500 – April 1961
      Prinz 4 – September 1961
      Imp – May 1963
      Familia – October 1963

      I’d add in the BMW Neue Klasse (First shown September 1961 (shame on them!), not sold till October ’62) – The waistline’s there, and the wrap-around rear screen in a less extreme form, which the Imp and Familia sedan got away without.

      Dante Gaicosa acknowledged the Corvair influence on the 1300/1500, which shows how quickly Fiat could move in these days.

  7. Not having Italian roots, but one of the impressive Japanese designs at the end of the 1960s, was, in my humble opinion, the Nissan Fairlady Z (Datsun 240 Z in export markets).

    1. Do you mean the one designed by Von Goertz? Or allegedly designed. That’s a cracker. My neighbour’s dad had one. And his wife had a 120Y. They fascinated me as Japanese cars were “aliens” in my already-hardened prejudice against unorthodox marques. (I was eight).

    2. Talking about cars which may or may not have been penned by the German count Goertz, I feel like sticking my neck out and alienating most of my esteemed friends at DTW, as well as the city of Milan (rather than Turin), by claiming that the Datsun Silvia CSP311 is the prettier Lancia Fulvia, actually. Goodbye.

  8. Sanjay: the mirror design solves the problem of the wing-mounting requirement. Marmite’s a good comparison. The car isn’t a mainstream product so pushing the boat out in design terms was totally legitimate. This kind of experimentation is very worthwhile.

    1. I actually like the contrived ‘ugliness’ of many Zagato designs, this included. But really the splaying out of the wings to conceal mirrors was the answer to a question that didn’t need asking. Possibly if it had been a bit more complex, but this just looks as though it was done on the sheet metal bender in 5 minutes..

    2. Sean: you actually made me laugh out loud at my desk with your ‘..done on the sheet metal bender in 5 minutes’ comment.
      I think the key point to remember is that the sheet metal bender in question was designed by Louis Vuitton Malletier and manufactured by none other than Ugo Zagato himself in 1919.

  9. Richard: Yes, I mean the one allegedly designed by A. von Goertz. I bought one during 1971 in Japan (where I lived and worked) in British racing green and still regret to have sold it about five years later… .

    1. Curbside Classic showed a green one yesterday, with two original hubcaps. I really liked that car. Did you know that Nissan remanufactured them for a while about a decade ago? They tied up with a firm in California who took original bodies and refitted them. That´s restomod, I suppose, but on a larger scale than normal. For a time I felt that would be one way forward for some car makers.
      Living in Japan in the 70s must have been like living on an alien planet. How interesting. I moved from Irelant to Germany via the US and the UK and that was strange enough. If this month´s theme has done anything it´s deepened my regard for Japan. I know they have their problem (whales, for example). Leaving that aside, I think they have another view on things. And whether the end result is always good or not, it challenges my preconceptions.
      240Z – if memory serves, we´re talking a 2.4 litre straight six. That´s a pleasing configuration. These cars must have looked wild when driven in Europe. As I said, my neighbour had one. And since people had no interwebs then they had narrower preconceptions. These days people are prepared for the unexpected in a way that wasn´t the case back then. Is that good? Discuss.

  10. I didn’t know about Nissan having re-manufacturing the 240 Z about a decade ago. The domestic model introduced at the end of 1969 had a straight six 2 liter engine. Exports to the US, which began around the same time, had the 2.4 liter straight six.
    Living and working in Japan has been interesting and rewarding in many respects. I arrived there as a young engineer in 1968 and stayed until my retirement 2008. By the way, my first car in Japan, before I got the Fairlady Z, was a Sunbeam Alpine with a soft-top (probably Series III) which I bought well used. At that time, this car was truly exotic in Japan since hardly any non-Japanese cars were on the roads; especially no open 2-seaters. As a young bachelor, I have enjoyed this situation… .

    1. In 1997 Nissan bought 200 z-bodies but only sold 40. That’s disappointing. Apparently the authenticity-oriented community sniffed at the excellence of the work and preferred unrestored examples which were … worth more than the as-new versions. Goodness. The cost of the renewed cars was $25,000 – is that a lot?

    2. Corrigendum: I should have written on the first line ‘…having re-manufactured…’

  11. Know Vignale styled the Daihatsu Compagno, however was it penned by Michelotti (who IIRC also designed the 1963 Daihatsu Sport Coupe under Vignale) or another designer?

  12. Aldo Sessano’s work for Mitsubishi deserves much wider coverage. The last RWD and first FWD Sigma/Galant and the last RWD Lancer, the Mirage/Colt, the Sapporo, the Tredia, the Celeste, the Cordia, the Starion, the Pajero/Montero, and two generations of L300/Delica van really contributed to Mitsubishi being quite a big player in the 70s-90s

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