Two forms of US retro from the far East.
Both the Japanese and the Chinese car industry have on several occasions been accused of copying successful examples of their established colleagues in the west. The former never really produced an exact facsimile (cars built under licence such as the Hino Renault 4cv excepted) but rather an amalgam of those styling and engineering details of the competition deemed most worthy to emulate; this practice endured into the eighties but since those times the Japanese have clearly found their own way and are in some cases even leading it.
Having embarked upon mass production of passenger cars much later, the Chinese have taken a much more unscrupulous approach almost from the start; China’s first passenger car, the DongFeng CA71 of 1958 was a virtual, and unauthorised, copy of the Simca Vedette. Several Chinese upstarts continued the practice from there, mostly undeterred by threats from the carmakers in question to take legal action against copyright violation.
Over the past few years however there has been a noticeable move away from (authorised or otherwise), copying towards a development of designs which are Chinese in origin even if they may not always flow from the pen of a domestic stylist. Nevertheless, emulating and copying are not entirely a thing of the past, either in Japan or China.
Established in 1979 in Toyama City by founder Akio Mitsuoka, Mitsuoka Motors did not start out as the producer of retro-inspired cars it is known for today. Its first automotive products introduced in 1982 were tiny three- and four wheeled city cars under the name Bubu 502, Bubu 503 and Bubu 504 powered by equally small engines with a displacement of just 50cc.
It was not long however before Akio Mitsuoka sensed a market opportunity for re-creations of some of the much-loved vehicles of the past; the Bubu 505C, a pint sized tongue-in-cheek replica of the Jaguar SS100 was introduced in 1985. Many followed, among which the Viewt, a Jaguar Mark II compressed to Nissan Micra dimensions, is the most widely known.
Mitsuokas are an acquired taste of course but in todays car business which is so often devoid of humour -and thereby also perhaps of imagination at times, we should at least respect them for what they are and provide. The Rock Star is the latest vehicle to emanate from Mitsuoka. While it isn’t always immediately obvious exactly which classic car the Toyama carmaker has used for inspiration, the Rock Star sends a clear message – it is a modern day interpretation of the famous 1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette StingRay.
The Mazda MX-5 based Rock Star was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mitsuoka and will be produced in a limited edition of 200 cars built over a period of three years. Perhaps surprisingly, the MX-5 and Corvette are not as dimensionally dissimilar as you might think: the original is 21 inches longer and has a 7 inch longer wheelbase but width and height are within an inch of each other.
This may have been a decisive advantage in producing an end result that while clearly borrowing many Corvette cues remains pleasing to the eye according to most observers – the Viewt on the other hand, while cute, is severely compromised proportionally by its dimensions, striking most as distorted rather than beautiful.
It is a pity that the Rock Star’s cabin is unchanged from the Mazda MX-5 apart from some custom stitching and a few colour accents; some strategically placed changes would ensure that the interior is not the slight let down it is now after one has walked around its comely exterior.
What has also been (wisely) left alone are the excellent MX-5 underpinnings and engine (the more free-revving 1.5 litre in the Rock Star’s case). In its home country, prices for the Rock Star start at around 4.7 Million Yen or €36,000; this might not seem too bad for a limited edition sportscar with a custom body, but bear in mind that in Japan the regular Mazda MX-5 is just 2.5 Million Yen or €20,000. Meaning that in Europe to get an idea of what the Rock Star would cost, you will have to double the price of whatever an MX-5 costs in your country, before any import duties and so forth.
It is therefore doubtful if any Rock Stars will be seen on our roads any time soon.
Not much is known about Beijing-based Chinese newcomer Songsan Motors, who debuted its first vehicle at this year’s Beijing Motor Show. Starting as a bike club, specifically aimed at classic and retro custom bike recreations, they have since moved into the car industry and formed an alliance with an American engineering company named AmTech.
As with the Rock Star, most observers will have no trouble spotting the inspiration for Songsan’s first vehicle: another Corvette, this time the 1958 C1 version. The SS Dolphin (the name sounds like that of a ship but should Songsan ever venture onto the European market they would be wise to drop those two first letters) is a PHEV plug-in hybrid, with a turbocharged 1.5 litre petrol engine, reportedly sourced from fellow Chinese car manufacturer, BYD – mated to an electric motor.
A 16kWh battery pack provides an all-electric range of around 60 miles and the total maximum range is 341 miles. The combined system output results in a quite ’58 Corvette-like 315 Bhp and 395 lb/ft of torque; the claimed 0-62 time is 4.9 seconds.
Contrary to the accomplished proportions of Mitsuoka’s Rock Star, a product of a much more experienced outfit of course, the SS Dolphin looks more than a little off in terms of faithfulness to the 1958 Corvette’s lines. It almost seems as if the designer responsible received a telephone-description of what a 1958 Corvette looked like and improvised from there.
Let’s not be too harsh and start at the rear end which is, although flatter than the original, a very reasonable approximation of the real thing. Walk around to the side however and things start to come apart. Not only does the SS Dolphin lack the hipline dip, the placement of the front wheelarch is totally wrong and presumably dictated by the engineering requirements of the platform used.
On top of that, the headlight pods are too small and protrude inelegantly forward. A nice touch however is the period-correct panoramic windshield although the A-pillars are vertical while the Corvette’s are placed at an angle. Moving to the front end the whole affair again lacks depth and shape compared to the Corvette, and the inadequately sized headlights are a major distraction.
Things get better when opening the door. The interior and dashboard combine to form a rather pleasant mix of retro and current day; from what can be determined from the photographs it all looks pretty well screwed together which is certainly not always the case with new Chinese brands. And well-finished it will need to be, for the SS Dolphin is priced at 590,000 Yuan or about €75,000.
At those prices, it will require a well to do buyer who can either see past the visual gaffes, doesn’t know or care, or simply appreciates the cheekiness. When asked for comment on the SS Dolphin, GM’s communication department stated that Songsan is not using any of GM’s trademarked names or logos and that the design is not identical to the C1, so it seems Songsan will not need to worry about legal action from the General. Commercially viable sales may be another matter however.