The Countess

The Franco-Italian-Japanese connection. 

Hino Contessa 900. leBlogAuto

From their origins as the Tokyo Gas Industry Company in 1910, another thirty two years would pass before the name Hino (Hee-no) Heavy Industry Company Limited began to develop and produce trucks and diesel engines. By the War’s end, their large marine engine production was halted but permission was granted by the ever watchful Allies to continue with bus and truck chassis in order to help stimulate the economy.

Hino’s engineering prowess continued apace as confidence grew. A 1953 collaboration with Renault saw Hino bolting together 4CV’s under license, an arrangement lasting eight years. Known and badged as the Renault Hino 4CV, this gave the Japanese truck maker a taste of car production, in turn leading to their inaugural attempt in 1962 – the Contessa.

First up the 900, known as the PC Series. A rear mounted, water cooled, longitudinally fitted engine provided rear wheel drive to this four door saloon. The 893cc in-line four emitted just 35bhp whereas the 750Kg body weight allowed a v-max approaching 70mph along with acceptable driving characteristics.

Originally supplied with a three speed column changer, a four speed manual later became an option. This utilised an electromagnetic clutch with the delightful term Shinzo-Hinomatic but received criticism in certain corners for its long throw. Not beyond reasonable doubt would be the car’s tail-happy manner but since speeds were lower than, say a nunelfer, hopefully few 900’s examined the Japanese holly too closely. 

Uncredited image via

Billancourt’s influence remained strong with the 4CV’s drivetrain and suspension carried over but one significant upshot being the 900’s size could comfortably seat five adults; a happy coincidence of hiding away the left-slanted engine. Encouraging sales convinced the high-ups to create the 900 Sprint Coupé; 100Kgs lighter and impossibly pretty two door, from the prolific sketching materials of Michelotti.

Hino 900 Sprint Coupé. LeBlogAuto

Additional changes to the saloon included Weber carburettors, 44bhp and now a 87mph top speed. This lithesome bolide had, to assuage any form of perceived acrimony proudly wearing on its door sill, scuff plates reading Hino-Michelotti. Shown at the tenth Tokyo motor show, Turin in 1962 and New York for ‘63, it would appear very few were made and sold.

Maintaining the newfound Italian friendship, 1964 heralded the PD 300 Series. Compare and contrast these dimensions: PC Series wheelbase 2,150mm. Length 3,795mm, unusually, the Sprint a little longer at 3,830mm. Width of 1,475mm. Height came in at 1,415mm for the saloon, 1,200mm Sprint.

PD Series wheelbase 2,280mm, length 4,150mm, width 1,530mm and a height of 1,390mm. Upping the scales, the new machine fell between 888 and 940Kgs. 

Hino Contessa 1300. Favcars

Now termed the Contessa 1300 due to the fitting of the 1,251cc four cylinder unit, good for 54bhp, this all new saloon contained more than a few Michelotti design tropes – no bad thing. As the Japanese home market probably knew little of the Triumph, Corvair and even BMW 700, the Hino offered a refined air that homegrown competitors lacked.

Hino’s expansion plans gained momentum, both in CKD form and fully produced. Campbell Motors of New Zealand made up around 600 saloons, all four speed manual. Other countries to welcome the Contessa included such far flung locations as Angola, Australia, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Israel. A solitary example landed in England. 

Returning to Israel, Hino Motors and Haifa based Kaiser-Illin Industries signed a ten year agreement in 1963. Named Autocars production started with the 900 saloon the year after along with Hino’s Hi-Lux progenitor, the Briska pick-up. During 1964-5, the Contessa 1300 saloon helped push production figures upwards; the Israeli exports contributing towards an overall 10% of Hino car production. 

Efraim Illin was the entrepreneurial figurehead who stepped in to assist after Ford, in 1948 had looked into building a plant in Israel when Arab pressure forced them out. Kaiser-Frazer (as was) invested $500,000 with Illin required to stump up $2M more which by 1950 he managed. At one point, 28% of all Israeli exports pass through his empire. But for reasons to be explained momentarily, the agreement was hastily concluded in 1967 – over 8,000 Hino’s were made.

Contessa 1300 Coupé.

April 1965 bore the Contessa 1300 Coupé. Breathing through two carburettors twinned with higher engine compression now gave 64bhp. If the Contessa saloon was the veritable three box shape, the offset slant of the coupé gave the car a parallelogram effect. Seen by collectors, investors and brand aficionados as the Hino car to have, your author, whist appreciative of the idea as a whole finds this car distinctive but not Michelotti’s finest hour – that accolade pinned firmly to the 900 Sprint Coupé.

Looks remain subjective; the 1300’s front windscreen was steep whereas the rear tails off a little too early to these eyes. The rear wheel arch almost mirrors the rear screen and roof slope for angles – acute. Only 3,868 1300 Coupés were built to over 55,000 PD saloons. Still Hino were resolute in exportation, the next target market for their cars and trucks being potentially the largest, the USA. Realising which way their bread was buttered, Hino immediately adopted the mantra race on Sunday, sell on Monday. 

Pete Brock, he of Shelby Cobra notoriety had an American friend by the name of Bob Dunham. An actor living in Japan, Dunham’s part-time auto journalism role had brought him into contact with Hino racing in Japan. Dunham suggested to Brock, alienated and cast out from Shelby, a two car team to race in America. Brock leapt at the opportunity. The 1966 Mission Bell 100 race, a tin-top event for such as Minis, MGs and the homeland contingent was held in front of 100,000 fans at Riverside Raceway. The brace of Contessa Coupés took a storming 1-2 finish, Brock heading Dunham, stirring up quite a fuss. 

Brock Racing Enterprises, impressed by their Japanese compatriots even looked into racing with Hino at Le Mans. Known as the BRE Hino Samurai, the coupé was transformed to take on La Sarthe’s tarmac. Prepared and sitting in parc fermé, the stewards deemed the diminutive American/ Japanese car to have too little ground clearance – no race. Brock, unperturbed actually found this garnered more publicity. Hino cars were on the up!

Only Hino’s car production was suddenly halted. 1966 Toyota, gaining evermore strength encouraged a gentleman’s agreement; we’ll do the cars, you (Hino) the trucks and buses. Toyota eventually took up a controlling 50.1% interest in Hino, in 2001. 

Hino trucks searched Western areas for a characterful export-hub, which will be dealt with in the next episode.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

17 thoughts on “The Countess”

  1. One can be seen on the ground floor of the Science Museum in London, presumably the sole example that came to England.

  2. Good morning Andrew. I always associated Hino with heavy trucks and never realised that the company also made passenger cars, so thanks for enlightening me. The 900 Sprint Coupé is lovely! The Contessa 1300 saloon is an intriguing amalgam of the Renault 10 and Triumph Dolomite styling cues, while the Coupé version is unusually ‘cab forward’ looking.

    1. My grandmother had a yellow DAF 66 coupe. Brings back some memories

  3. Good morning, Andrew. I know Hino trucks, but up until now I was only vaguely aware they also made car. The 900 Sprint Coupé is a gem.

    1. That looks like quite an exhibition, some nice cars there in person. In this picture there’s the nose of a Maserati 3500…

      What a great car…

      Wait, I wanted to say something else…

      Oh right: on that photo panel to the left, there’s the Contessa 1300 Coupé, presumably somewhere late in its development.

      I wasn’t particularly aware of Hino’s car-making past, although I think there are several such Japanese companies now known for something else who tried their hand at car making, Isuzu being the most famous, of course. I definitely didn’t know about the Renault connection, making the cars look… familiar (mainly because they share their technical lay out). The 900 Sprint is quite wonderful, at least as accomplished as other coupés of its era. It’s not quite as cab-forward as its successor, but it does share the same remarkable rake of the front and rear screen. The longer and much pointier nose do wonders for the design, I think.

  4. Fascinated to know the extent the Hino motor used in the Contessa was derived or even distantly related to the Renault Billancourt later Renault Cleon-Fonte engines as appears to be the case.

    The following Japanese link suggests the planned yet abandoned 1500cc engine’s displacement was to be 1471cc via a bore and stroke of 77mm and 79mm with the Contessa saloon planned to put out 70 hp, the Contessa coupe planned to put 80 hp and a twin cam version of the Contessa coupe planned to put out 90 hp.

    It seems the Contessa engine was envisioned to grow up to as much as 1600cc and put out 100+ hp though it never progressed beyond a paper project. – (Japanese link)

    Meanwhile a motorsport focused Contessa prepared by DEL Racing featured a 115 hp 2.6 V8 sourced from the Toyota Crown Eight. – (French link)

  5. I’ve always thought the Contessa 1300 looked remarkably like “What if Michelotti designed a Skoda?” Tatra turned to Vignale for the 613 so the question isn’t that far fetched.

    Also, I’m constantly amazed how much the Japanese industry developed for those fifteen years between 1955 and 1970, it really was a wirtschaftswunder of its kind. Hino started out with CKD-kits from Renault, Nissan got help with CKD-kits from Austin. Within a couple of generations they had clearly surpassed their benefactors in production quality.

    1. Do not forget that Isuzu got help from Rootes with a number of Isuzu petrols and diesels being distantly related to the Minx OHV.

      Also what would become Isuzu and Hino were originally one company before they were split, with Kawasaki motorcycles reputedly being linked historically via the keiretsu in Japan.

  6. Good afternoon Andrew. Thanks for another very interesting piece. What a beautiful car the 900 Sprint coupe is.

  7. The only Hino vehicles that managed to score some sales in Greece were its commercial ones. Its passenger cars couldn’t get past the barrier of the company’s name. “Hino”, with the pronunciation given in the post, has a meaning in Greek slang that might seem a bit undesirable to the company’s top brass.

  8. Reading on a train to London. As mentioned above, the contessa looks very similar to the Renault 8 and 10. Did Renault still have any influence I wonder. I do like the 900 coupe. Again, similarities to the Renault Caravelle/Floride.

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