More eccentric delights from Japan.
When asked to name a small Japanese manufacturer famous for its modern day renditions of iconic (and mostly British) classic cars, the first answer given by those with some knowledge of the automotive world would likely be ‘Mitsuoka’. And they would be right, of course, but the majority might have trouble naming others that operate or have operated in the same market niche. Here are a few of the lesser known but no less amusing – or sacrilegious, depending on your viewpoint- manufacturers of such cars on the Japanese archipelago.
Goodwoodpark Herbie, Ministar and Baffetto:
Located in the Niigata prefecture, Goodwoodpark is a Nissan dealer turned (very) small-scale manufacturer. Using the underpinnings of the K12-generation Nissan March / Micra manufactured from 2002 to 2011, Goodwoodpark offers the Herbie and the Ministar, as well as the Baffetto, which is based on the Daihatsu Tanto Kei-car minivan. The name ‘Herbie’ clearly alludes to the car’s classic Volkswagen Beetle inspiration, although it seems that quite a bit of classic Fiat 500 DNA has also been spilled into the mix.
To create the Herbie, Goodwoodpark removes the front and rear bodywork of the standard March and replaces it with glassfibre reinforced plastic body parts. The interior is left mostly alone, although personalisation in the form of wood and chrome accents and leather upholstery is optional. On top of that, the customer can have the car painted in any colour desired and choose from a variety of extras such as retro styled wheel covers and chromed door handles.
The Herbie’s body panels will not fit the later K13 and K14 March models and Goodwoodpark states on its website that the last Herbies will be made in 2022, with no word on what will happen thereafter.
Should your tastes gravitate more towards something more Olde English in style, Goodwoodpark can also accomodate you with the Ministar. This is also based on the trusty Nissan March, but in this case the newer K13-generation model, which is modified to evoke the Austin A35(1). Both the Herbie and Ministar are available for delivery approximately one month after ordering. Finally, there is the Baffetto which, rather than being retro, seems to be aimed at those who would like their Daihatsu minivan to look like a Renault. This surely must be an especially tiny contingent of potential customers?
Established at the height of the retro craze in Japan during the mid-1990s, short-lived Copel (which shut its doors in 2001) faithfully followed Mitsuoka’s lead. Somewhat oddly however, the names it chose for the cars it produced -Bonito and Antiguo- sounded distinctly Hispanic while the vehicles themselves were very much inspired by those born under the Union flag.
To the Antiguo first (we will return to the Bonito later): presented in 1997, this transformed a Toyota Corolla Touring Wagon into -as long as it was viewed from the front- a quite accomplished recreation of a Jaguar XJ Series One. In side view, apart from it being a station wagon, the effect is very much less convincing and, moving on to the rear, the somewhat crudely integrated vertical tail lights and spare wheel bulge speak more of Jeep than Jaguar. It is estimated that not more than around 100 Antiguos left Copel’s workshop before it closed down for good.
Duesen Bayern Mystar and Ritz:
It is not certain if the name of this company was meant to refer to the famous Duesenberg marque of yore, or to something more Germanic: most likely the latter as ‘DB’ conveniently also alludes to Daimler-Benz, and Duesen Bayern has never released anything remotely inspired by an American car(2) onto the roads of Japan. They did, however, produce a vehicle that was a baffling mixture of two German marques that in the real world are stern rivals. Kudo Takuyo, founder and chief designer in one, started Duesen Bayern in 2001. His Nagoya City workshops have since been the birthplace of two quite different vehicles named Mystar and Ritz.
First to arrive in February 2002 was the Mystar, a vehicle very obviously trying to fool one into thinking it is a classic Mercedes-Benz 190SL. True, the front and rear views are quite faithful to the original and, at first sight, might catch out the onlooker if given only a cursory glance. Upon closer inspection however, the doors and windscreen easily give the game away: this is no 190SL. Instead, there is another car hiding under all that glassfibre, and that car is an E36/7 BMW Z3. That made the Mystar a weird Frankenstein-like affair, and it also begs the question: why not instead make a recreation of the BMW 507 so at least body and underpinnings share a common bloodline?
Evidently, nobody ever asked that question or received a satisfactory answer to it. Duesen Bayern stated that a maximum of 100 Mystars would be made, but there is no data available as to whether or not they ever reached that goal.
Positioned rather lower in the market, the Ritz was added to Duesen Bayern’s line-up in late 2002. Based on the popular K12-generation Nissan March / Micra, there are no prizes for guessing its inspiration. The new front clip reprises the Nuova 500 look surprisingly well but, moving rearwards, the conceit soon falls apart. The K12 March does possess a suitably rounded roofline which helps, but the rear end is a bit of a mess and without those tail lights (are those Austin Mini items?) it would be difficult immediately to make any connection to Fiat’s original.
Copel Bonito, Mooku Princess and Lotas Princess:
This trio appeared within months of each other in 1996 and were new-retro renditions of the (ADO16) BMC Vanden Plas Princess which for some reason enjoyed a brief but intense period of popularity -the genuine cars included- in Japan. Courtesy of its already somewhat retro general shape, the K11-generation Nissan March / Micra (1992-2003) provided a suitable base upon which all three impostors were created.
Arguably the most accomplished of these was the Copel Bonito. While there was virtually nothing to choose between them in the way the Vanden Plas Princess’s visage was grafted onto the Micra in all cases, the Bonito clearly presented the best approximation of her posterior. It was still far from perfect, mind you, but the Mooku and Lotas Princess simply used the standard Micra boot lid, mounted a chromey handle on it and adjourned to the karaoke bar. The Bonito was treated to a reskinned boot lid that was a much more faithful interpretation of the original and, being a hatchback, it offered better access to the luggage compartment than the original’s rather narrow aperture. As far as this sort of vehicle is concerned, the Bonito can be counted amongst the better resolved examples.
The Bonito was joined in 1998 by the Fresco, a two door convertible variant, but this could not prevent Copel from having to throw in the towel in 2001.
The Mooku Princess and Lotas Princess are indistinguishable from one another and could very well have used the same body-kit panels. But while the Lotas Princess is no more, Mooku can still convert your old Micra into a Princess if you so desire. As just described, considerably less effort was expended in the ‘princessification’ of the rear end of these cars; the 1100 taillights and stubby fins were there alright, but the boot lid remained unchanged and simply did not sit very well optically in relation to them- especially when the conversion was done on the basis of the Micra Box (station wagon).
Mooku claims that, as with the Bonito, provided one still has the standard Micra body parts and trim, the Princess can easily be converted back to plebeian status, should one have a change of heart.
Finally, Mooku added another offering to its range in June 2020: For 400,000 Yen as a do-it-yourself kit or 1.9 million Yen for a fully built vehicle, the Citroën HY-aping A2 van can be yours. The Honda N van which serves as the base for the conversion already features three horizontal ridges along its body in standard form (themselves possibly inspired by the HY) that manage visually to connect the grafted-on HY nose to the rest of the car quite nicely. The nine reinforced fiberglass body parts and metal grille needed to perform the transformation are available in white only which is, of course, the most often seen colour for vans everywhere, so a customer building the kit himself will have to take care of the paintwork as well if his base vehicle is to be anything other than snow white.
(1) Confusingly your author is rather charmed by the Ministar, especially in this green hue. Should I have my head examined?
(2) Although a remake of the Chevrolet Corvette C1 is rumoured to be in the works but has so far not surfaced.