Japan has an undeniable connection to the world of automotive manufacturing, producing some of the most renowned platforms the industry has ever known while bringing its own unmistakable Japanese style to the masses. While the country’s unique approach to design and performance has been imitated and refined by some of the world’s most prominent manufacturers over the past century, Japan’s heritage and classic vehicles were among the first small-displacement offerings that would shape the future of car manufacturing for years to come.
Amidst a resonant fuel panic during the 1960s, ‘70s, and onward, North American manufacturers turned to Japan’s long-running tradition of creating smaller production vehicles, mostly due to constraints and enhanced taxing practices that were segmented by displacement size. Instead of adopting a new design principal and creating new plants in the U.S., American companies realized that importing vehicles already produced for the Japanese vehicle market was perhaps the most feasible option to pursue. At the time, the Japanese automotive industry was introducing its own take on popular foreign vehicle platforms to compete in sales, on the track, and throughout other areas of the economy. While most of these variants would eventually fade into obscurity, there were a few platforms that would persevere — remaining today thanks to exceptional build quality, design principles, and nostalgic application. Below, we’ll outline a few of Japan’s most intriguing vehicles, all of which can be obtained for a fairly low price point today. So whether you’re into old-era Japanese aesthetics, street-defined performance, or a mixture of both, these vehicles are sure to satiate your need for small displacement classics.
1964-67 Datsun Roadster
The Datsun Sports (or Datsun Fairlady) was the predecessor to the highly coveted Z-Car, and as such, has found itself at the heart of Japan’s classic car culture. As a progenitor to many of the classic designs that Nissan and Datsun have produced, the original Roadster was first revealed to the market in the early 1960s as a competitor for Europe’s dominant MG, Triumph, Alfa Romeo, and Fiat lines.
The SP310 and SP311, as they would come to be known outside of North America, were Datsun’s first true attempts at sport-fairing vehicles, and featured dramatic redesigns for the era. In 1965, the SP311 made its debut in America and launched alongside an independent front suspension, leaf spring rear, and an R16 inline-four OHV engine that would produce 95 horsepower. Later, the SP311 would serve as the foundational platform for Nissan’s prolific Silvia line, which would utilize the classic vehicle’s original chassis and a new “R” engine that would replace the R16. To this day, the SP311 Roadster remains one of the most handsome and influential cars to ever hit the blacktop.
The Low Down
Engine: 1.6 L R16
Cost Then: $2,500
Cost Now: $11,000+
1968-73 Datsun 510
The Datsun 510 is one of the most iconic cars of all time, and its popularity during the 1960s and ‘70s was undeniably well-deserved. Not only did the vehicle introduce the trademark box-type design that was so prominent in Europe during the period, but the 510 was actually based off of BMW’s 1600-2 — sporting a similar two-door, four-door, and five-door variant. The real standout, however, was the two-door coupe, which released to much critical acclaim in November 1968.
In the U.S., the vehicle saw significant success due to a widespread focus on accessibility, gas mileage, and tuning capability — predominately concerning the interchangeable nature of its parts, which were nearly identical to every other Datsun offering at the time. In turn, this made the acquisition of spare and replacement parts much easier than that of comparable American-made (and Japanese-made) vehicles, resulting in a variety of well-performing rally and race projects that would drive Datsun into the spotlight. To this day, the 510 remains one of the most sought-after platforms for tuning and modification enthusiasts, solidifying its place on our list as a truly exceptional vehicle.
The Low Down
Engine: 1.6L L-series I4
Cost Then: $2,000
Cost Now: $20,000+
1970-73 Datsun Nissan Z
The Nissan S30 (or Datsun 240Z) was one of the most successful sport car variants ever produced, combining modern engineering, a sleek body style, and great all-around performance into one neatly built package. Originally, the Japanese vehicle was designed by a team headed by Yoshihiko Matsuo, the figure behind Nissan’s Sports Car Styling Studio. Conceptualized as a head-on aggressor that would compete with Europe’s well-known sports car brands within the United States, the 240Z helped to usher in a new image of Japan’s prominent car makers, thanks to a well-received release and staggering reviews following its import.
A four-wheel independent suspension utilizing MacPherson and Chapman struts, high-performing front disk brakes, and a 2.4 L L24 I6 solid-shifter overhead-cam engine producing 151 horsepower kept the lightweight vehicle within operating parameters for enthusiasts and professional drivers, alike, and moved the four-speed manual into the spotlight for buyers the world over. Although the car saw significant success in the American market, it would suffer due to complex emissions standards and compression ratio drops that were prevalent among other vehicles during the 1970s, and would eventually be phased out for an improved platform, the 260Z.
The Low Down
Engine: 2.4 L L24 I6
Cost Then: $3,600
Cost Now: $12,000+
1970-78 Mazda RX-2
The 1970 Mazda RX-2 was one of the earliest vehicles to adopt the Wankel rotary engine and was introduced as an intermediary between the Familia and Luce, two differing offerings from the manufacturer that utilized a smaller (and larger) body style, respectively. While the vehicle was marketed as the Mazda RX-2 during its export, it was widely referred to as the Mazda Capella within its own circle and was considered the first “normal” vehicle to house the manufacturer’s complex rotary setup. Although the Japanese vehicle found notable reception within its home country, the RX-2 was widely exported under the guise of the Mazda 616, and later, the Mazda 618 (which was a predominately North American platform).
The first iteration of the RX-2 (1970) featured a four-cylinder SOHC — although, in 1972, the vehicle was contracted and assembled in New Zealand as the only rotary vehicle to ever be produced within the country and featured both manual and automatic transmission variants, sporting an eventual 130 horsepower as documented during its debut in South Africa. This came two years behind schedule, and the newly renovated version of the RX-2, the Capella RS was already slated for production. At a production rate of fewer than 20 vehicles per month, the Capella was discontinued in lieu of downtrodden sales and a heightened focus on the Colt Galant. Today, the RX-2 serves as a reminder of the golden-age revolving around early, box-type vehicles that were built to compete with prominent European and Western offerings.
The Low Down
Engine: UB I4 (SU2A)
Cost Then: $3,000
Cost Now: $5,000+
1971-73 Toyota Celica
During the 1970s, Toyota was at an impasse as to whether they would continue making traditional Japanese vehicles or compete with the prominent North American manufacturers at Ford in an effort to admit their own pony car into the consumer landscape. In 1970, the first look at the manufacturer’s Celica coupe would shake the automotive world to its very foundation. Eventually, Toyota’s Japanese dealerships were solicited to house the new Celica, and a full-fledged campaign to market the vehicle was launched alongside the brand’s recently introduced Corolla. The two-door hardtop coupe would see many different iterations within its lifespan, but at its heart, a steady transition toward the platform’s eventual “sports car” lineage was in its earliest stages and primed to replace the manufacturer’s Sports 800.
Two different styles of the Celica were brought to market — a coupe-only slant nose that came equipped with Toyota’s 2T, 2T-G 1.6 liter, or 18R 2.0 liter motor, and a flat nose model that utilized a smaller liter displacement due to Japanese regulations that caused manufacturers to be taxed based on displacement size. In 1971, the first North American Celica was introduced with a 1.9 L 8R engine, which would only grow in size for successive generations. Today, these early-era Celica’s retain all of the style and poise of a 1960-oriented pony car, and as such, are highly sought after by collectors and Japanese automotive enthusiasts — solidifying them as one of the most notable vehicles of the era.
The Low Down
Engine: 1.4 L T I4
Cost Then: $2,600
Cost Now: $10,000+
1976-77 Toyota Celica Liftback
The Celica has such an intricate past that we’ve decided to include it twice on this list — although, the 1976 Liftback is a little more aesthetically pleasing than its foundational counterpart. The liftback was, in every sense of the word, a challenge to Ford’s dominance in the pony car realm — a Mustang-inspired sport coupe that drew the best design principles from the North American vehicle and implemented them alongside Japan’s trademark small displacement engines.
During the period when the Toyota Celica Liftback was first released, American motorists were enveloped within the early 1970s “Gas Panic,” which caused motorists to turn toward more economical vehicles for their commutes; in turn, Asian and European vehicles were injected into the North American marketplace where they spread like wildfire. To compete with the immense popularity of the Mustang, Toyota implemented an elongated front nose and small passenger compartment to draw would-be buyers away from the expensive Ford coupe, borrowing heavily from the vehicle’s already “classic” design. Years later, the Celica Liftback retains the same handsome charm as the early-era Mustang and remains one of the most attractive vintage vehicles to ever be exported from Japan.
The Low Down
Engine: 18R & 18R-G I4
Cost Then: $4,700
Cost Now: $13,000+
1978-80 Plymouth Fire Arrow
Plymouth might ring a bell as an exclusively American manufacturer, but the 1978 Fire Arrow was, in fact, a Japanese-manufactured vehicle — and one of the earliest collaborations between the two countries regarding automotive export. The Plymouth was first introduced as an increasingly attractive alternative to Chrysler’s bulky, gas-guzzling offerings at the time, and amidst a fuel-crazed market, American manufacturers turned to companies overseas to fulfill an explosive demand for smaller fun vehicles. This sporty fastback coupe housed a rear-wheel drive layout with MacPherson struts at the front, and leaf springs in the rear — a common practice for the era.
A 1.6-liter inline, four-cylinder engine allowed for the minimal car to exude a modest 89 horsepower while boasting a staggering (even for this day and age) 39 miles-per-gallon on the highway — a welcome sight to many penny-pinching buyers. To sway consumers toward the Japanese vehicle, Plymouth introduced a number of American-themed upgrade packages that allowed the Arrow to retain a look similar to the 1971 Barracuda, and in 1979, the powerful Fire Arrow as released, combining all of the most prevalent design principles of the early platform with a 2.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that produced 108 horsepower. These days, the Fire Arrow harkens back to the illustrious partnership between the Japanese automotive market and American manufacturers, and have become quite the collector’s item — should you find one in working condition.
The Low Down
Engine: 2.6 L I4
Cost Then: $4,900
Cost Now: $1,800+
1986-89 Mitsubishi Starion ESI-RI
Mitsubishi’s storied past in automotive history likely wouldn’t be where it is today without the 1982 Starion, which was designed as a replacement for the Mitsubishi Sapporo, a four-seat hardtop coupe sold in America as the Dodge Challenger (or Plymouth Sapporo). As confusing as it is, the 2+2 hatchback was conceptualized to compete with sport-oriented Japanese GTs like the Datsun 280ZX, the Mazda RX-7, and the Toyota Supra — all of which were dominating the Japanese and import markets at the time.
The vehicle was one of the first modern Japanese automobiles to integrate electronic fuel injection with a turbocharged system and featured both a narrowbody and widebody variant that adhered to strict Japanese displacement guidelines, with the former falling to the wayside due to said constraints. In 1984, the two-door, turbocharged four-cylinder was transitioned into the Conquest for participating Dodge and Plymouth dealerships and would utilize a traditional front-mounted SOHC Astron G54B 2.6 L engine, alongside rear-wheel drive and an upgraded MacPherson strut suspension. A five-speed manual transmission coupled with the vehicle’s 150 horsepower displacement resulted in a thrilling ride, catapulting the Starion into the limelight for enthusiast drivers.
The Low Down
Engine: 4G63 2.0 L I4
Cost Then: $15,000
Cost Now: $3,000+
1992-95 Mazda RX-7
Mazda is famous for a number of things but the brand’s crowning achievement is subjectively isolated to one technological breakthrough: the utilization of the Wankel rotary engine. This mesmerizing feat of human engineering denounced the traditional piston layout (found in nearly every vehicle ever produced) for a triangular rotor that was lighter, more compact, and had higher RPM ranges than its competitor. Although the engine-type has its own weaknesses, such as a heightened need for care, higher fuel consumption, and an ostentatious design principle, Mazda has continued to utilize their trademark motor to this day.
In 1978, the brand’s pride and joy, the RX-7, was revealed to the masses — a beautifully imagined hatchback that would carry both the manufacturer and the Wankel rotary into the new age. Among these tri-generational vehicles, the third-generation RX-7 was one of Mazda’s greatest developments. Utilizing sequential twin-turbochargers and a 252-horsepower, 1.3L 13B-REW engine straight from the factory, the FD variant would burst into the racing scene as one of the most complex vehicles to ever be built. After a significant three-year run and decreased interest in the racing pedigree of the vehicle, Mazda turned its focus to other platforms and waned the RX-7 off its updated roster. These days, the vehicle remains one of the most renowned Japanese racers in the tuning community and has amassed such a following that in 1998, more parallel and grey market models were bought and imported into the U.K. than ever before.
The Low Down
Engine: 1.3 L R2
Displacement: 255 horsepower
Cost Then: $32,000
Cost Now: $21,000+
1993-98 Toyota Supra
The fourth generation Toyota Supra is one of the most prolific tuning platforms of all time, and despite coming in last on our list of “affordable” Japanese classics, it’s worth noting that these days, the vehicle is one of most sought after collector’s items around. As a result, prices for the car have drastically increased. If you’re lucky enough to find one in driving condition, be prepared to spend a significant amount of money to obtain it. Regardless of this fact, the Supra remains one of the most iconic Japanese vehicles of all time. The fourth generation of the car was released in 1993 and saw a launch alongside the Lexus SC300, the platform from which it borrowed a subframe, suspension, and drivetrain architecture. But the vehicle was far from luxurious, focusing instead on a “serious” high-performance platform that was created for driving enthusiasts.
The fourth-gen Supra was completely redesigned, opting for a more aerodynamic, rounded body style with a naturally aspirated Toyota 2JZ-GE engine and a twin-turbocharged Toyota 2JZ-GTE — one of the most legendary power plants of all time. The vehicle became famous for its stock tuning capability, as well as an intriguing twin-turbo setup that operated in a sequential mode, not parallel — allowing for one turbine to supplement the other at higher stages of RPM while maintaining a quick low-RPM response. This, alongside an aesthetically pleasing modern design principle, helped to catapult the vehicle into the limelight as one of the premier racing platforms of the era — and today, the rarity of the car, coupled with its storied heritage as one of Toyota’s highest performing stock variants, has solidified its standing as a testament to Japanese automotive manufacturing.
The Low Down
Engine: 2JZ-GTE twin-turbocharged I6
Cost Then: $33,000
Cost Now: $50,000+
The 15 Best Supercars Under $50,000
If a vintage Japanese sports car doesn’t really get your motor running, perhaps you need a bit more horsepower at your disposal. If that’s the case, you’ll find what you need on our list of the best affordable supercars under $50,000.
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