10 of the Coolest Japanese Cars of the ’60s
Updated May 23, 2018
Some of the coolest small-bore cars from the ’60s never made it from Japan to the US. Here are 10 hot little cars that we missed out on.
In some cases, there was limited supplies of high-performance engines and a concern that Americans would pay a premium for what was then thought of as cheap little cars. Also by the mid-60s manufacturers needed to alter their vehicles to meet new US safety and emissions standards, and there was a concern whether the company would be ale to sell enough of that model to recoup their investment. In any case, you can find examples of each of these cars at various car shows as enthusiasts have cleverly imported the cars themselves.
Mazda Cosmo Series II
The Mazda Cosmo was introduced in 1967, but it wasn’t until the Series II was released a year later that it really made an impact. It had a more-powerful 128 hp two rotor engine, power brakes, 15 inch wheels and a 5-speed manual transmission. Structurally, the wheelbase had been extended by 15 inches to improve interior space and ride quality ride. The front independent suspension on the Mazda sports car was by unequal-length a-arm with an anti-roll bar, while the rear utilized a de Dion tube, trailing arms, and semi-elliptic leaf springs. 10 inch disc brakes were mounted in front with 7.9 inch drum brakes in the rear. There was no power assist. Of the 1,176 made perhaps six Series II models were initially imported into the United States.
Datsun Bluebird 410 SSS
Among the first high performance sedans built in Japan, the Bluebird SSS, was launched in March 1964. The SSS was originally available only in a four-door configuration, but a two-door version was added about a year later. Two versions of the SSS were built: the DP410 was powered by a 71 hp version of the 1.2 L Nissan engine. The 78 hp twin carburetor version of the 1.3 L engine powered the DP411. All SSS models were equipped with a four-speed manual transmission.
The Toyota 2000GT was first displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1965, revolutionized the public’s view of Japanese cars, then viewed as inexpensive, practical vehicles. As a sleek, two-seat grand tourer, the 2000GT demonstrated Japan’s auto makers could produce premium vehicles as well.
The 2000GT was manufactured under contract by Yamaha between 1967 and 1970. The engine was an inline 2.0 L six-cylinder with the block from a Toyota Crown sedan topped by a Yamaha double overhead camshaft head and three two-barrel Mikuni-Solex carbs, it produced 150 hp.
A five-speed manual transmission, and both a limited slip differential and four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes, a first for a Japanese car, were standard. Only 351 regular production units of the 2000GT were manufactured, 62 imported to the US and sold for about $6,800 (around $50,000 in today’s money).
Honda was just moving into manufacturing cars and used the S series as an image vehicle to demonstrate their capabilities. Introduced in 1966 to replace the S600, the S800 was available as a coupe or a roadster. Honda demonstrated its technical prowess with small displacement engines by powering the S800 with a 791 cc inline four-cylinder engine that produced 70 hp.
Early examples continued to use the clever chain drive and independent suspension of the earlier Honda 600 in the rear. Soon after that Honda switched to a solid axle rear end with four radius rods with a Panhard rod. Part way through production the front drum brakes were replaced with discs.
In February 1968, the S800M was introduced with flush mounted interior door handles, side marker lights outside, dual-circuit brakes, safety glass, and equipped the engine with a lean burn carburetor. These changes were made for the planned importation of the S800 to the US market, but the program was cancelled. There wouldn’t be another Honda sports car until the S2000.
Datsun Bluebird 510 SSS
The Datsun 510 needs no introduction to anyone even remotely interested in cars. What may not be as well known is that there was a high-performance version in Japan we never could buy in the US. Nissan’s Bluebird 510 SSS models came with twin Hitachi-SU carbs, a high compression ratio, and a hotter cam. The SSS motor developed 109 hp over the standard 96 hp output. The Bluebird 510 SSS carried the same front disc brakes, and four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson strut front and semi trailing arm rear) as on the standard 510, but offered upgraded instrumentation and interior trim, as well as SSS exterior badges.
Toyota Corona 1600 GT
While there were plenty of plain-Jane Corona’s being imported into the US in 1967, particularly the West Coast, back in Japan, a new 1.6 L four-cylinder DOHC, two valves per cylinder engine was available in the Corona two-door coupe, the model named the 1600GT. Breathing through a pair of 40 mm twin double-choke Solex-Mikuni 40 mm carbs, the engine produced a still respectable 110 hp. The new Yamaha-designed twin cam head was based on the work Yamaha had done for Toyota in development of the 2000GT motor. Basically, the suspension was the same the standard Corona with independent coils at the front and wide semi-elliptical springs at the back. The spring rates were raised and shock upgraded to cope with the high speeds of which the 1600GT was capable. A total of 2,229 9R engines were built, none were officially imported into the US.
Datsun Fairlady 2000
The Datsun Fairlady (called the Datsun 2000 in the US), was the final example of a series of roadsters produced by Nissan in the ’60s which competed with the Alfa Spider, Fiat 1500 & 124, MGB, and Triumph Spitfire & TR6 sports cars. The line began with the 1959 “S211” and continued through 1970 with the “SP311” and “SR311” line. In Japan, the SR311 featured a 2.0 L SOHC four cylinder engine breathing through twin Mikuni-Solex carbs that produced 143 hp. Given its light 2000 lb. weight and 5-speed gearbox it was capable of 0-60 in the 7 second range.
Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO GSR
Before you start writing your Member of Congress, please recall that decades begin with the year 1. So 1961 was the start of the ’60s, 1971 the start of the ’70s. So the Galant Colt that was launched before but not sold until 1970 still fits our criteria.
The designer of the Colt Galant GTO had studied auto design in the US , and thus incorporated a number of details from American muscle cars including a long hood, short rear deck, rear spoiler, and rounded quad-headlamps. The marketing department referred to its as the “Hip-Up Coupé!” In regards to hardware, it was much more in keeping with Japanese trends: The GSR version was powered by 1.6 L SOHC , two valve per cylinder engine drawing breath through dual-carburetors and producing 110 hp. The extremely rare MR version, built primarily for motorsports, carried Mitsubishi’s first DOHC cylinder head and produced 125 hp. Suspension was dead simple: MacPherson struts in the front and a live axle with leaf springs in the rear.
Datsun Fairlady Z432
As you probably know, there were two versions of what we call the 240Z: one for the Japanese market and one for the US market. In this case we’re only going to look at the Japanese market. The standard engine for the Japanese Fairlady Z was the 2.0 L SOHC L20A inline-six cylinder engine that developed 130 hp. However, the Z432 model shared a performance version of the three-carburetor DOHC 2.0 L S20 engine with the Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R that produced 160 hp. Despite the increase in power, the only change beyond the engine were magnesium wheels. These special versions had the Fairlady Z badge on the lower fenders with the 432 badge above (the 432 designation was 4 valves per cylinder, 3 carburetors, and 2 camshafts).
Isuzu 117 Coupe
If the Colt Galant was inspired by American design, the Isuzu 117 was most definitely inspired by European design. So its probably no surprise the two-door fastback coupe was designed by Giugiaro. Unveiled in 1966 and first produced in 1968, manufacturing of the 117 didn’t cease until 1981 when 86,192 units were produced. In the late 1960s, the 117s. Most of those cars were built after 1972 when it went into mass production. prior to that the cars were virtually hand-built at a rate of about 50 per months. The car came with a long list of standard equipment, including leather seats, dashboard trim made of camphor laurel wood, and headrests. The first engine available in 1968 was a 120 hp 1.6 L DOHC two valve per cylinder inline-four, and in 1970, an electronic fuel injection unit from Bosch debuted, using the D-Jetronic system. The model fitted with fuel injection was named the EC (for “electronic control”). Suspension was typical for the era: front wishbones, coil springs, shocks, and an anti-roll bar and at the rear a solid axle with leaf spring and trailing arms to control axle movement.
Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R
The very first Skyline GT-R, made its public debut at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show. Known by the internal Nissan designation PGC10, the GT-R four-door sedan was first made available in early February 1969. In the launch advertising the Skyline GT-R was shown next to the Nissan R380 race car, which used the same engine. The GT-R was equipped with the 2.0 L DOHC four valve per cylinder inline six that produced 155 hp . Power was delivered to the rear wheels by a 5-speed manual transmission. Suspension was by MacPherson strut in the front and a semi-trailing arm independent arrangement at the rear.
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