The site at the world-famous National Car Museum in Beaulieu, deep in the New Forest, was originally built to cater for the emerging Japanese car culture and began life as a Mazda event ten years ago. Having attracted positive feedback from Japanese car owners, it was followed by a Simply Japanese day in 2012. As one of the more versatile Japanese car events, the show welcomes everything from high powered sports cars to 4x4s as well as cars from the early years of their importation.
The venue doesn’t need that much of an introduction but it’s worth quickly running through its history. Founded in 1952, the original collection consisted of just 5 cars. In 1964, an interim facility was constructed to hold a larger collection of vintage cars, and the current museum, which houses over 300 exhibits, was completed in 1972. Aside from the impressive collection of road, race and track cars it also hosts land speed record holders. In a series of newer out-buildings are a selection of cars that have graced the TV and silver screens.
The catch-all ‘Simply Japanese’ title attracts modern open-top cars, fast and furious sports cars, as well as a wide variety of vans and plush saloons. Car and Classic have chosen to focus on the more interesting, the obscure and the now rare examples.
It would be appropriate to introduce the Simply Japanese event with what is believed to be the earliest Japanese car on public display in the UK. This unassuming little car is a 1935 Datsun type 14. If you have visited the museum, you could be forgiven for overlooking the car as just another Austin Seven. However, there are subtle variances between the two cars, and the Japanese-built car has enough differences to avoid any potential patent infringement. The car was originally shipped in by Austin Herbert to ensure that was the case.
Sticking with the Datsun theme, we have Andy’s 810 Series 1979 180B Bluebird in estate form. It is a fairly well-known car in UK Datsun circles, having been passed over to several owners over the years. The car suddenly disappeared, with people expecting the worst but it actually was shipped over and used in Jersey for several years in the 2000s. The car was brought back and languished unregistered for UK use in storage until rediscovered by Andy a couple of years ago. Very much a work in progress, Andy has managed to re-register the car with its original UK issue plate and plans a sympathetic restoration.
A former rostrum winner of the Festival of the Unexceptional award, Pete’s immaculate 910 Datsun Bluebird symbolises his fastidious approach to make his cars as close to perfect as possible. This model replaced the 180B, and while it shared much of its running gear, it was far more refined and plush. Upon buying the car, Pete managed to locate the original owner who not only retained much of the car’s paperwork but also gave an insight into its life, use and provenance. It comes with its original bill of sale, 45 previous road tax discs, 17 service invoices and all of its original handbook pack.
Moving into the Nissan era, these N12 Sunny ZX Coupes belong to Amanda and Mark. Both cars are identical, but Marks white car has less than 10K on the clock and has still needed the fitting of later style rear lamps to replace the originals – this highlights the issue of finding parts for older Japanese cars but where’s the fun in buying things that don’t require some effort? At the time the Sunny Coupe was fairly unique in a sea of hot hatches, and while their sporting ability was often questioned, their durability, showroom appeal and value were not.
We shift into more recognisable territory with Nissan’s best-known sports car, the iconic Z. The S30 Datsun 240Z was released in 1970, and was met with instant success although UK imports were delayed due to unprecedented demand in the States. The early incarnations of the nimble compact sports cars were created to compete with the outgoing Austin Healeys, but its key American market demanded more comfort and space. As a result, its corners were rounded off with each successive update and the car became more of a straight-line cruiser towards the end of the ’70s.
We round up the selection of Nissans by looking at a niche model produced by the company. The Cube was a novel approach to family motoring, with huge practicality and accommodation. Like many niche models, the MK2 Cube was not officially imported into the UK, but the lucrative grey market opened up a huge variety of JDM vehicles that have now fallen well within the grasp of owners looking for alternatives to the norm. In most cases, the mechanics were shared with mainstream models, with this Cube being an early adopter of a Nissan-Renault chassis platform.
Nissan’s rival Toyota had a good presence at the show too, with an equally diverse selection of cars spanning 5 decades. While the conservative company were best known for their level-headed approach to their cars, the brand also had their flair of creativity too. The Sera was another example of a domestic market only car, but several have found their way into the UK. Characterised by its glass roof canopy and butterfly doors, the Sera offers almost unparalleled interior vision as well as a remarkable rear deck storage space for its size. This example is owned rather aptly, by Sarah, who is on her third example. She’s had to be patient with finding an original, unmodified car but tells us that this one is a keeper.
Another unlikely model from the Toyota stable is the bB Open Deck. Classified as a coupe utility vehicle, with an integrated cargo deck rather than the usual separate section often seen on pick-ups. This Mini MPV based car was a 2000-2001 only model, making it a rather rare lifestyle vehicle. Practicality runs riot throughout the design, as it also offers flat-fold seats, suicide doors (there’s a near-side rear door) and a dropping tailgate.
Keen to capitalise on the success of the brand in the States, Toyota set up the Research Design studio in California in the late ’70s to enhance and understand the needs of their core export market. The result was the second generation Celica, which cleverly retained much of the basic proportions of the Mustang-influenced original, with a subtle yet successful surface design that looked at home in both US and European markets. Dan’s 1979 TA40 coupe has been fully restored by himself, with some effective modifications including a 4AGE engine and AE86 gearbox topped off by some tasteful SSR formula mesh split rim alloys.
Often referred to as wagons, Japanese estate cars were, until the 80s, still generally classified as commercial vehicles in their home markets. The T170 Toyota Carina II is a prime example of this legacy with a curious mix of an electric sunroof yet featuring wind up windows and a carb fed engine while the rest of the UK spec Carinas all used fuel injection. As a footnote, the 1991 Carina pictured above was my daily driver in 2014. I bought it from a family whose father had owned it since new and while it was in my ownership it regularly munched up thousands of motorway miles with absolutely no complaint. I sold it in 2016 and I was delighted to see it still in use. It is run by Pete, the same person who bought it off me and is the organiser of the New Forest Classic car club.
Sharon brought her exceptionally clean Honda CRX to the event and marks our introduction of the Honda entries to the show. As one of the more progressive companies, the brand quickly established itself as a manufacturer who was keen to promote driving dynamics, rather than the usual Japanese value for money attributes. The CRX was based on the 4th generation Civic, which by this point had developed a range of multi-faceted designs all based on the same platform, predating modern practices. The CRX, owned by the family for 21 years is only used for gentle drives and show attendances, but it is still every inch a drivers car, brimming full of technology and agility.
The Civic story goes back to the ’70s as Honda’s first entry into the small family car market. It demonstrated an appeal to the mass market, without compromising Honda’s mechanical ingenuity and like most of the exports produced by Japan at the time, struck gold in the US. This facelift model of the original is owned by Phil, and while he’s not specifically motivated by Japanese cars, he bought the car due to its solid structure. One of the downsides of older Japanese cars is the rampant rust, so in this day and age, it requires a certain amount of patience to find the right car and he appreciates how fortunate he is to find such a decent example. It is currently up for sale.
Hondas due to their slightly higher price structure were often bought by people who tended to keep the cars for a long time, and this is still true to this day. As a result, the ownership profiles are older than the average car buyer, which means that many of the older Hondas these days tend to be in the hands of long time owners who keep the cars well maintained. This neatly segues into Mike’s 1996 Honda Prelude. Originally bought for his wife, he started his Honda ownership by the virtues of a Triumph Acclaim in 1982. Impressed by its reliable engine and design detail, he found himself buying a third generation Prelude to replace it and has stuck with the brand ever since. The car has seen a fair amount of work to the body over the years, including a set of rear wings imported directly from Japan.
Speaking of the Triumph Acclaim, we have a neatly modified example at the event, which emphasizes the owner’s awareness of the brand’s origins. As the first Japanese design to be built in the UK courtesy of Triumph, the Honda Ballade based Acclaim became well received after some initial doubts. Honda had entrusted their level of working practices and quality to the Cowley plant and it set BL back into some form of stability. The owner of this car has paid tribute to its roots and installed a Honda K20 engine in it.
Two generations of Mazdas rotary efforts – the RX4 was the rotary version of Mazda’s Cortina competitor, the 929. It was one of three distinct models in the early to mid-’70s Rotary line-up on sale in the UK. Mazda stuck with the concept into the ’70s but almost went bankrupt in staying true to the design. Having stabilised their businesses due to the continued sales of the standard combustion models, Mazda released the RX7 in 1978 and was rewarded by spectacular sales, particularly in the States. The RX4 is unusual for the fact it has not needed any welding, having been taken on by the owner in 2007.
Well known for their off-road offerings, among the display we found two very different variations of the same theme. The Suzuki SJ was a surprise hit in the UK and gained a following but not because of its off-road ability. The uncompromising off-roaders appealed to a wider variety of buyers due to their rugged style and bolt-on goodies and made them briefly popular with younger fashion-conscious owners in the late 80’s. The ’90s Suzuki X90 was an attempt to capitalise on the success of the SJ and Vitara, but it was a step too far and considered a little too effeminate. However, it’s a fascinating insight into how even the Japanese also got things wrong occasionally.
Despite the occasional setback. the ’90s were considered the turning point for Japanese car designs, the styling had become far more acceptable and less ornate than previous generations and more importantly, the driving dynamics had caught up with the European competition. Cars like the Mazda MX5 and Subaru Impreza were incredibly popular, but the ability to create decent all-round cars for the everyman was there too. The Mazda 323 and Mitsubishi Colt were two examples of competent family hatches that were well-liked by their owners.
Commercial vehicles were also a large part of Japanese import success. Two more examples of vehicles that were not official imports, the Mazda Bongo makes a more than adequate alternative to the European camper van, while the diminutive but sparky Honda Acty resolves a lot of issues for traders in crowded built-up areas.
One thing you can guarantee at the Simply Japanese event, you can never predict what will turn up. What is more interesting is the wide demographic of owners. The mixture of the younger on-the-ball owner, those with a life-long interest in old Japanese cars and former banger racers, all the way to those who simply appreciate their car as a loyal workhorse. The Japanese classic car movement is now part of the UK classic car scene and will continue to thrive as long as there are events like this.