QotW: What year was the peak of Japanese car design?

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The Japanese auto industry has undergone many design eras — the jet setting Sixties, the techno-boxy Eighties, the lozenge Nineties. But like an old curmudgeon you know there’s a single year in your minds after which everything went downhill.

What year was the peak of Japanese car design?

In 1972 we Japan debuted such greats as the kenmeri Skyline, Mazda RX-4, butaketsu Laurel, and the above kujira Crown. What’s more, gorgeous Hakosuka, daruma Celicas, Isuzu Belletts and Fairlady Zs were already prowling the streets on a regular basis. In our minds everything was golden sparkles of sunlight reflecting off gliding chrome.

What say you, dear reader? As always, the most entertaining or inspiring comment by next Monday will receive a toy. Click through to see the winner from last week’s question, “What’s the greatest video game JNC of all time?

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The winner was Expulsion, whose ode to the Dome Zero in Gran Turismo 4 was

Thank you very much for this thread. I now have Tokyo Extreme Racer: Zero, Tokyo Extreme Drift 2 and Auto Modellista arriving in 7-15 days.

As far as my favorite Japanese Nostalgic, I have to nominate the Dome Zero in Gran Turismo 4. While this is a later game in the series, it was the first game that I played when I started really getting into cars.

You couldn’t buy the Dome Zero: it’s cost in credits was “– — –”, meaning you couldn’t purchase it and would have to win it in a special race. Not having a guide, or really, being very good at the game, it was basically unobtainable for me. I have always adored wedge-shaped things, and loading up my GT4 save game reveals nearly a dozen AW11 MR2s in various stages of modification. The Zero was the lord of the wedges and the greatest of the goofy robotic looking 80′s cars. And the name: Dome Zero! It even sounded like a Gundam. It’s Blade Runner. It’s Total Recall. It’s Akira and Ghost in the Shell and Wicked City. But I never got it…

And because of that, I think…I really got this feeling that a Japanese vehicle could be as rare and sought after as an old Ferrari or Aston Martin or something. The Toyota 2000 GT is without a doubt the “ultimate” JDM collectible, but the Dome Zero was the first car that, to me, felt really, really, absurdly Japanese.

 

Omedetou! Your prize from the JNC gashapon is a Hot Wheels Super Speeders mystery pack Mazda RX-7!

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19 Responses to QotW: What year was the peak of Japanese car design?

  1. JerCrest said:

    Awesome post and would like to know where to get prize cars.

  2. Sprinter 1969 said:

    At about the time the cars no longer had chrome bumpers!

    I know that offends many an AE86 fan, but I will note there are exceptions to my rule. This also includes some of the RX7′s, TRX, etc.

    But generally the rule is once the bumpers were no longer steel and chromed – but hey that’s not uniquely JDM either!

  3. Ryan said:

    Not a shred of doubt, 1965 does it for me.

    -2000gt was debuted at the Tokyo Motor show
    -CSP311 Silvia production was kicked into gear. Or should I say beaten? By hand & hammer.
    -Prince R380 (While not the prettiest thing, it kicked a whole lot of ass & showed the Germans that Japan could make a bloody decent race car)
    -Honda S800. Tacho reads to 11,000rpm. What’s not to love?

    And finally, as the question asks literally about car design, here’s a 1965 sketch of a car, that over the course of the next 4 years, would eventually evolve into the 240z

    http://zhome.com/History/StylingMatsuo/65CoupeDrawing.jpg

    Drop dead gorgeous me thinks!

  4. Darryl said:

    I whole-heartedly disagree!- At the point when the bumpers WERE small and chrome, right before they grew to ridiculous proportions was the peak IMO. So, that’s about 73 or 74 at the latest.

    As noted in the article;

    73 240Z and 510.
    73 Rx2, 3, and 4 (although we didn’t get the 4 until 74, and the bumpers weren’t too bad).
    73 Celica, Corolla, Carina, etc…
    I’m sure there are other’s, even from the US. For example, the last year of the Stingray I’d want is the last one with the chrome bumpers. Once all the huge squared off steel, and then urethane hit the scene, designers were hindered, until to some degree, they were able to embrace it.

  5. j_c said:

    As much as I love old school Japanese cars, design peaked in the mid 1990s. In the 70s, they were imitating American cars, in the 80s European, but then they developed their own style in the 1990s. 20 years later, the RX-7 and the 300ZX among many of that era are still considered gorgeous and modern today. Then their economy tanked and they decided to play to safe and just make cars regular shmoes (non-enthusiasts) would buy.

  6. Jared Boorn said:

    I think I have to say it was the boxyesque/geometric 80′s that is my favorite design period so far. I liked the sharp line work and the geometric prism vehicles that came as a result. The hatches were the coolest in my opinion… examples being the Honda CRX and the Toyota 86. I have a first gen Rx7 and while I feel like the design is wonderful I don’t consider it a part of this 80′s group. The wedgey FC however, encapsulates some of that 80s design that I’m trying to get at. There is just something that is more raw and attractive to me about a design that embraces sharp edges and doesn’t try to smooth everything out and make it “sleek”. I think currently we are seeing a mixture of 80′s and 90′s design. With a combo car very geometrically shaped and smoothed/bubble-like. Overall I have always enjoyed Japanese designs. Especially, their interpretation of the sports/muscle car. Cars like the 240Z are so well done that to me they remain untouchable design wise.

  7. Tyler said:

    To me the peak was not just for styling, but for driving pleasure, lightness, small size, etc. Let’s say 1992 to include the good-looking EG Civic but exclude the awkward CRX del Sol. Include the handsome T180 Celica and exclude the bug-eye T200. Include the then-brand new (future classic) FD RX-7. Of course the Mazda MX-5 was still in its prime- so was the timeless Z32.

    Stylists were finally starting to really integrate bumpers into the vehicle form. They had the whole “aero inspired” thing down but hadn’t progressed to the ungainly bubbles of the mid-90′s. 1980′s lightness in form was carried over- many cars carried that tight, muscular form language that communicated the inner specs (and didn’t cut you if you touched the corners!).

    Yes, everything was building up to that point. After 1992, cars started ballooning in form and specification. Safety legislation distorted the proportions (long front overhangs for example). Design studios continued to improve cars after the demise of skinny chrome bumpers, but after a certain point it got too difficult to sculpt around the modern safety pod innards. 1992.

    Oh, and I have a BFA in Transportation Design so if you don’t choose my comment, well, PHOOEY! Hahaha

  8. moominsean said:

    I’d have to say somewhere around 1969. All of my favorite Japanese car designs seem to be from around 1968-1972…the Gloria, Cedric, Corona, Crown, Skyline, Honda S800, Honda 600, Corolla – pretty much tough to find an ugly car in that era. Around 1971-1972, model designs began to change drastically for the most part. Not necessarily worse, but certainly different. The Skyline became a completely different car, as did the Crown and many other models. I suppose it’s from a mix of just 1970s styling difference, more of an american muscle car influence for many, as well as updated safety and comfort standards. But all of my favorite Japanese cars seem to be from that particular era!

    • Tyler said:

      Ok, I see a lot of people citing the kujira Crown as a good looking car. In my opinion, it is not. It is a very ugly car. I love them, but mostly for their quirky styling. If you were car shopping in 1972 you’d steer clear of it and go for something more handsome.

      Compare the kujira to American sedans of the era. The Chrysler fuselage cars were gorgeous- even the Newport 4dr and the Dodges. I concede that aside from the Torino and Stang, Ford cars looked like steaming piles. 1971 Chevies were still very good looking although they turned sour the next year.

      I get the retrofuturism. I get that, looking back, they look really neat. But the Crowns were just soooooooo awkward. The inexplicable upper grille on the hood. the terrible transition from the body side to the rear fascia on the wagons. The huge, sloping bumpers. They are “cool” now for these reasons, but they weren’t attractive then. They stylistically don’t stand up to their American contemporaries.

      I am going to all this trouble not to make some pedantic point about this specific Toyota model. I’m trying to say that most Japanese cars back then had elements of this indecisiveness and inexperience. I love them for it, but Japanese cars hadn’t grown up yet.

      j_c mentioned that the Japanese copied Americans in the 70′s and Europeans in the 80′s. I think that’s correct and that they had to go through both phases to find their own style and that this style came into its own by the early 90′s!

      Internet debates- yayyy

  9. mister k said:

    1972.5 nissan dropped the boring Ital-Design influence of the past, introducing the bluebird-U & kenmeri

  10. Mike said:

    Late 80′s to early/mid 90′s for me. Think of the greats of this era: R32 Skyline, Z32 300ZX, JZA80 Supra, FD RX-7, NSX, S13 Silvia and 180/200SX. Undoubtedly the nostalgics of the future. Even the more ordinary cars had great styling, U13 Bluebird, P10 Primera, 90 series Levin, BG Familia.

    All the fussy detail of the late 70′s and early 80′s had gone, and the later 90′s/2000′s trend for tacky additions was yet to come.

    It was a period of more clean, somewhat restrained, but nonetheless great design. The cars of this era have a timeless quality that makes their styling still relevant today. You don’t look at a JZA80 or S13 and think “there’s a 20+ year old car design”. You know it is, but it still looks good.

  11. Victor said:

    Doesn’t exist. Japan wasn’t plagued with the big bumpers like we were here in the states. So Mazda Always had at least one good looking RX model throughout any decade. Usually people say that generally mid 70′s was when design started losing its good looks, and usually I would agree, but as I started looking back through the cars I realized that the exception is Mazda. The RX3 was made until 78, then the RX7 came out, and lets face it all generations of RX7s look good. So that brings us up to 2002. Than in 2003 the RX8 came out, and from the RX8 till now Mazda is still making good looking cars.

  12. Sprinter 1969 said:

    We must have been blessed here in Oz – chrome bumpers stayed nice a slim with no ugly over-riders too, just the odd neat a lean ones here and there!

    So our RX3 looked great, along with our KE25′s, 240Z, Datsun 510 etc.

    So back to my original statement about bumpers it probably makes for a cut-off year about 1975!

  13. Bee Thao said:

    Peak? What “peak”? While I agree with most of everybody’s comments regarding the beauty of design of Japanese cars, I hold to the wonderful theory that Japanese car design is like the stock market: there are mini-peaks and mini-valleys, but the market is always climbing. The design of Japanese cars is always moving forward to greater and greater heights. It is evolving and changing and carrying its history forward.

    Case in point: My wholly biased opinion is that everybody loves Hot Wheels and tomica. Well, Toyota has given us a life-sized version in the FJ Cruiser; this car looks like a toy, and you can drive it practically anywhere. Second wonderful current car from Toyota is the LF-A. What’s not to love about a car that wouldn’t be allowed into production because an aluminum chassis wasn’t good enough?

    And towards the future: The 2012 Honda NSX concept was something to look forward too; a return of the rear-wheel drive Honda to American shores. The Mazda concept cars have been fluid, dynamic, and stunning. If you haven’t seen pictures of it yet, the 4th generation MX-5 is a return to Japanese sports car roots. Beautifully minimalistic with all the right angles and gaudy Japanese shapes in all the right places; and just enough curve to remind you that everything beautiful is either shaped like a man’s organs or a woman… boxy or not.

  14. 30 said:

    you should talk about who made the car models.

  15. Steven said:

    I just stumbled across this site, so what better way to introduce myself than to alienate everyone with my crazy opinions?

    I realize this probably offends quite a few car guys, but if you ask me, the best body style of all time isn’t the coupe, convertible, or station wagon, it’s the four-door hardtop, the perfect blend of style and practicality. Most of my favorite cars are big American classics from the 1940s through the 1970s, and there are quite a few Japanese and European cars that I like as well, but the one way to make me crazy about a car is to get rid of the B pillar. Unfortunately automakers’ fears of impending safety regulations killed the American hardtop in the mid-’70s, right around the time that emissions regulations and changing tastes were killing the rest of the American auto industry. Europe and Australia never really had four-door hardtops, but Japan kept them going for almost twenty years, finally replacing the last ones with pillared pseudo-hardtops in 1994.

    These last hardtops were also some of the best looking, in my opinion. For a while Japanese companies seem to have been obsessed with old American classics, copying their beautiful “longer, lower, wider” proportions and boxy styling onto smaller cars, and today all cars basically have the same aerodynamic lump styling with different headlights and taillights (except for the odd retro-car like the Challenger, and of course wedge-shaped supercars), but during the start of the aerodynamic era in the late 1980s and early 1990s Japan really had some styles that set them apart more than any other era (except perhaps the awkwardly stylish cars of the 1970s, like the Crown at the top of the page), combining tasteful curves and minimalist decoration with those classic proportions, and really upping the game on luxury and technology features.

    Look at a 1979 Cedric and you’ll see a miniature Cadillac, right down to the dark red overstuffed cloth seats, and the 2010 Cima was just your average vaguely euro-styled technology-stuffed sports sedan posing as a luxury car, but the 1988 Nissan Cedric Cima is just such a unique car, almost like an extremely accurate retro-car based on an era that never was. It’s boxy yet aerodynamic, extremely luxurious, yet without all the extra trim and baroque ornamentation that normally went with a luxury car at the time. It had the low, sleek hardtop roofline of a 1960s Cadillac with the styling of a Jaguar and the restrained, simplistic interior of a 1950s Mercedes Benz, but with uniquely Japanese touches like wool seats, unmistakably Japanese headlights and taillights, rear passenger controls for the front passenger seat (along with a passthrough door for the rear passenger’s feet), a bizarre stationary steering wheel hub (a must with all the wheel-mounted control buttons), and a color touch-screen computer system (yes, in 1988).

    The 1988 Mazda Persona was even more uniquely Japanese, unlike any other production car both inside and out. It looks like something from an alternate universe, so alien yet oddly familiar, and I still can’t believe that something with such thin roof pillars and expansive windows actually made it into production in 1988, even without having to deal with America’s crippling safety standards. Its interior apparently won awards, with a 1960s Thunderbird-style back seat that wraps into the rear doors (upholstery and all) and a dash that melts into the front doors to complete the loop.

    I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s surrounded by Civics and Camrys and only thought of Japanese cars as boringmobiles, and as I started to really get into cars I began to hate them for turning Cadillac and Lincoln into sport-oriented Lexus-fighters. You can imagine my surprise a few years ago when I accidentally discovered that at the same time Japanese imports were permanently changing the face of the American market, back home Japan was building the very kind of classic luxury cars that I like. It completely changed my opinion about Japanese cars and got me interested in some of the more unique and impressive JDM cars, although getting information outside of Wikipedia is almost impossible without being able to speak Japanese (Google Translate does help somewhat). The over-reliance on aerodynamics of the past five years or so has also helped change my mind. Compared to today’s ugly blobs, even the early-’90s Maximas and Accords that I once thought were impossibly dull are starting to look sleek and well-proportioned.

    Anyway, long rant short, the last all-new JDM hardtop designs appear to have been released in 1989, but in order to include one of my other favorites, the beautiful and groundbreaking Eunos (Mazda) Cosmo, I’ll say the zenith was 1990. There are other designs I like that came afterward, such as the redesigned Toyota Century and the last Nissan Cedric (released here as the first generation Infiniti M45), but no era since has had such a dense collection of cars that I would want to own.

    Luckily for me these last and best JDM luxury hardtops are just now becoming old enough to import to the US, although very few are probably left. If I had an extra $10,000 lying around I’d already be on the phone with an importer about tracking down an ’87 Nissan Laurel Medalist to be my new daily driver…

    • Steven said:

      For anyone unfamiliar with the cars I mentioned, here are a few pictures.

      Nissan Cedric Cima: front, back, and interior.

      Mazda Persona: front, back, windows down, and interior.

    • Jurgen von Mueller said:

      I have had the chance to live in the Caribbean, most exactly in the West Indies (Former Bristish Colonies), and it was there that I discovered some of those “exotic” and beautiful Japanese cars, unfortunately (due to the lack of spare parts and the predominant bad driving there) most of these cars end up as people carriers ¨colective taxis” or abandoned in any yard.

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