QotW: How should Japanese carmakers honor their history?

Last week, Nissan opened a long-overdue permanent heritage gallery at the heart of their Yokohama headquarters building, allowing millions of casual visitors to experience the company’s history. Some carmakers have museums, some have hidden collections, some have heritage parts programs. In general, though, the European brands and select American models enjoy much stronger factory support than the Japanese marques. Take the Guggenheim-like Porsche museum in Stuttgart, or the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center’s restorations, or even Jaguar’s future-proofing of its own vintage icons.

When we’ve talked to representatives of Japanese manufacturers regarding why they don’t have more programs like that, the typical reasons given have related to lack of funds and the pressure to succeed in new car sales (and the fact that heritage programs would sap resources from that goal). These are valid concerns for any business, but perhaps there’s room for both.

How should Japanese carmakers honor their history?

The most entertaining comment by next Monday will receive a prize. Scroll down to see the winner of last week’s QotW, “Which influential person in the JNC world, living or dead, would you like to meet?

We found the answers of last week quite interesting. There was dankan‘s proposed tête-à-tête with Akio Toyoda, Daniel‘s pick of the mysterious Shoichiro Irimajiri, and Negishi no Keibajo‘s hilarious choice of a fictional Isuzu spokesman. Former president of Nissan USA Yutaka Katayama (aka Mr K) was selected by several readers, as was father of the Mazda rotary Kenichi Yamamoto. Some of you, like Ken Lim and robin even wanted to waste your one wish on JNC editor-in-chief Ben Hsu. It would undoubtedly be better spent on Honda founder Soichiro Honda (and perhaps Ben can do a Ask Me Anything in a future QotW), which several readers nominated. Of those, the answer that entertained us most was Bob‘s:

Soichiro Honda. Mic drop. I can recount his life, but it’s all over the web. Lousy student. Started his own company at 22. Motorhead. Race car driver. Engineer. Private pilot. Fascinating guy who produced exceptional products. I’ve had a soft spot for Honda since my first CT70 mini and drive one today.

Omedetou! Your comment has earned you a set of decals from the JNC Shop.

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21 Responses to QotW: How should Japanese carmakers honor their history?

  1. Robb said:

    By making cars that honor their lineage and heritage, not turning their backs on it and just making a nice lobby to show their older products. Yes the idea is nice, but Nissan really needs to right their ship and make exciting affordable cars that will continue their legacy instead of making boring Korean auto maker esq cars that excite no one. Case in point , the pathfinder doesn’t look anywhere near the part of its competitor the Toyota 4Runner, it looks more like a sienna. And not making the idx but making the convertible murano, and the juke and the Fwd Altima . Nissan needs to rest on their laurels of previous decades of good work.

  2. Manu said:

    A parade, period correct clothed drivers on JNC´s , a mix between GM´s 50s parade of progress and Goodwood , but for masses on summer sunday.

  3. al said:

    Virtual museums on GT sport I would love to experience them in Japan in the flesh; but even if I go there, chances are that the time would not be available to do all the museums of cars, bikes and trains (shinkansen, anyone?) in a single trip.

    Japan automakers, please think on us and get all your models on the playstation and get some DLCs with your virtual museums on the GT sport. So we, non Japanese bystanders that love your cars and collect them when money allows, could experience them too. Obviously with the VR thingie… who knows what the future can enable…

  4. dankan said:

    I think that Japanese car makers can honour their history by building cars which embrace and exmplify the character of their past achievements.

    There are a lot of Nissan fans who will jump in here to bemoan the death of the Z, the 510/Maxima, and other cars, but I mean that more particuarly with the other brands.

    Toyota seem to have a very hard time being comfortable in their own skin. Yes, Akio tries his level best to preserve affordable drivers cars within the Toyota range, and that might make him unique among Japanese executives right now. Or among car executives in general. But, Toyota’s character isn’t being the last bastion of driving fun. Sometimes they’ve offered that, but their core was always being the brand which offered quietly competent machines which centred the experience of their drivers and passengers above everything. The cars weren’t flashy, weren’t extravagently innovative, just good machines which you’d hold onto for a long time, and then regret their loss. The idea that the need to build emotional connections requires ridiculous styling to get attention misses the point, and it neglects their history.

    Honda as well struggle to remain Honda. The cars weren’t big, soft, fast, and quiet. They were relentlessly creative, stunningly well-packaged, extraordinarily efficient, and also really fun to drive. And then we look at the current line-up… Well, at least the Honda e looks like a return to form. So maybe Honda get it.

    But really, the only way to honour history is to learn from it and live its lessons. The Japanese car companies have been struggling to do that.

    • MikeRL411 said:

      And then there’s MAZDA! If they can’t outsell Toyota, build very interesting vehicles that drivers appreciate.

      • dankan said:

        I love Mazda for being Mazda, but they’re kind of like Primal Scream. A ton of classics, but never destined for mainstream popularity. And also frequently given to setting large piles of cash on fire.

    • Milo Weeks said:

      Spot on. While I agree completely and wish to see a return to form with many auto manufacturers, I’m curious if they would succeed with such plans since the buyer demographic has shifted so much and the companies are all seeking maximum sales. The average buyer doesn’t seem to want drivers cars because the fun is being sapped from driving: speed cameras, grinding traffic, and urbanization. Car makers are beholden to stakeholders who demand max sales and profits and seem risk-adverse.

      Plus, I wonder how much of this nostalgia can be reproduced as it’s a reflection of a time. In the automotive realm, the ideas of simplicity, luxury, value and performance are constantly shifting. We don’t get ultra-light cars, with high-revving engines much more due to tightening emissions and safety regs and even 300hp is barely considered sporty anymore. Similarly, many entry level cars come with luxury features that used to be only found on flagship models.

      It seems we’ll just get a tiny trickle of low volume cars that appeal to the old-heads and drivers, the rest will be geared to shielding occupants from the rigors of transportation and boasting about numbers and unusable capability.

  5. RayZ said:

    I agree with the comments that have been given. Nissan should have gained knowledge from their past. The 240Z and 510 exemplifies the extent the Japanese idea of good design and quality an automobile should look like and be.

  6. dbdr said:

    Making sure at least one example of every car they’ve produced survives in perfect, fully original condition. I believe at least Nissan has done it to some degree with their collection hall. There are cars that are I believe are legitimately on the verge of total extinction, at least within Japan. Isuzu Geminett and Mitsubishi Tredia are two that come to mind.

    Shouldn’t be a big job for any major carmaker to search for and buy between a few dozen and a few hundred (depending on manufacturer) old cars, restore them and store them in an air conditioned warehouse. Kind of like the Svalbard seed vault, but with cars.

  7. エーイダン said:

    Like a strong nation with a rich history, any company that has achieved much should honour it’s victories. Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, etc. all have a long history of innovation and automotive prestige to tow. If you do not know where you came from you cannot see your own path. Imagine if the people of Great Britain forgot their proud maritime history, their long history of blood and honour on the battlefield. It wouldn’t then be known as ‘Great Britain’ would it? Greatness is hard to earn and harder to maintain, so any company worth their salt needs to look back upon the past to see their own future.

  8. r100guy said:

    The best Mazda Museum in the world is not in Japan but in Augsburg Germany. The Auto-Frey museum was the life long dream of Walter Frey, Mazda’s premier dealer and importer of Mazda cars in Germany. Auto Frey and Mazda worked together to promote this museum to make it somewhat successful. Each party has a win with Auto-Frey getting international attention and Mazda Japan also benefitting without the big cash outlay. Maybe partnerships like this is the way to promote Japanese car heritage/history?

    • emuman said:

      Yes, I can not agree more, the Frey collection is outstanding. I will visit it (again) this Saturday. There is a big Rotary meet this weekend, called Wankelmania. There are still Tickets available.

      • emuman said:

        Just returned from the visit of Frey’s collection. Besides from the outstanding museum we had the opportunity to the rest of the collection. Seeing a Lada Rotary standing next to a Citroen GS and M35 is only possible there. From Sachs lawn mouwers or chain saws to Mercedes C111 engine parts everything rare and rotary related can be found.

  9. nlpnt said:

    Partner with existing museums where possible, depending on collection size. If Nissan in Smyrna doesn’t have room for a decent collection why not partner with the Lane Motor Museum? Likewise Honda’s great advantage staying in SoCal is any number of potential partners.

  10. Dutch 1960 said:

    Japanese manufacturers often don’t honor their recent history. They are too busy moving on, improving, changing, updating. Always focused on the next, better iteration of what they do. Perhaps that’s why their cars have always been so consistently functional and reliable, and pleasing to the eye and to the senses. A standard for the world, really, in affordable cars, for the last few decades.

    Which leaves it to the happy and proud owners, the ones that get to use and enjoy these older cars, as Things are today. Is there any better endorsement than the car owners themselves proudly maintaining, modifying, and continuing to drive these cars? Doesn’t that speak volumes to the value and desirability of the cars? People can restore and maintain whatever they want, and these are what they choose? Japanese vintage cars are uniquely “bottom up”, supported by the owners themselves, despite the difficulties in sourcing parts and finding qualified mechanics. Perhaps it’s just the way with Japanese cars, and it should be embraced for what and how it is. It is different than vintage car ownership for cars built in the rest of the world, as Japan itself is a unique place and culture.

    • MikeRL411 said:

      “Sourcing parts” is most often improvising! I have kept my 1967 RL411 on the road by modifying and fabricating replacement part for 51 years.

      “Finding qualified mechanics” most often comes down to do it yourself! When your car is older than the mechanic designated to work on it you really have a problem.

  11. Crank_case said:

    Make a better effort in making parts/panels for olders models readily available affordably.

    • MikeRL411 said:

      Licensing after market firms to make these seems to be the solution. Then Nissan would find out just what a good decision that was. Either there is a viable market for these parts or the “market” would vanish. you cannot commit company resources to a non marketable product. before Renault intruded there were over a thousand 1500 roadster and RL411 hubcaps in the Carson warehouse and also over a thousand original type R camshafts [everyone ordered the later metric unit and the originals stagnated on the shelf]. a year later there were none!

  12. Angry Nerd! said:

    1. When there’s an event like Pebble Beach…
    OUTRIGHT REFUSE to display their vehicles on hamster shavings!!!

    2. Take a more active role in amateur race sponsorships and vintage racing support.

    3. Integrate tuning techniques and performance aftermarket builders/manufacturers/personalities into the development of new models (ala Carroll Shelby).

    4. Strongly push and ADVERTISE high-performance crate engine programs/lineups.

    5. Amortize and stop making excuses not to sell performance variants of popular models.

    6. Never handicap the potential of a vehicle with cost-cutting schemes like torsion beam suspensions and drum brakes.

    In short, they can honor their past by respecting their PRESENT. Without doing that, they’re doing the same thing US manufacturers did in the seventies…producing unremarkable, junkyard fodder. That’s the surest way to sabotage any potential “heritage” or historical significance.

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