BOTB Reports: How Japan took over the Sports Car world {{favouriteCount}} Quantity of Likes

1 Feb 2016

If you stopped a punter at the London Motor Show in the 1960’s and asked them what they thought of Japanese cars, their response wouldn’t be very nice, after they’d stopped laughing. The only Japanese cars on sale were mediocre economy boxes with very little going for them apart from reliability and fuel economy. But in Japan, plans were afoot and manufacturers were planning all kinds of exciting cars that would eventually take the rest of the world by storm. So let’s start with the first cars that really put Japan on the sports car map:

Toyota 2000GT

The 2000GT was made most popular by its inclusion in the Bond film You Only Live Twice, but it made its mark on the sports car world thanks to its sprightly performance and low, E-Type aping looks (though some believe it to actually be the better looking car). The 150hp engine was a masterpiece as well. As only 351 were made they are now exceptionally valuable, fetching over seven figures at auction.

Datsun 240Z

By the end of the 1960s, Datsun/Nissan had seen the effect the Jaguar E-Type had on the automotive world and wanted a piece of it. So they put all their best engineers on the ‘Z-project’ and the 240Z was born. Featuring a 2.4 litre (hence the name) straight-six engine producing 151hp, the 240Z took the familiar look of long nose/short tail, added in some niceties like 4-wheel independent suspension and disc brakes and  took the fight directly to the MG BGT. And won.


After these cars had proven a hit, Japan went into overdrive making their sports cars. But it was in the 1990s that they really hit their stride with supercar-baiting models that offered the looks, pace and style of the Italians with none of the price tag or unreliability:


Now, I’ll make an admission right now, I’m ever so slightly biased about this generation of Japanese sports car and which is the best, as the RX-7 pictured above was mine, and it’s the one car I seriously regret selling. Generally there were two big boys in the market at that time, the Toyota Supra Mk4 and the Mazda RX-7 Mk 3 – the Supra went down the tried and tested turbo-straight-six route, but as always Mazda chose the road less travelled and went with their twin-turbo Wankel rotary engine. Displacing just 1.3 litres, the rotary engine is smooth, powerful and sounds like nothing else – producing 276bhp (as all Japanese sports cars did in the 90;s thanks to a gentleman’s agreement between manufacturers) in this case which was enough to give the light RX-7 epic performance. There are downsides to the rotary though, namely 13mpg, a serious thirst for oil and an engine rebuild every 20,000 miles.

Mazda MX-5

In the 90’s it wasn’t just the big sports car market that the Japanese were attacking – they also went after the small sports cars too, with the MX-5. Taking the original Lotus Elan as its inspiration, the MX-5 was small, lightweight, very simple with a manually folding roof and 1.6 litre engine. To say it was a success is an understatement – the MX-5 is now on its 4th generation over 25yrs later and over a million have been sold worldwide.


But Japan also took over when they invaded the new generation of sports car that appealed to the family man – the sports saloon. Sure the Europeans were already making plenty of successful sports saloons, but the rally-bred four wheel drive car really hit the big time with two models – the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru Impreza STi. The battles between these two models raged on for years in car magazines, the latest models of each battling it out for supremacy. For me though the winner was the Evo 6 – the best looking of them all and especially the rally special edition named after Tommi Makinen.

Mitsubishi Evolution 6 Tommi Makinen Edition (TME)

This was a tough call, it was very tempting to choose the Subaru Impreza 22B but for me personally the TME just edged out into the lead thanks to the red paint, rallying graphics and white wheels – it looked like it had just driven off the rally stage and onto the road. It drove like the rally car too, with special suspension, an engine that was supposed to have 276bhp but was regularly tested to have well over 300bhp and a stripped out interior.

Come the new millennium Japan had lost confidence in the sports coupe market, with only the Honda NSX surviving. But in 2007 Nissan decided that its latest Skyline needed to be a Ferrari-killer and the ‘R35’ GT-R was born.

Nissan GT-R

Godzilla. The giant killer. Both names given to the older generations of the Nissan GT-R, so Nissan had a lot to live up to when they designed the ‘R35’ GT-R. The thing was though, this time the GT-R couldn’t just appeal as a kooky Japanese super sports car – it had to tempt buyers away from Porsches so needed a much broader range of talents. The twin turbo V6 engine has serious power – 542bhp in the latest model, plus it has the dynamic ability to shame pretty much any other sports car in any weather. This is probably the most impressive demonstration of the Japanese might at developing sports cars – it may weigh a lot, but through serious engineering brilliance and talent it mixes it with not only Porsches, but Ferraris and Lamborghinis as well.