A dangerous package dropped through my letterbox last Friday. A birthday present from my brother- and sister-in-law in Fukuoka. It was the latest edition of a magazine by the name of Nostalgic Hero. Once I’d got past sniggering at the title, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating things I’ve read for some time.
As the title suggests, Nostalgic Hero is a magazine specializing in the cars of yesteryear, and being a Japanese language publication the focus is largely – but not exclusively – on domestically produced cars from the past. The focus is very much on vehicles produced during the 1970s and 1980s, or the latter years of the Showa period as it’s known in Japan.
It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a period in history when Japanese cars were a laughing stock in Europe. A friend of mine can even recall a time in the early 1980s when he was mocked for taking a Subaru to a stage rally. People apparently fell about laughing when they learned this funny car from Tokyo had some silly technology that made all the wheels turn at once. They were probably still laughing until Hannu Mikkola showed up the following year with an Audi Quattro.
It’s a marker of how much things have changed that a Porsche can drive past a group of young people without anyone so much as batting an eyelid, and yet a Skyline or Lancer Evolution will get all the heads turning. However, there seems to be a growing realisation in ‘The West’ that Japan was actually turning out good cars long before the Sony PlayStation and/or Colin McRae introduced the products to the rest of the world.
But to say nobody has been interested in old Japanese metal up until now would be downright wrong. It’s as if Japanese car manufacturers and enthusiasts have been keeping all the good stuff for themselves and slowly releasing it out to the world in installments. First was the stuff that we always knew was cool – the Toyota 2000GT from You Only Live Twice and the Datsun 240Z. Then there were the cars that became popular because of their mad skillz at going sideways, things like the AE86 Toyota Corolla and S13 Nissan Silvia – you know the ones you always see with black bonnets. And the latest wave seems to centre round the original Nissan Skylines, the first cars to wear the GT-R badge.
What I liked about Nostalgic Hero, though, was all the other stuff it showcased aside from the ‘flagship’ classics. Just as it is in the UK, I got the sense reading through that there’s a place for every old car – even those that aren’t in tip-top condition. And this is where it started to get really dangerous, because I found myself drawn to the classifieds. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I look at prices in a foreign currency everything seems good value for money. A Mitsubishi Galant GTO with no MOT, a rusty bonnet and a tatty grille? It’s only in the next prefecture from my in-laws, and the owner does say he has a big pile of spare parts…put your hands on your head and step away from the magazine!
It should come as no surprise to find that the values of some makes of classic car have gone through the roof in Japan. A proper hakosuka Skyline GT-R (hakosuka sounds like some kind of mythical beast, but just means ‘box Skyline’) can change owners for the same price as a decent city centre flat, mirroring the classic Ford scene in Britain with uncanny accuracy – although personally, I’d take a Skyline over a Mark 2 any day of the week, and my views on this matter are well documented elsewhere.
So a Japanese classic car, owned and used in Japan, is on balance pretty similar to a British classic car in Britain. Same scene, same variety, same crazy prices. But an old Japanese car in Britain, now that would be something pretty special. This exclusivity is helped no end by the fact that Japanese cars really weren’t that popular in 1970s Britain, being very much an oddity until the 1980s, when Nissan opened their Bluebird factory on Tyneside and put thousands of Geordies back to work after the coal mines had closed. A trawl of the internet auction sites brings up only a dozen or so Showa-mobiles, as well as a few chancers trying to flog mid-80s Asian stuff at vastly over-inflated prices under the ‘retro’ tag. Until recently, another friend of mine had a 1988 Nissan Sunny, and I can confirm there was nothing cooky, chic or classic about it.
I’d love to think I’ve found a niche in the market for vehicles I can import to our fair island and sell on at something of a premium, but the reality is that once shipping fees, repairs and the necessary modifications have been carried out, it’s probably too costly to be commercially viable. At a personal level, though, I reckon I could pick up something pretty interesting that will be hopefully more reliable, and certainly more individual, than the its contemporary Ford, Volkswagen or Citroen. Hands up who’s heard of a Mazda Luce HB?