The first official imported Japanese for sale to the public, started with a tentative run of imports by Daihatsu in 1964. While the car was not a success, resulting in Daihatsu pulling out of the UK market some 5 years later, it opened up opportunities for other Japanese manufacturers, starting with Toyota in 1966, Honda in 1967, Datsun in 1968 and Mazda in 1969. Mitsubishi also sent a Colt 1100F for evalutation during this time, but no official import plan was devised. All 5 manufactures has something of interest to the UK consumer, in Honda and Mazda’s case it was a niche technological innovation, while Colt, Toyota and Datsun offered sensible alternatives to passenger car solutions. At the time, the car industry was booming and consumer spending had never been so high, more and more people were becoming the owners of their own cars for the first time. At the time of the first Japanese imports, the British press was mostly positive of the new imports but maintained a level of sceptism on whether the public would be swayed to buy these brands over an established brand, with a network of parts, servicing and after sales. To many people the car was simply a device, an appliance to get you from one point to another with no fuss. It was this group of people that would have parted with their hard earned money to buy a Japanese car. Secondly the cars were relatively advanced, and featured not only up to date thoughtful design but also to a high level of engineering and equipment. It was noticible that the car were logically laid out – all servicable engine parts were easy to access, useful in the days when much of these tasks were done at home. The cars sold at competitive prices, but not quite as cheap as Eastern Bloc cars, as not to undervalue the cars. The well made machines, also offered extras such as heaters, radios, recling seats, twin speed wipers and reversing lights as standard – usually under cutting the prices of European manufacturers with those as an option.
Throughout the 50’s and early 60’s many established brands like BMC, Ford, Rootes and Vauxhall were selling cars to owners within the Commonwealth and home markets. Truth was that the cars were starting to suffer from constraints of reduced development budgets, ancient factories and building practices and an agitated work force – something that didn’t affect the Japanese companies. Popular cars across the Commonwealth like the Morris Minor were durable and easy to work on – traits that were noted by the Japanese. Prior to the importation of Japanese cars, they’d always been a market for foreign cars, mostly European cars with a small number of American imports. Sales of Volkswagen, Renault and Fiat were climbing upwards and soon became familar sights on UK roads throughout the 50’s and 60’s. VW in particular sold on its merits of reliability and quality, Renaults were practical and comfortable cars, where Fiat provided a keen driving experience with attractive styling. The British manufacturers of the 50’s could not have predicted what was about to happen, and by the early 70’s there was an active campaign to buy British in order to try to combat the so called Japanese invasion. The truth was that the British car industry had been in decline since the 50’s, and assumed that the ex-British colonies and North American demand for their cars will last forever. This timing co-incided with the emergence of the Japanese imports, which would change the street scenes forever.
After the initial imports of uncomplicated small cars and family cars, the Japanese started developing a range of niche models, which would add some level of glamour to the ever confident range of cars. Datsun launched the 240Z and Toyota followed with a more mass market approach with their Celica. They would enhance the image of the brands, especially when involved in competitive motorsport. Datsun had started to import their Bluebird based pick up trucks to an appreciative American audience, sparking off a trend for ‘mini-sized’ utility budget pick up trucks, selling mostly to a younger generation often with a range of customisation options. This kind of market didn’t really exist in European countries as such, but the success of selling pick up trucks to trade and commercial customers simply enhnaced the reputation of the brands. Mazda introduced their pick up, the B1600, sometime in 1973. Toyota followed a year later with their Hilux and Datsun finally arrived in 1977 with their 1500 (620) pick up. Another market that the Japanese market held almost exclusively captive for the decade was the recreational 4×4 market. Daihatsu and Suzuki had developed a range of small but able 4×4 vehicles, which proved to be popular in Europe. At the other end of the scale, Toyotas legendary Land Cruiser was available in the UK, and while it couldn’t competively rival the Land Rover in the UK, it was a different story across the rest of the world.
In 1967 the total sales of Japanese cars in the UK totalled 2472, six years later it had shot up to 92,608. This simply echoes the popularity of their consumer goods, starting from transistor radios to cameras to ship building. However it was the success of Japanese Motorbikes that paved the way for the cars. Like the cars, the rise was meteoric, with 4270 sales in 1962, to just under 100,000 in 2 years. It wasn’t long before Japanese cars appeared in the top 20 yearly best selling cars. In view of this expansion the British government started to investigate ways to protect the ailing British car industry from the onslaught, rather than encourage the British to raise standards and competitiviely price their cars, they looked at ways to limit the number of cars the public can buy. The British car industry was in bad health, years of strikes, poor build quality, under-developed new designs, models lasting years beyond their expected sales lifespans, indifferent dealers, reduced exports, constant warranty claims, internal competition, long supply times and poor value for money all affected the UK manufacturers. Factories where earmarked for closure and it was clear to see that without any form of intervention, the British car industry was in trouble. With an agreement with Japanese manufacturers, import quotas were introduced in the late 70’s to limit the shipment number of car imports to 11% of the UK’s market. Both France and Italy also set up similar protectist measures, italy just allowing 2000 cars into the country per year. America set up similar guidelines, limiting imports to 1.68 Million imports a year. There was an element of anti-Japanese feeling, and ‘unfair competition’ was often bandied about, but for countries that had a limited or no car building industry, less resistance was experienced. One of the reasons why they’d been some discord, was that the volumes of foreign cars allowed into Japan was still comparitively low, with only the Volkswagen Golf bucking the trend.
Back in the UK, despite import quotas, the turn of the decade looked just as bleak for UK manufacturers. Both Ford and Vauxhall were controlled by European arms of the company and there was no guarantee that your new Capri or Cavalier was actually assembled in the UK but there was a way to protect British workers jobs, which ultimately came with the help of the Japanese car companies.
The Japanese had long established high productivity rates at the factories, bettering that of American and European manufacturers, with UK factories often performing the worst. The running of each companies factory used different adaptations of Henry Fords Mass production model. In the 60’s free loans were offered by the British government to the manufacturers to build new plants in job depressed areas, but these were characterised by over capacity, low profits, a circle of redundancy and worsening labour moral. In BL case was the inefficiency of production methods in their smaller factories, in the late 60’s the company had 35 factories producing 20 different bodystyles in UK plants of variable efficiency, but produced twice as many designs as American General Motors but just at one-fifth of the volume. While Ford, Rootes and Vauxhall had American money to reorganise and consolidate their products, BL demanded a cash injection from the government to keep the company afloat. The structure and model line up of 60’s and 70’s British Motor Holdings/British Leyland is a fascinating story, and has been well documented in print and online but the range of cars at the end of the 70’s shows a woeful tale. The loss making Mini was 20 years old, the Allegro never quite succeeded on the qualities of its predessor the 1100/1300 models, the Marina mechanicals was largely based on the long discontinued Morris Minor, the Princess lacked a hatchback, all of the compact sports cars that had helped create sales in the states were axed or in the process of being discontinued and even the top of the range models like the Jaguars, Land Rovers and Rover SD1 were besieged with build quality issues. There were some signs of improvement, a lot of hope was aimed at the forthcoming Metro model, a huge sales campaign had been launched celebrating the car inherit Britishness. This was followed shortly with the announcement that BL had negotiated a deal with Honda, to make the non exported Civic Saloon (Honda Ballade) at the Cowley plant. The build assembly was overseen by the Honda in Japan, who not only shipped in drivetrains and gearboxes but also introduced innovative proven management and worker skills. The initial run was successful, and would have helped both parties involved. At the time BL were trying to improve its build quality and worker relations, and Honda was attempting to overcome the imposed import quotas. A second experiment with the Rover 800/Honda Legend was less successful, but the Rover 200/Ballade and Rover R8/Concerto which helped transform the build quality and reputation of the now named Rover group.
Sadily despite a period of considerable improvement in their products and workforce relations during the early to mid 90’s, the government could not save the brand despire several different ownerships and Rover disappeared as a UK going concern altogether in 2005.
By this time the Japanese had become the world biggest motor vehicle manufacturers, a position to held by them until the Chinese took over in 2009. One of the main issues was the relatively high initial costs to set up factories abroad. The first foray into manufacturing cars outside Japan, had actually started sometime back, with Asia, African and South american assembly plants propping up local economies way back in the 60’s, so dealing with such set ups in the UK was comparitively straight forward with assistance from the government.
Nissan set up the first UK assembly plant in 1986, to produce the T72 Bluebird models for European consumption and eventually became the most efficient car plant in Europe, Toyota followed suite in Derbyshire, followed by Honda in Swindon. This has not only regained confidence in the UK forces ability to mass produce cars, but has meant for the first time in decades that there is a sizable export of British made cars. This has compensated for the turndown of naturalised UK car manufacturers, and further reductions in mass production of components in the UK by established companies like Ford and GM.
The select number cars listed below illustrate the breadth, innovation and emotional appeal of Japanese cars.
Several Japanese cars have been recognised for overhauling and reviving specific car markets. Started by the global domination of Toyota’s Land Cruiser, a domain that had almost exclusively been the preserve of Land Rover. The Suzuki Suzilight is recognised as the first kei car, which introduced motoring to thousands of Japanese owners. Toyota in particular with their Corolla produced a genuine world car. Mazda started with their Rotary engine technology in 1967, with highlighted models such as the original Cosmo and RX7. Honda launched their economical Civic at exactly the right time during the fuel crisis of 1973, the Accord was the first Japanese car to be manufactured in the United States and soon became the best selling Japanese car in the US for 15 consecutive years between 1982 and 1997. Nissan launched their people carrier in Japan 3 years before Renault took credit for the genre. Mazda launched their MX5 in 1989, to universal acclaim resurrecting the mass produced open top car market, shortly followed by Lexus, who set new standards in refinement for their range of luxury cars. The 1997 toyota Prius was the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car, Nissan was the first to market with an all-electric car in 2010.
There is also some similarities in the recent success of South Korea as car manufacturers. Hyundai were first to arrive in the UK in 1982, having set up a car building arm in 1967 assembling the Ford Cortina under license. Their first own design, the Hyundai Pony was launched in 1975, with styling by Giugiaro, chassis help from ex BL engineers and drivetrains from Mitsubishi. Kia started making Mazda 1000’s under licence in 1974, with imports of the Mazda 121 rebadged as the Kia Pride starting in the UK in 1991 and finally Daewoo with their GM influenced Nexia (MK2 Astra) and Espero (Mk2 Cavalier) in 1994. All 3 manufacturers, despite the Asian recession, are quickly gaining UK sales on a scale not disimilar to the Japanese in the 70’s. Malaysian Proton also entered the UK market with Mitsubishi based (1983 Lancer) cars in 1989, and have proved to be, like the South Korean built cars, durable and reliable.
The spread and acceptance of Japanese cars in Africa, Asia and South America too, cannot be under estimated. It allowed millions to own a car, that was reliable, DIY friendly and durable. Europe and North America have embraced the Japanese car. Almost pole to pole you’ll see a Japanese car, with only one last major market to conquer – China.
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