The Japanese market is notorious for being closed to the outside world. It has forced successful U.S. companies to abandon the country, as Ford did recently, and propped-up sales of niche producer Porsche to outstrip sales of corporate giant General Motors. At first glance, it would seem Japanese buyers just don’t want cars built by companies outside the Land of the Rising Sun.
On this side of the Pacific, imports are so popular that domestic manufacturers attempted to make them their own multiple times. We’ve had Opels called Pontiacs and Buicks, Mitsubishis masquerading as Dodges, Toyotas and Suzukis selling as Geos, and Isuzus branded as Chevrolets.
But has it ever gone the other way? Have Japanese brands ever tried to appropriate the automotive culture of other countries to move the metal?
Americans, for example, are pretty good at building big cars, and the Japanese do like a large luxury liner. Surely, at some point, Japan must have relied on America’s expertise?
As it turns out, on just a few occasions, Japanese marques have slapped their badges on designs from outside Asia. Predictably, like a drunk linebacker dressing as a Geisha, results were mixed at best, sometimes entertaining, and often leaving the Japanese brands hoping you’d forget about their questionable judgement.
1952-1959 Austin A40 and A50 by Nissan
It should come as no surprise the first examples of re-branding came almost immediately in the postwar era of Japanese automobile industry rebuilding. One of the fledgling efforts was from Nissan, who partnered with Austin from England. Austin wasn’t a huge sales success in Japan, but Nissan inked a deal in 1952 to produce the A40 (and later, A50) models under license for seven years.
Initially, Nissan used imported British parts to assemble the A40 Somerset sedan at its Yokohama plant. When Nissan added the A50 Cambridge to the lineup in 1954, it slowly shifted to producing its own parts until the car was entirely made in Japan by 1957. Nissan even solved the notoriously leaky engines along the way, creating its own line of Austin-based motors without seal problems.
In total, Nissan produced 21,859 Austins.
1953-1954 Isuzu Hillman Minx PH10 and PH12
Similar to Nissan, Isuzu looked to England for postwar inspiration. The result was a licensing agreement with England’s Rootes Group to produce the Hillman Minx model.
Rootes began shipping complete knock-down kits of the Minx to Isuzu’s Omori factory in 1953 for local production. As with the Nissan and its Austins, Isuzu started using local parts for the Hillman Minx starting in 1957. Each model year carried some updates until, ultimately, the PH12 model closed production down in 1962.
Of note, there was one special two-door Hillman Minx Express Wagon produced solely by Isuzu.
1954-1961 Hino 4CV
The Renault 4CV was a small postwar rear engine, rear-drive economy car that looked an awful lot like the Volkswagen Beetle. Despite the claimed rip-off, the 4CV was a popular car for Renault. In 1954, Hino — a manufacturer much more renowned for its truck production — licensed the rights to produce the car in Japan.
The model was marketed alternatively as the Hino Renault 4CV, Hino 4CV, Hino PA57 or upscale Hino PA62. Prior to Toyota’s takeover of Hino in 1966, it also used Renault underpinnings to product a later series called Contessa and a small truck called the Briska before the introduction of the all-conquering Hilux.
1973-1976 Isuzu Statesman DeVille
Isuzu wasn’t done copying outside designs with the Hillman. For its second act, its car source was downright criminal. That’s because the design for the 1973-1976 Statesman DeVille came not from England as it had before, but from the Outback. Holden, General Motors’ Australian subsidiary, contributed a design to the Isuzu lineup as a result of a 1971 capital agreement between the Japanese manufacturer and GM.
Unlike the small economy cars Isuzu had previously copied, the opulent and gigantic Statesman DeVille was a re-branding of the sub-marque Statesman line of Holdens from Australia. The DeVille was basically an upscale Holden Kingswood HQ chassis, and it was quite unsuccessful, with only a claimed 246 sold in total.
1975-1977 Mazda Roadpacer AP
Mazda’s desire in the mid-1970s to create an upscale model to compete with larger rivals from Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Toyota resulted in looking to GM’s Australian firm for a sizable addition to its lineup, too. As Isuzu had pilfered the Statesman lineup, Mazda was left with the normal HJ Premier. The oddly named Roadpacer Anti Pollution (AP) was the result.
Holden shipped HJ Premier knockdown kits to Mazda’s Hiroshima plant. There, Mazda installed a refrigerator in the trunk and a 13B Wankel rotary under the hood. No, I’m not kidding. Mazda sold about 800 Roadpacer APs in total as poor mileage and a low power-to-weight ratio doomed the Australian-Japanese hybrid’s popularity.
1993-1995 Honda Crossroad
Do you recall those Rovers that were veiled Honda Accords? During that same period of Anglo-Japanese cooperation, Honda, long struggling to jump into the 4×4 market, turned to Rover’s mainstay Land Rover brand for inspiration in 1993. The result was a very light rework of the Discovery into the JDM market Honda Crossroad.
The Crossroad was ironically marketed against the Discovery in Japan, where Honda hoped its engineering name would outweigh the brand recognition associated with the British firm. They were wrong. Honda sold less than 1,000 before the company switched to the CR-V for its sport utility sales, similar to the Honda Passport (née Isuzu Rodeo) failure in the U.S..
1995-2000 Toyota Cavalier
The shining example for why many of these captive imports in the Japanese market don’t work is the Toyota Cavalier.
Just as with the Honda/Rover collaboration, Toyota’s stint with the General resulted in a few good, small economy cars for the U.S. market, while Japan received the Cavalier marketed as a Toyota. The only changes Toyota made to the cars were a right-hand-drive swap and updates to trim.
Automotive journalists point to this deal as an attempt by Toyota to please lawmakers by trying to balance its import-export ratio, but the effect was quite small and likely only symbolic. Toyota only managed to sell about 36,000 Cavaliers over the production run, or about as many Camrys it sold in the U.S. every hour during the same period.
2002-2004 Toyota Voltz
The last entry is perhaps one of the more interesting on the list, as it’s even stranger than the sale of Cavaliers as Toyotas.
The Canadian-built 2000s Toyota Matrix won’t be unfamiliar to you as it was popular seller in America. So too was its sibling, the Pontiac Vibe, built at GM and Toyota’s joint venture NUMMI in Fremont, California. You’d assume that if it wanted to import one of these cars to the Japanese market, it’d be natural to grab the one that already has Toyota badges.
You’d be wrong.
Between 2002 and 2004, Toyota imported the Californian-built Vibe to the Japanese market, where it was called the Voltz and competed against the Corolla Hatchback. The Voltz wore the Pontiac’s sheet metal, not that of the Matrix, and it even rolled around on the same wheels as the Vibe. After slow sales, importation ceased in 2004 with 10,000 Californian-made
Pontiacs Toyotas brought to Japan.