By on February 16, 2017

1993 Honda Crossroad, Image: Honda

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.

1956 Nissan Austin A40 Somerset, Image: Nissan

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.

1962 Isuzu Hillman Minx, Image: Isuzu

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.

1960 Hino 4CV, Image: Toyota

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.

1972 Isuzu Statesman DeVille, Image: Isuzu

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.

1973 Mazda Roadpacer AP, Image: Mazda

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 Honda Crossroad, Image: Honda

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 Toyota Cavalier, Image: Toyota

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 Toyota Voltz, Image: Toyota

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.

[Images and Sources: EarlyDatsun.com, Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers, IsuzuBellett.net, Toyota, Honda, Hooniverse, Nissan]

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54 Comments on “Japan’s Captive Import History of Masquerading Marques...”


  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Another magnificent article!

    KU-RO-SU-RO–DO gives me a cargasm!

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Boy, did the Vibe ever look ahead of it’s time.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Nice piece.

  • avatar
    Hoon Goon

    A reliable Discovery? My mind wanders with all the possibilities that could have been.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Apparently, the key to reliability was adding the “H” on the grille /s

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Does slapping a Honda badge on something make it reliable? Now, Nissan actually re-engineered the Austin, making it perhaps the most reliable British car built in period…

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      The Series 1 Disco was reliable enough.
      It’s the Series 2 that was trouble. Not only did they give it air suspension (which is never reliable), the tooling for the old Rover V8 was worn-out by then. Cylinder liners would shift, leading to expensive rebuilds.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Air suspension is very reliable when maintained correctly, which hardly anyone ever does. You need to replace the O-rings every 5 years or so. About a 4hr project on a P38 Range Rover, the Disco II only had air in the rear so not as much work on those. When the O-rings are allowed to get old, they leak, which causes the pump to exceed its duty cycle and wear out. The dumbest thing they did was not putting in a “pump running too much” warning, which would let you fix the minor issue before it gets to be a major issue.

        Otherwise, I agree with you. The 3.5 and 3.9 V8s are as reliable as any other 1960s motor. The 4.0s, and 4.2s have issues. The 4.6s don’t seem as bad, but they tend to be either good or bad. At this point, the bad ones are mostly all dead.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          I thought the airbags themselves failed as well over time. A much pricier fix than just o-rings.

        • 0 avatar
          tooloud10

          I agree that air suspensions aren’t as scary as some would have you believe. I have an ’06 LR3 with 125k miles on the original air suspension–no problems.

          Eventually the compressor or the shocks will fail, but everyone likes to overlook the point that regular suspensions need to be replaced semi-regularly and aren’t necessarily any cheaper to do on a higher-end vehicle.

      • 0 avatar
        MeaMaximaCulpa

        Didn’t the Disco II have an active anti sway bar thing that was not the most reliable thing? A friend of mine’s mother had a Disco II, The center console lid was attached with a plain Jane piano hinge and the rest of truck also had a distinct kit-car feeling, fit and finish.

  • avatar

    This is a cry for help, apparently, because I find that Isuzu Statesman strangely cool.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Nissan even solved the notoriously leaky engines along the way, creating its own line of Austin-based motors without seal problems.

    See, forget nationalization, Her Majesties Government should have just sold the whole mess off to the Japanese!

    Honda Crossroad/Passport I love for just sheer desperation factor. Was Honda a little cash strapped at that point? Did they not have confidence in their ability to engineer a SUV? Did they think that this craze would be just a flash in the pan?

    Reminded me of Blazing Saddles: “Well, can’t you see that’s the last act of a desperate man?”

    “We don’t care if it’s the First Act of Henry the Fifth! We’re leaving!”

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    And on a slightly different note, there are the recursive examples of foreign-market Japanese cars sold in Japan: the JDM “Infiniti Q45”, and the Australian-built Nissan Pintara hatch sold in Japan as the Bluebird Aussie.

    • 0 avatar
      Corey Lewis

      You can’t tell auto journalists or indeed other people about the JDM Infiniti Q45, as they deny it exists. It removes their ability to say “Nissan NEVER sold an Infiniti in Japan before 20xx.”

  • avatar
    brettc

    Every time I see a reference to the Toyota Cavalier, I just can’t comprehend what led up to such a thing existing.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Much saké.

    • 0 avatar
      Corey Lewis

      It has lace alloys, and thus must be fine.

    • 0 avatar
      Varezhka

      Mainly the Detroit’s cry about the “non-tariff barriers” and the Japanese govt. capitulating to US demands at every turn. This resulted in abominations like Toyota Cavalier and things like joint Mazda-Ford Autorama sales channels.

      Toyota engineers were saying that all imported Cavaliers were first completely disassembled once brought in, then reassembled to spec as the original build quality was so terrible that selling as-is was unthinkable.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The lower Holden photo is a Premier, not a Statesman.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    In my teenage years I worked on many Datsun engines.

    Datsun did not only use Austin engineering. The Austin A40 engine became the Datsun 1200-1500 engine and had 5 mains.

    Whilst the larger Datsun J Series engines with 3 mains were Morris engines. The J series went from 1.3 to 2 litres. Even Morris 1500 and 1800 gasket kits could be used on the J Series.

    Datsun dropped the simple Nikki carb with vacuum secondaries on their engine, open up the ports a little, added a tuned exhaust manifold and presto, you had a great little engine.

    I found the L Series engine to be the best Japanese engine of that era.

    The L Series was a flexible engine not only in design, but also performance. The L series engines dropped straight into any vehicle that had a J Series.

    The L Series evolved into the Z Series and many components were interchangable between them.

    The Z Series evolved into one of the best inline sixes, the R Series. We all know about the R Series and there performance in the Godzillas.

    I view Datsun as on of the best vehicle manufacturers, globally of the 60s and 70s. Datsuns Golden Years.

    • 0 avatar
      namstrap

      I started in auto parts at a Datsun dealer in 1970. I have a vague recollection of somebody buying a Datsun 1000 cylinder head gasket from me for use on a Mini. Maybe I just dreamt that.

      I remember seeing at one time a Suzuki Japan vehicle brochure with a Chevy Astro van on it with Suzuki badges. That surprised me somewhat, knowing how thirsty those engines can be.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I want a Crossroad grill and badges for my Disco – it’s even that color.

  • avatar
    Thorshammer_gp

    While not actually a captive import or anything, I always thought the Subaru Impreza Casa Blanca was a delightfully wacky riff on the faux-stately-English look:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/Subaru_Impreza_Casa_Blanca_001.JPG

  • avatar
    ccode81

    More materials for part2, if you like

    VW Passat B-2assembled by Nissan
    Mitsubishi Debonair AMG. Tuned by that AMG
    Mitsubishi Carisma sister car to Volvo S40 built in Netherlands
    Mitsubishi Proudia which was sourced from Hyundai
    Subaru Traviq that was Opel Zafira built in Thailand

  • avatar
    jmo

    Does anyone know the pros and cons of the Japanese style side view mirrors?

  • avatar
    Acubra

    It all really comes to tax brackets in Japan, where all these attempted transplants would fall not in a reasonable Group-5 (width <1700 mm / 66.9") but in a rather much higher taxed Group 3. Same applies to engines – up to later 90's I believe, everything over 2 liters was taxed much heavier, hence low take rates.

    And then there goes the price and insurance, suspect reliability, availability of service and parts…

  • avatar
    RobertRyan

    @Carter Johnson
    “Americans, for example, are pretty good at building big cars”
    You lost me there.


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