10 Japanese cars from the '70s and '80s you should snap up now
Japanese cars are finally getting some overdue respect in the mainstream collector car world. A-list collectors are snapping up rare JDM Nissan Skylines, Fairlady Zs, Toyota 2000 GTs and Mazda Cosmo Sports. For the rest of us, there are the cars on this list that were sold new in the U.S., and they remain inexpensive although survivors are getting quite rare. The list is anything but complete, so feel free to weigh in:
1. 1980 Toyota Celica Sunchaser: The second generation Celica shed its mini-Mustang looks (along with a lot of its kitschy appeal) in favor of a less derivative and less endearing look. It was however, a clean-looking and reasonably attractive car. Griffith industries built a small run of targa-roof, soft back window convertibles (along with — believe it or not — an AMC Eagle version). They’re handsome and airy, with a small back seat and a small price tag — four grand seems to buy a nice one. Think of it as a slightly less-stylish but far more reliable Lancia Beta Zagato.
2. 1984-85 Toyota Celica Convertible: Toyota’s first officially sanctioned convertible, the Celica, was built in limited numbers for a year and a half on the on the third-gen Celica platform. The Toyota-quality conversion was carried out by American Sunroof Corporation (ASC). It was a handsome, rear-wheel drive 2+2 convertible that came with optional fender flares and Supra alloys. Production was only about 4,500 total. For such a rare piece, they’re still quite reasonable at around $5,000 or so for a really nice one. We saw a not-hateful example sell for just $2,800 at one of the Arizona auctions last month.
Toyota Supra MK II: The second generation Supra was the point when the Supra started to diverge from the standard four-cylinder Celica. It still shared a fair amount of sheet metal from the A-pillar back (the front end was unique), but with a 161-hp fuel-injected straight-six and great looking alloy wheels (which were shared with the Lotus Excel), the Supra was a very appealing rear-wheel drive performance coupe. MK III and MK IV Supras are already bringing good money, but the MK II is the forgotten Supra and worth a look.
4. 1987-89 Isuzu Impulse: The Impulse was a very quiet masterpiece by the great Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design. Based on the Ace of Clubs show car and sold in other markets as the Isuzu Piazza, like its contemporary the Pontiac Fiero, its looks wrote checks that its chassis consistently bounced. Where the Fiero inherited suspension bits from the thoroughly execrable Chevy Citation, the Impulse went even further down market to the Chevette. Eventually, Isuzu contracted out the suspension sorting to Lotus (which brought with it “handling by Lotus” badges), but this only lasted a short period of time before the Impulse was shifted to the same FWD platform as the miserable Geo Storm.
5. Mitsubishi Montero:
First generation Monteros, while rare today, have an off-the-charts cool factor that comes from real Paris-Dakar rally cred and the fact that they resemble Land Rover Defender 90s and 110s but cost less than a 10th the asking price of the Landy. Known as the Pajero to the rest of the world, rust, neglect and the general ravages of time have made these quite rare. Dodge sold a badge-engineered version of the two-door called the Raider. For the same money as a clapped out Land Rover Discovery that will be nothing but a pack of expensive trouble, you can have a nice early Montero. First-gen Monteros top our list of cheap, cool vintage SUVs.
6. Mazda 626: Few people can recall that the 626 started out as a neat little rear-wheel drive coupe and sedan that was not at all bad to look at, particularly when outfitted with the optional RX7 alloys. With stiffer shocks and anti-roll bars, the first-gen 626 could be an entertaining handler. Although sold in large numbers, the RWD 626 (or Capella to the rest of the world) is nearly extinct today.
7. Subaru SVX: Giorgetto Giugiaro did some very fine work for the Italians, but if he got paid on a per-unit basis, it was the Japanese who made him rich. The SVX was one of his bolder designs, looking very much like an escaped concept car. (The side window within a window was delightfully odd.) The car occupied a niche that Subaru (or anyone else) hasn’t been seen in since. It certainly had all the trappings of a luxury 2+2 GT: With an available leather and alcantara interior, all-wheel drive and a 220-plus-hp flat-six, the SVX was a pretty impressive piece, that is until the transmission inevitably failed from overheating. That said, with a rebuilt trans and a better auxiliary trans cooler fitted, you’ll have one very unique all-weather Italian-styled GT for a fraction the price of the next weirdest car of its ilk, the Citroen SM.
8. Datsun 280 ZX Turbo: Conventional wisdom says that the 280ZX is where the rot truly set in for Nissan’s Z car. “Bloated, T-topped Discomobile” was one of the kinder epithets thrown its way. And while that may have been fair enough for a two-tone 2+2 with an automatic, the two-seater turbo was another matter entirely. The history of the Z car was a constant struggle to overcome increased weight brought on by demand for comfort and convenience items, and government mandates like bumpers and side impact protection. Fuel injection and displacement increases alone couldn’t keep up and a turbo seemed like the logical way to go. It made the 280ZX one of the most powerful cars on the market at the time and the racing program (led by Paul Newman) resulted in sharper handling to go with the power. It’s one of the better sleeper Japanese GTs around.
9. Honda CRX Si: The CRX Si was likely the most desirable Honda since the S800 coupe and roadster of the 1960s. Built on humble Civic underpinnings, think of it as an Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato that won’t blow a head gasket without warning and with trim bits and other pieces that aren’t harder to find than mastodon tusks. The few remaining good CRXs will likely bring increasingly respectable money. California coachbuilder Richard Straman built a few convertible conversions back in the day and these are now scarcer than scarce.
10. Mitsubishi Starion/Chrysler Conquest
: The Starion/Conquest had a lot going for it. With its rear-wheel drive and a curb weight of well under 3,000 pounds, in the hottest wide-body, intercooled turbo spec with 197 hp, these cars would put the fear of God into Porsche 924/944 owners who had the privilege of paying twice as much for less performance. The Chrysler Conquest was the captive import twin of the Starion.
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