Too often, classic Japanese cars find themselves overlooked by collectors and restorers. To many gearheads and car lovers, the utilitarian cars of the Pacific Rim could never stand against American muscle or exotic European supercars. However, look closer and you’ll find Japanese makes and models are some of the pound-for-pound best cars manufactured.
The discerning eye will recognize that underneath their simple designs lie elegant solutions in economy, timeless style, and demanding efficiency. Despite having some of the highest population densities on Earth, combined with the strictest emissions standards, diverse terrain, and extreme weather conditions - these vintage cars produce some of the lowest emissions on the planet while remaining incredibly efficient and powerful. These are just some of the reasons why JDM classics are so attractive and remain sought after, even to this day.
They were truly ahead of their time, offering features like valve train manipulation, rotary engines, and four plus valves per cylinder, well before car manufacturers in other countries. This was accomplished by some of the most ingenuitive engineering ever applied to automotive design, driven by masterminds such as Akio Toyoda (Toyota), Soichiro Honda (Honda), Genichi Kawakami (Yamaha), and Kazutoshi Mizuno (Nissan).
From bulletproof off-road vehicles to affordable sports cars to luxury supercars, here are some of the best vintage Japanese cars.
- 11,779 VOTES
Originally designed by Prince Motor Company before merging with Nissan-Datsun in 1969, we didn't get these beautiful cars in the States until 2007. It's about impossible to pick a favorite generation of classic Skylines. The first and second gens have that lovely Pony car inspired design, but the later years feature all-wheel drive and jaw-dropping amounts of power and tech. Whichever Skyline you choose, you're going to drive away happy and be the envy of your fellow gearheads.
- 21,132 VOTES
Designed by Yamaha, and built by Toyota, the 2000GT inspired a legendary business partnership. The two companies have built engines and cars together ever since. That shows the power of teamwork! The 2000GT is considered Japan’s first supercar, with such elegant bodylines and sophisticated personality it was featured as a Bond car in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice. How many Japanese cars can say they are cool enough to be Bond cars? Not only are the 2000GT’s gorgeous, they were the first Japanese production cars to feature a limited slip differential and all power assisted brakes. Unfortunately, only 351 were built, so getting ahold of one is almost impossible.
- 31,198 VOTES
The history of the Nissan Z car spans over 50 years and 40 production models. Like the Corolla, they were initially inspired by the American Pony cars of the time, featuring a two-seat, fastback design. Powered by a 2.4 liter straight-six motor, and running on four wheel independent suspension, the “Fairlady,” as it was known in Japan, was first sold in the States in 1969. They have been used for everything from daily drivers to track cars to rally racers ever since.
- 4788 VOTES
The 510 is a lovechild of Kazumi Yotsumoto, one of the founders of Nissan-Datsun. Affectionately known as "Mr. K," Yotsumoto-san was inspired by experiences racing Datsun 210s through the insane 10,100 mile Australian Mobilgas Rally. He was also inspired by German car manufacturers, especially the rugged, nimble, and fun BMW Neue Klasse 1600. From this amalgamation came the Datsun 510, called the “Bluebird” in Japan - a reliable “driver’s car” that has seen many a rally finish since its inception.
- 5615 VOTES
The NSX is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with the nimble agility of a panther, and sounds as rich as a symphony. It was created under the mad-scientist like vision of Honda’s co-founder, lead engineer, and “Supreme Advisor,” Soichiro Honda. Honda-san wanted to do the impossible: design a supercar without compromise. $140 million dollars and a decade of R&D later, and the company known for its hatchbacks and scooters shocked the world with this highly exotic, mid-engine, two seater. The NSX was the first production car to feature VTEC. There's hardly a car nowadays that doesn’t feature some version of variable valve timing - you can thank the NSX for that.
- 6497 VOTES
Mazda RX7 FC
Rotary power for the win! Rotary engines are remarkable for their nominal numbers of moving parts - a scant three compared to the simplest four-cylinder engine, which has over 40 moving parts. This endows rotary motors with high amounts of torque, along with unique, head turning exhaust notes. With less parts to break, they also tolerate external modifications well, like increased boost on stock internals. The RX7 makes another excellent canyon carver with its front engine, rear wheel drive platform. It’s no wonder this is the best selling rotary production car in history.