Museums & Collections

Nine Stunning Japanese Cars from “The Roots of Monozukuri“ and “Fine Tuning” Exhibits

Opening this week at the Petersen Automotive Museum

Since its extensive 2015 remodel, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, CA has featured fresh special exhibits on a regular basis and each has been high quality. From low riders to Ferraris, from ex-Dan Gurney race cars to kiddie cars, we’ve enjoyed each and every one. Now, two new exhibits have made their opening debuts: “The Roots of Monozukuri” and “Fine Tuning,” which showcase the uprising of the Japanese auto industry in post-World War II times and the boom of the Japanese car tuning era in the U.S. from the ‘90s through today. Here are nine of our favorite vehicles from these two exhibits.

1974 Mazda RX-3 by DNA Garage

Looking like a full-scale, brutish Hot Wheels car, this Mazda RX-3, Mazda’s first rotary-powered vehicle for the U.S. market, was built by DNA Garage, a tuning shop in Santa Ana, CA. This car was built in tribute to Japanese car and motorcycle racer Yoshimi Katayama, also a factory Mazda race driver. The car resembles an RX-3 raced by Katayama, with its yellow and green paint scheme and flared fenders. Though this car is quite small, it’s powered by a 400-hp 20B 2.0-liter three-rotor Mazda rotary engine.

1991 Toyota Cresta Kaido Racer

This Toyota Cresta was transformed into a Kaido racer in Japan, which were modified road cars built to emulate the Super Silhouette race cars that were popular in the country in the 1980s. More aggressive body kits, with wide fenders and chin spoilers were de rigueur and this car rides on SSR Formula Mesh wheels, a popular choice in-period. With a Toyota 1G-FE 2.0-liter inline-six engine making about 135 horsepower, this Cresta lives up to the notion that Kaido cars were often more show than go.

1998 Honda Civic Dragster

The 1990s were really the hey-day of Japanese car tuning, with the new scene picking up massive steam in the U.S. and even helping lead to the creation of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, now in its seventh iteration. This 1998 Honda Civic, built in period and still owned by Stephan Papakakis, was the first front-wheel-drive drag racing car to break the 9.0-second quarter-mile barrier in a time when his quickest competitors were often running in the 13.0-second range. Impressive stuff. This car uses a Honda H22A1 2.2-liter inline-four producing 650 horsepower – roughly on par with a new Ford GT but with less weight to push around.

1936 Toyoda AA replica

No, that’s not a Chrysler Airflow, though the similarity in style is no mistake. Though this vehicle is a replica owned by the Toyota Automobile Museum in Japan, the original Toyoda AA was designed and built by a team put together by Kiichiro Toyoda, a textile factory owner. Using operating methods he developed in his factory, the “Toyota Production System” would ultimately be amongst the most efficient in the business. This AA features a 3.4-liter straight-six engine producing about 62 horsepower.

1966 Nissan Silvia CSP311

Hand built to customer specs on Nissan’s Fairlady chassis, this Silvia coupe was essentially a precursor to the popular 240Z sports car. Styled in part by Albrecht Goertz, a German designer who famously penned the BMW 507, the Silvia CSP311 is a handsome sports coupe powered by a 1.6-liter inline-four and producing 90 horsepower – more than enough to get this small, lightweight car up to comfy cruising speeds.

1967 Toyota Sports 800

The Sports 800 was Toyota’s first sports car, created by Tatsuo Hasegawa, a former aircraft designer. With a front-mounted, air-cooled, boxer-two engine, the diminutive Sports 800 made just 45 horsepower but weighed under 1,300 lbs, giving it a top speed of 95 mph. This example is one of just 41 brought to the U.S. where dealers deemed them difficult to market. The Sports 800 would inspire the legendary Toyota 2000 GT, which can also be found in the Petersen museum exhibit.

1958 Subaru 360 K111

Another early Japanese automobile designed by aircraft engineers, the Subaru 360 had monocoque construction (like aircraft do) and could seat four adult passengers. The air-cooled, two-stroke, two-cylinder gas engine was mounted in the rear of the Subaru and with 356cc of displacement, was good for about 16 hp – enough to get the car to 60 mph after what must be an agonizing 37 seconds. Though somewhat similar in design to the Volkswagen Beetle, Subaru never approached the success of that car in the U.S. market.

1954 Suminoe Flying Feather

With bicycle-style wheels and a multitude of motorcycle parts, the Suminoe Flying Feather sold just 200 examples before production was shut down. Designed as an extremely lightweight and affordable form of mass-transportation, the Flying Feather was powered by a 350cc, 12.5 horsepower V-2 (vee-twin) motorcycle engine.

1962 Hino Renault PA62

While Japanese automaker Nissan is known today for its partnership with Renault, in the years following the Second World War, Japanese automaker Hino Motors partnered with the French firm to build this car, essentially a licensed Renault 4CV. With a 760cc inline-four good for 18 horsepower or so, these cars were some of the first mass-produced vehicles available in Japan. The licensed technology enabled Japan to put its population on wheels sooner than if it had developed these early vehicles from scratch.