The Heroic Years: The Story Of How Japan Became An Automotive Powerhouse – Part 1

Images: From the official websites

It was in 1981 when Japan became the world’s largest car manufacturing nation, with as many as nine thriving and independent carmakers competing not just in Japan, but across global markets ranging from the US to Zambia.

Founded by Masujiro Hashimoto, DAT began by showing the model DAT 14 in 1916; DAT later mutated to Datsun and then to Nissan

With a total vehicle production of over 11 million automobiles in 1980 (of which, cars accounted for about seven million), Japanese automobile production represented 28.5 percent of the world auto production of 38.6 million that year, significantly ahead of the US (over eight million vehicles, representing about 21 per cent of the world market), Germany (10 percent of the market with 3.9 million produced) and France (9.7 percent with 3.4 million).

The Mitsubishi Model A52 was launched in 1917; it was powered by a 2.8L 4-cylinder 35bhp engine and was based on the Fiat Tipo 3. In total, just 22 may have been made.

Yet the Japanese car industry was decades younger than those of the other three.

The very first automobiles made in Japan date back to before the 1920s, manufactured with European collaborations, the most notable of them being the Mitsubishi Model A from 1917, a car based on the Fiat Tipo 3.

Toyota started making cars around 1936, and one of the earliest cars they made was the ABR military vehicle, in preparation for the Japanese war efforts

Among other brands that became major players in Japan later, Isuzu began by collaborating with Wolseley Motors (starting 1918); Nissan’s first cars were developed from the Austin 7 and the Graham-Paiges in the 1930s, and the early Toyotas were inspired by the Chrysler Airflow.

Similarly, Datsun (with DAT mutating to the son of DAT) developed the 10-17 Series 4 in 1937 for military purposes

Interestingly, one of the fathers of the Japanese car industry was an American engineer by the name of William Gorham, who established a three-wheeler manufacturing venture called Jitsuyo Jidosha Seizo Company, which, in 1926, merged with the Kwaishinsha automobile manufacturing venture to create DAT Automobile.

One of the first post-war cars that Toyota made was the Toyopet SA 67, from 1947; the first cars from Toyota after the war was badged Toyopet

DAT Automobile later evolved into Nissan Motors, launching the Datsun (son of DAT) brand name.

The other Japanese carmaker deeply implicated in the war effort, Mitsubishi, turned to making a utilitarian three-wheeler goods carrier, the Mizushima, in 1947

Incidentally, Ford set up operations in Japan in 1925 and GM in 1927, and by 1936 the two had assembled a combined total of 208,967 vehicles in the Land of the Rising Sun. In the same period, the fledgling Japanese car industry had made just 12,127 automobiles.

In 1936, the Japanese Government passed the Automobile Manufacturing Industry Law to promote a local industry and by 1939 the foreign carmakers were out of Japan.

The local industry concentrated on mainly truck manufacturing for the war effort; after WWII, a much bombed and battered Japan needed to look anew at the automobile industry.

Manufacturers like Hino (which still exists as a truck maker, and is a part of the Toyota Group) decided to go the collaboration route, by launching the Renault 4CV in Japan in 1953

Given the national emphasis on post-war reconstruction, the initial concentration was on providing the cheapest form of personal transportation possible, as well as on public transport.

Thus, trucks and buses were seen as a priority sector, and the government also decided to encourage the motorized two-wheeler industry.

The same year Nissan introduced the locally assembled version of the Austin A40 Somerset

Not unlike India, the Japanese Government in the post-war period also believed that certain industries needed to be controlled, so that limited resources were better managed. The car industry came in for control, whereas the two-wheeler industry did not.

Truck maker Isuzu too decided to go the same way: they introduced the Hillman Minx in 1953

A free-for-all approach ensued, with some 50-odd companies plunging into the motorized two-wheeler business, amongst them Honda Motorcycle Company (starting 1949), Suzuki Loom Works (1952) and Yamaha Motor Company (1955).

After the bloodbath that followed, just four of the 50-plus companies survived, with Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki as well as relative latecomer Kawasaki (1962) becoming the Big Four of the motorized two-wheeler world, decimating the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturing nations (including the UK, the leader until the 1960s) and reducing the Italian, American and German bike industries to two-bit side acts.

It was in the 1960s that the Japanese carmakers systematically developed and aimed for the export markets, mainly that of Europe and the US. But that’s for another day.

Gautam Sen

Serial concours judge, author, founder-editor of several Indian auto mags, as well as co-conspirator with design greats Marcello Gandini, Tom Tjaarda, and Gérard Godfroy on a few vehicle projects


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