Imagine, if you will, the early 1970s. Japanese cars and trucks arrived in America and the vast majority of patriots scoffed with an air of superiority. How could anyone appreciate such unfortunately tiny, dependable little cars? The bigger, the better: the best cars were the most arrogant, least dependable showboats on the road.
Then something unexpected happened. The Oil Crisis caused fuel prices to rise, and people started to see small car ownership as a potentially rational decision – enter America’s newfound love for practicality.
Fast forward to today, major media reports the strengthening of America’s passion for small classic cars. The Detroit News most recently ran an article which analyzed a continuously rising US interest in vintage Japanese classics like the Datsun 510 or early 1970s Toyota Celica.
Jun Imai, a designer at the Hot Wheels division of Mattel threw in his two cents: “For many like myself, it’s nostalgic. It’s a very special feeling I have for cars like these – the designs, the sound of the engines, the way they drive. They are so distinctive, yet most are approachable in terms of costs and availability.” And apparently the feeling is mutual. Last year public demand was strong enough for Mattel to produce two 1970s-era Nissans.
In truth, Imai’s analysis hits the nail on the head. People love classic small cars because they are quaint. We can all walk up to a Datsun pickup, smile with a big-toothed grin, and imagine a world where the vehicle’s fun-to-drive factor outweighs any public humiliation commonly associated with being seen in an appropriately-sized truck.
In addition to fuel economy and size, American enthusiasm for small classics was bolstered by two important Japan-inspired events of the last twenty years: the import-tuning fad and drifting. In the 1990s everyone wanted to ‘supe’ up their Honda Civics, culminating in The Fast and the Furious movie franchise which continues to today. Perhaps coincidentally, as drifting surged in Japan, the technique also became an important part of the same movie franchise – finding a new home with our heavy, rear wheel drive American muscle cars.
America’s passion for small classics will most likely only continue to grow, as our roadways become increasingly crowded and wallets increasingly constricted by fuel prices. When we look back and see the Honda 600’s estimated average fuel economy of over 40 mpg, suddenly our idea of modern efficiency seems a lot less impressive. Especially coming from a car which costs a mere fraction of the price to own and operate a modern equivalent.