These rare, friendly cars from Japan were underdogs of Monterey 2019

The Japanese Automotive Invitational show, organized annually by Infiniti and Motor Trend, is a welcome break from the high-zoot, high-dollar festivities taking place during Monterey Car Week. Held in Pebble Beach, a stone’s throw from the Concours d’Elegance, it’s where you’ll find friendly, knowledgeable enthusiasts who became collectors to follow their life-long passion, rather than the advice of their life-long banker.

The hand-selected group of cars displayed during the 2019 edition of the event showed the many facets of Japan’s car industry. Japanese firms have peddled back-to-basics off-roaders, supercars that left Formula 1 drivers speechless, and everything in between. Here are the cars that stood out.

1960 Datsun SPL212

1960 Datsun SPL212
Ronan Glon
1960 Datsun SPL212

Datsun’s popular Z cars all trace their roots to the SPL212. While it’s not the company’s original sports car, that honor goes to the fiberglass-bodied SP211, the first Datsun sports car sold in the United States, of which only 20 were built. Introduced in 1960, it looked a lot like its predecessor, but it came with a steel body and a bigger, 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine tuned to deliver 47 horsepower. The four-cylinder was also found in the 220-series pickup truck that helped Datsun gain a steady foothold in America.

The drop-top was known as the SPL212 internally and in official sales brochures, but it was more commonly called Fairlady. Nissan chairman Katsuji Kawamata chose the name after seeing the Broadway play My Fair Lady in 1958, according to the firm’s archives department. 

The SPL212 and its successor, the SPL213, ended up in fewer than 500 American driveways between 1960 and 1962. The example displayed at the Japanese Automotive Invitational hasn’t had an easy life, but it’s one of the very few unrestored examples left, and it was made during the first year of production.

1966 Hino Contessa 1300S

1966 Hino Contessa 1300S
Ronan Glon
1966 Hino Contessa 1300S

The 2019 edition of the Japanese Automotive Invitational wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting without the participation of Ohio-based collector Myron Vernis. Some of the most fascinating cars we spotted at the event came from his eclectic collection, including this 1966 Hino Contessa 1300S.

Hino developed the original Contessa to replace the Renault 4CV it built and sold under license starting in 1953. The company kept the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout it had become familiar with, and topped it with a more conventional three-box body designed in Italy by Giovanni Michelotti. The water-cooled four-cylinder engine remained closely related to the 4CV’s, however.

The Contessa in Vernis’ collection is a second-generation model and one of the rare coupes made. If it looks familiar, it might be because Peter Brock raced one in the Trans-American Sedan Championship, and—to everyone’s surprise—won the 1966 race held at Riverside International Raceway. Also penned by Michelotti, the second-generation Contessa looked much more up-to-date than its predecessor, and it had real export potential. Production started in 1964, but it ended prematurely in 1967 after Toyota purchased Hino and began weeding out overlapping models. The Contessa and the Corolla were completely different technically, but they competed in the same segment, so Hino’s entry got axed.

1971 Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO MR

1971 Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO MR
Ronan Glon
1971 Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO MR

The GTO nameplate has appeared on a diverse selection of cars. Ferrari and Pontiac models wore it well, but the Mitsubishi Colt Galant tried briefly tried it on for size during the early 1970s. The acronym denoted the range-topping model in the line-up, and the MR suffix signaled the presence of a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that relied on two carburetors to serve 125 horsepower. Many criticized the design, which looked like a muscle car that irreversibly shrank in a clothes dryer, but Mitsubishi proved it could build a seriously quick car capable of keeping up with big-name competitors from Europe on a twisty road.

Mitsubishi sold the Colt Galant GTO in a handful of right-hand drive global markets, including the UK, but most examples stayed in Japan. It goes without saying that the model was never sold in the United States. Myron Vernis owns the bright orange, Japanese-spec car displayed in Pebble Beach.

1972 Isuzu Bellett GT-R

1972 Isuzu Bellett GT-R
Ronan Glon
1972 Isuzu Bellett GT-R

Also owned by Myron Vernis, this 1972 Bellett GT-R represents the era during which Isuzu still had high hopes of becoming a full-range automaker. The Bellett range included two- and four-door sedans, a pair of coupes, a two-door station wagon, and a pickup. Motorists could haul firewood during the week and go racing on the weekend while remaining loyal to Isuzu’s bread-and-butter model.

The GT-R variant made its debut in 1969, six years after the standard Bellett. It was an evolution of the GT model powered by a 1.6-liter, 120-horsepower four-cylinder engine borrowed from the bigger 117. Emblems, decals, alloys, and a black hood complemented the power hike. While the Bellett was sold in a surprising number of countries around the globe, most of the 1400 GT-Rs made stayed in Japan.

1972 Suzuki LJ20

1972 Suzuki LJ20
Ronan Glon
1972 Suzuki LJ20

The LJ20 evolved from the LJ10, an off-roader Suzuki designed to fill a gap in the market. It looked like a rival for the Toyota FJ, but it was much smaller in order to fall within the strict kei car regulations established by the Japanese government in 1949 to reward motorists willing to think small. The LJ20 released in 1972 gained a handful of visual modifications, including a new grille with vertical slats and an available metal hard top. Suzuki also made a bigger, water-cooled engine available as it prepared to export its pocket-sized off-roader to countries that had never heard of a kei car.

The American market wasn’t on Suzuki’s short list, at least not initially. Instead, a California-based company called Intercontinental Equipment Corporation imported about 3400 examples of the LJ10 and the LJ20 until it was bought out by Suzuki in late 1973. The Samurai that’s still popular among off-roaders and the modern-day Jimny both trace their roots to the LJ20.

1984 Honda CRX Mugen

1984 Honda CRX Mugen
Ronan Glon
1984 Honda CRX Mugen

In the 1980s, Honda and tuner Mugen wanted to offer buyers a spicier variant of the CRX without resorting to dropping a bigger engine between the coupe’s fenders. Pilot Parker Johnstone helped identify the areas that could be improved, and the two companies unveiled a prototype in 1984. The hot-rodded CRX gained a redesigned cylinder head, a limited-slip differential, an improved intake system, and a free-flowing exhaust system. The transformation also brought a full body kit, specific alloy wheels, and over half a dozen Mugen Power emblems tacked on for good measure.

The CRX stayed at the prototype stage, much to the chagrin of enthusiasts forced to take the matter into their own hands, and it remains in Honda’s collection as of 2019. The Japanese firm later applied the lessons it learned from this exercise in tuning theory to Si- and Type R-badged members of its line-up.

1986 Subaru XT GL-10

1986 Subaru XT GL-10
Ronan Glon
1986 Subaru XT GL-10

All it takes is one look in a sales catalog from the early 1980s to understand the impact the XT had on the Subaru range when it made its debut in 1985. The Japanese firm offered two-door cars, but they were nearly as utilitarian as their four-door counterparts. The XT proudly broke with tradition by putting a bigger focus on performance, design, and technology than any Subaru before it. It laid the foundation for the performance models that defined the firm’s image during the 1990s.

While upmarket variants of the XT later received a 145-hp flat-six engine, the example displayed at the Japanese Automotive Invitational is fitted with a turbocharged, 1.8-liter flat-four engine that sent 112 horsepower to the four wheels through Subaru’s time-tested all-wheel drive system. An electro pneumatic suspension with height control made the XT more advanced than many cars that cost twice as much money. Subaru ended XT production in 1991 and replaced it with the unloved SVX.

1991 Toyota Sera

1991 Toyota Sera
Ronan Glon
1991 Toyota Sera

Released in 1990, the Toyota Sera looked like a cross between a glass-bottom boat turned upside down and a first-generation Paseo that went to the gym. Its most unusual feature was the butterfly doors that allegedly inspired Gordon Murray when he developed the McLaren F1. The futuristic body hid a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine tuned to make 104 horsepower and 97 lb-ft of torque. While the Sera could credibly pass as an MR2 off-shoot, it was closely related to the aforementioned Paseo (which was on the same branch of the Toyota family tree as the Tercel) so it was only offered with front-wheel drive.

Toyota made nearly 16,000 examples of the Sera from 1990–95, and an overwhelming majority of the production run was registered on the Japanese market. The model was never sold in the United States, likely because it was too small, but a handful of enthusiasts have taken advantage of the 25-year rule to bring early examples into America.

1992 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R Nismo

1992 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R Nismo
Ronan Glon
1992 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R Nismo

Neither GTI nor GT-R, the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R Nismo is one of the most obscure hot hatches made during the early ’90s. Released on the Japanese market in 1990, it was an evolution of the humble, Golf-fighting Pulsar hatchback upgraded with components borrowed from Nissan’s rally parts bin. The bulged, vented hood hid a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine turbocharged to 227 horsepower. To add context, that figure is on par with the one posted by the Volkswagen Golf GTI in 2019. The GTI-R was more Golf R-like because its turbo four spun the four wheels via a five-speed manual transmission.

Nissan released the Pulsar GTI-R Nismo to homologate it in Group A racing. The company put its hot hatch in the hands of experienced pilots like Tommi Mӓkinen, but it never managed to win an event and shuttered the entire program after the 1992 season. GTI-R production continued until 1994, though the car was never officially sold outside of its home country. Quick and quickly forgotten, Nissan’s rally-bred terror retired without a direct successor.

2000 Isuzu VehiCROSS

2000 Isuzu VehiCROSS
Ronan Glon
2000 Isuzu VehiCROSS

Giving the VehiCROSS the proverbial green light for production required a tremendous amount of courage for an automaker like Isuzu. It was known for making straightforward off-roaders that eschewed style in favor of functionality. The VehiCROSS was based on the two-door variant of the Trooper, so it remained highly capable off-road, but it became the first head-turning Isuzu in decades when it made its debut in Japan in 1997. Sales on the American market started for the 1999 model year.

Baldwin Chiu owns and cherishes the VehiCROSS displayed at the Japanese Automotive Invitational. “It drives like a sports car on the road, and it turns into an SUV off-road,” he told Hagerty. Isuzu made approximately 6000 examples of the VehiCROSS during a five-year production run, but Chiu’s is unique because Shiro Nakamura signed it during the Pasadena Art Center’s 70th birthday celebrations.