I appreciate Japanese collector cars, just not necessarily what’s appreciating

1967 Toyota 2000GT

When I was young and living in New York City, whenever I had money, I would go to the Carnegie Deli. Back then, the hamburger was $1.10 and the roast beef sandwich was $4.95. Well, that was like three burgers if you got the fries, too, which seemed ridiculous to me, so I never ordered the roast beef. Years later, I was playing Carnegie Hall, and I said to my wife, “Let’s go to the Carnegie Deli.” As we were walking over, I told her that since things were going okay now we should splurge and get the roast beef for $4.95. We went in and looked at the menu, and the roast beef was now $17. I said, “What!? I’m not paying 17 bucks!” To this day, I’ve never had the roast beef. I can’t bring myself to pay that much for a sandwich.

There’s a screwy logic here that I have on occasion applied to cars. For example, when Toyota 2000GTs were $150,000, it seemed crazy. I appreciate Toyota’s shapely stab at building a Jaguar E-type, but Toyota’s version has a vinyl interior and a Yamaha engine, and when you boil it down, it’s just a really nice Datsun 240Z. The 2000GT and the 240Z even have the same design roots. Look closely, and you’ll see the commonality in designer Albrecht Goertz’s lines. Plus, I was over in Japan once, and they let me drive the James Bond 2000GT convertible from You Only Live Twice. The car is pretty small, and I just felt like a circus bear in it. The windshield came up to about my nose.

Well, then I read about the car a bit and got a little excited, so I said to myself, “All right, fine, I’ll pay 150 grand if that’s what it takes.” But by then the cars were going for $250,000. I stewed about it for a while, vowing I would never pay that. Then, once I decided that I would pay it, they had jumped to a half million. Not long ago, they peaked at a million, and I still don’t have one.

Japan has produced some amazing collector cars that are now coming to be appreciated, but it’s a relatively small portfolio. And not all of them appeal to me. I admit I was never really grabbed by the Nissan GT-R, especially the latest model. It seems like information overload. I don’t know, maybe I really should be aware of the differential housing temperature at all times, although I don’t really want to. That said, I do have a couple of Japanese cars that are fascinating in a way only a Japanese car can be.

1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R
RM Sotheby's
1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R

I have a 1970 Mazda Cosmo 110S because it’s hilariously weird. When the Cosmo came out, nobody had ever heard of Mazda; the car had an engine, a rotary Wankel, developed by a Nazi. It looked half Thunderbird, half Alfa Romeo, and it cost as much as a Corvette. The ads were such a 1960s riff on Western culture. Japanese guys are standing around with Beatles haircuts strumming guitars while girls in go-go boots gyrate around the car. The translated owner’s manual is full of lines like “Beware of the dog in the road” next to a picture of a tiny car and a dog that is the size of a two-story building. Underneath, it says, “Sound the horn melodiously.”

I also have a 1964 Honda S600, and I say without reservation that if that car had a Porsche badge on it, it would be worth a million dollars. People think it has a motorcycle engine. No, it’s an engine that was developed for that car, with overhead cams and a roller bearing crank. It makes 57 horsepower from 600 cc, meaning it’s about half the size of a contemporary MG or Triumph mill but makes roughly the same horsepower. And it’s got a 9500-rpm redline. It literally screams. The S600 is the most fun slow car you can drive. You wind it out thinking you’re shattering the sound barrier, and you look over, and there’s a girl putting lipstick on in the Civic next to you.

It reminds me of the time I was driving my Morgan three-wheeler and came flying around a corner only to see a cop standing there with a radar gun. I pulled right over figuring I was nailed, but he didn’t move. So I went back and asked him how fast I was going. He said, “I had you at 37. This is a 40 zone, so you’re fine.” You have to love any car that thrills the pants off you at legal speeds, even if you feel like a circus bear while driving it.