Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 5...

The pace at which the Japanese auto industry evolved and adapted post WWII was staggering. Small commuter cars helped get the nation back to work but after a generation the middle class had grown and were looking for more sophisticated automobiles. The designers at Toyota carefully studied the trends in the US and England and offered contemporary designs domestically in the '50s and '60s. The cars changed shapes and features almost as fast as they did in the west.

The Japanese were exceptional at copying the designs of competitors the world over. The total disregard to IP and in some cases even patents and copyrights helped turn many industries into international players within a few generations. The Japanese created a powerful presence by emulating the West just after WWII. Once they got into a position of power they began leveraging their own businesses and technology to put a run on western auto makers. It was interesting that China got a lot of flack for copying the products and IP from the west in the last quarter of the 20th century. They grew their own industries by patently stealing the products they were meant to manufacture. Now as a major economy they also look to take a slice out of the automotive pie as well as other industries.

If a person were to study the trends that Japan followed in the auto manufacturing they would find many parallels with what their competitors were doing overseas. Japanese drivers were eager to have cars with more performance but not necessarily a huge price tag. As such designers looked at what worked in the US and Europe for performance, cost and power. BMW had a long and distinguished run as a sports car manufacturer. The styling, suspension and even body type of the classic 2002 (production number, not year) model influenced Mitsubishi. They managed to marry German technology and styling with US performance design. Japan was able to catch the tail end of the muscle car movement and put the aggressive shapes into their own designs in the '70s. The Galant for example looked like some sort of hybrid between BMW and Ford. Since the Japanese were splitting the elements of design from muscle car to sports car they could have a less expensive V6 or even 4 cylinder engine to offer consumers. It would be a sacrilege for a classic MOPAR car to be running with half the horsepower of the other Dodge lines but this wasn't Detroit and gas was still a pricy commodity. The Japanese did what they had to in order to have the best of both worlds.

In the quest for performance and price the Japanese created their own version of the muscle car. Highly tuned smaller engines in lighter body 2-door cars helped keep the speed junkies satisfied. The Datsun 510 and Fairlady cars were early examples of Japan keeping pace with the rest of the world. Nissan got wise to the Japanese baby boomers and saw that they also desired a powerful alternative to the passenger cars that helped pull the country out of the war. The Skyline was born from necessity and in the early days borrowed plenty of elements from the West. Stylistically is was just a little bit behind the curve. Japanese designers were still reacting to the trends rather than thinking ahead. That mentality did not really change unit the end of the '80s, when they realized that they were the nation the world looked to for the next big thing.

The Skyline and it's cousin the GT-R would rewrite the book on performance and price. Supercars and Muscle Cars could in fact come from Japan. The import scene would be a long time coming but the threat to US and European racing domination was real. The gas crisis in the '70s and the rise of safety mandates for US auto manufacturers meant and end to the muscle car era. There would still be performance cars here and there through the '80s but the golden age of raw horsepower on big bruisers was done. This was not the case in Japan where tuning helped make the most of smaller engines and safety and even mileage were factors well before the performance cars went into production.


Japanese auto makers demonstrated that they had engineers and designers that could compete with the Big Three at every stage of the game. New methods of production and closer relationships between management and employees meant that cars could not only be mass produced but workers would become more loyal to the factories. The quality inexpensive cars that were a hit with the Japanese working class would also become appealing to the western working class. The US auto makers on the other hand seemed to have little motivation to change the way things had been run since the end of the war. There was a clear distinction between the workers and owners, each of whom had begun fighting for a bigger share of the profits instead of working together to maintain their position at the top of the industry. Innovation, quality and loyalty seemed to fall by the wayside. As such Japan and some European companies were able to get a strong foothold in the US market. Driving culture however was more than either economical cars or outlandish muscle cars. Some cars existed simply for the sake of being driven. Sports cars were every bit as important to the identity of each industrialized nation as any car. How Japan and the US differed in this regard will be explored in the next blog.

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