How Japan Won the West

Editor’s Note: Most American auto enthusiasts that were around in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even those that weren’t thrilled with big American land yachts, had little regard for Japanese cars. It wasn’t that they were small. VW Beetles were successfully advertised with the slogan “Think Small”. No, Japanese cars were just not very good. Reliable? Yes. Good? No. Underpowered, rust-prone, lacking decent automatic transmissions, and technologically not very advanced (well, until Honda started making cars), Japanese cars sold primarily on price. One would think that Japanese cars didn’t have a chance with American consumers. Over @ TTAC, commenter VanillaDude (who keeps resisting my entreaties to be a regular contributor here at Cars In Depth) quite neatly summed up how the Japanese automakers managed to establish a beachhead in California:

California had been booming since WWII, and had gained a national prominence. It gave us many modern cultural phenomena via music and television, adding to it’s Hollywood sparkle and governor. With only three national television networks, California dominated what Americans saw in 1973. Many Americans went to bed with Johnny Carson whose move from East to West Coast never went unnoticed.

Pop music was important in 1973. Radio played Californians. To the US during this era, California was it’s future whether it was in government, aerospace, electronics, entertainment and sheer style. During the early 20th Century, Americans looked to New York City, by 1973, Americans were ready to cut up their Brooks Brothers men’s wear and relax California style. Groovy man!

So when the Japanese auto makers shoved their tin road traps onto diesel freighters and floated their wares to America, they ended up in California. At a time when Detroit was navel-diving for profits, the Japanese struck California gold.

California weather is kind to tin cars. It’s twisty mountains and coastal roads were best driven with manual transmissions. Californians could choose between freeway cruisers idling in traffic jams under smog clouds, or break away in little four cylinder, manually rowed, cheap little Japanese cars. Always striving to be different, and tiring of the ancient Volkswagon Beetle’s commonplace shortcomings, Californians fell in love with Toyotas, Hondas, and Datsuns. What Californians did in 1973 was watched by every American from Bangor to Battle Creek.

When the Arabs blitzkrieged Israel on that country’s most holy day of national prayer and rest, Yom Kippur, the US came to the defender’s aid. When Israel proved resilient to Egypt’s surprise attack, the Arab oil nations retaliated by shutting off oil shipments to the United States.

With Detroit metal getting only a dozen miles to a gallon of gas, Americans found their daily lives curtailed. After watching Californians live what was seen as a progressive modern lifestyle, Americans wanted what they drove too. Cheap Japanese cars.

Fortunately, each major Japanese make had sent proven car designs to the US. So when the Oil Crisis occurred, Toyota, Datsun and Honda had a vehicle to sell that didn’t fail en masse on their first date. While Detroit ended up peddling outdated and outclassed Vegas, Pintos and Gremlins, and Americans had tired of the tired old Beetle, Japan lucked out for a timely and highly profitable win.

The Japanese cars, except for the FWD Civic, the Datsun Z and the Toyota Celica, were not exceptional cars. This Corolla was as dull as they come. But to America, these cars were new, different, cheap and dependable. Reclining bucket seats, a clock that worked, a five speed, 30 miles per gallon, and without a Detroit brand name. Suddenly folks in Des Moines tasted the auto equivalent of plain white rice and discovered it wasn’t poisonous.


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