In the early 1960’s, Japan had slowly warmed up to the idea of motor racing. The emerging Japanese auto industry had steadily found its strength in small, dependable and practical vehicles, but had never really embraced the concept of driving solely for the fun of it. One such burgeoning Japanese manufacturer was Hino Industry Corporation.
Hino had started out with the manufacture of large commercial diesel engines and trucks, which turned out to be a very successful endeavor. Unfortunately Japan’s capitulation at the end of the Second World War put an embargo on Hino’s commercial diesel activities, which meant the company had to look elsewhere. As such the decision was made to enter the passenger car market by building licensed versions of the Renault 4CV
The 4CV copies were steadily adapted and evolved into Hino’s first truly in house design, 1964’s PD-generation Contessa. With their road car program now steadily gaining traction in Japan, Hino looked for a way to promote the brand further. A motorsport program quickly became the obvious choice. Motor racing in Japan had recently exploded in popularity after the first annual Japanese Grand Prix for GT-machines held at Suzuka Circuit in 1963.
Hino was eager to jump on the bandwagon, but obviously had no prior experience with the sport at all. This left them no other choice than to team up with someone who did. Their search lead them to a small design firm called Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE). The outfit was run by none other than young Pete Brock, the famous American race car designer responsible for the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 and the 1965 FIA GT Championship winning Shelby Daytona Coupe.
Purely by chance, Brock had built a racing version of the Renault-based PC-generation Hino Contessa back in the US for a club racing Japanese friend. The humble project then attracted the attention of Hino’s top management. An agreement between the two was reached, and Brock received the more powerful Contessa 1300 not much later. It was with this car that Brock proved that Japan was on the rise by winning the Mission Bell 100 support race at the Riverside Times/Mirror Grand Prix.
The win thoroughly put Hino on the map and made Pete Brock an absolute hero in Japan. Spurred on by the success, Hino commissioned a specialized 1300cc GT-racer to take on the 1967 Japanese Grand Prix and even the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car would have to be worlds apart from the mildly modified touring sedans Brock had used before, which made him eager to take up the challenge.
Like the Renault’s they were derived from, Hino’s passenger cars used an antiquated rear-engined layout. In an ordinary family car this was already old-fashioned, but for racing it posed a gigantic hazard. To combat the issue, BRE’s first order of business was shifting the engine forward and creating a steel tubular frame with the engine firmly in the middle.
With the balance problem solved, Brock was free to focus on the rest of the car. He made sure the design would receive all the features he originally had in mind for an updated version of the Shelby Daytona. The most obvious of these was the large “Ring Airfoil“ wing. To the average 1960’s observer the massive hoop made the car look like something straight out of The Thunderbirds, but the idea was far from science fiction.
The big hoop at the back was actually an innovative early form of the spoiler that would take over the racing world. The elegantly integrated design was expertly crafted and even allowed the wing’s angle of attack to be adjusted by the driver via a ratcheting mechanism operating a small strut underneath. Formula 1’s awkward stilted adoption of BRE’s idea would later prove that it was far ahead of its time.
The sleek and gorgeous hand made, low drag aluminium body ensured the Samurai made the most of its rather small 1.3L GR100 4-cylinder Contessa powerplant. Nevertheless the twin Mikuni-Solex carbureted unit still belted out a healthy 110 horsepower, then an amazing figure for such a small engine. The power was handled through a bespoke 5-speed manual transmission. As a result of BRE’s clever engineering and packaging, the finished car only weighed a lively 530 kg (1170 lbs).
With his spectacular design completed, Pete Brock sent the Samurai to the Far East for its race debut at the Japanese Grand Prix. The stewards took a long time inspecting the car, and reached a devastating conclusion. In an equally hilarious and ridiculous decision, they declared the car’s ride height to be too low and banned the Samurai from competing.
BRE’s misfortune was complete when automotive giant Toyota took over Hino Industry and shut down its passenger car division completely. The Samurai was shunned by Toyota and forbidden to compete at Le Mans so it would not stand in its new parent’s way.
Despite the failed venture, BRE’s lovechild got its fair share of attention not long after being denied its racing career. The November 1967 edition of the world famous Road & Track magazine featured a cover story on the phenomenal machine, which again helped Pete Brock’s business. An offer for a mid-engined 2L Toyota prototype followed soon after.
The BRE Hino Samurai was an astonishing design by an incredibly talented young designer. It was instrumental in breaking with the econobox-stereotype that plagued the Japanese auto industry.
Sadly the sexy machine fell victim to weird scrutineering practices and a hostile takeover. Due to these unfortunate twists of fate, it never got the chance to do what it was actually built for.