Import cars are nothing new to the western world. Going as far back as 1907 when the first Roles Royce Silver Ghost made its way onto American shores, or when the first VW Beetle made its way to America in 1949, the west has been trading cars nearly as long as cars have existed.
As the Beetle came to the U.S., big events were happening a country with the scars of two nuclear wounds still healing: The Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya stock exchanges were opening, and the world was going to be forced into knowing a postwar Japan up-close and personal. In 1958, with a sound that probably sounded something like a satisfying bowel movement, the U.S. was introduced to the Toyopet Crown.
The Crown was poorly received. It was heavy, underpowered compared to the meaty Fords and Chryslers of its time, and most importantly was $600 more than the Beetle. Nevertheless, Toyota had made its first mark on the western world.
Into the 60's the U.S. market was dominated by the Big 3: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. It was during the 70's, however, where Japan's "Big 3" of Toyota, Nissan (a.k.a. Datsun) and Honda made their mark. Not only were the Japanese auto makers able to hone in on the American market and make cars that were as attractive as cars the American Big 3 were making, but they were cheaper and more reliable, especially going into the 1973 Oil Crisis.
As the U.S. government began to place import tariffs on the Japanese cars coming into the market, it became obvious that the only way for Japan to keep its foot in the door in the American car market was to open production factories in the U.S. While Honda already had long been producing motorcycles in the U.S., by the mid 1980's it was producing cars and Toyota and Nissan's production factories were pumping out USDM cars in full force.
The 80's and 90's were the peak times for Japanese imports, the bubble economy that formed with Japan's "economic miracle" hitting its highest point in 1989. Subaru was finding its place in the market with the Legacy and the Impreza, Mitsubishi had arrived in America and was on its way to China, and the Big 3 were able to mix both performance and commuter cars into their productions. For the western world, the peak of the Japanese bubble was probably expressed no better than with the introduction of the Mazda MX-5, also known as the NA Miata.
The Miata was everything a gearhead (or petrolhead) could want in a car at the time. With it's 50/50 weight distribution and small, economic frame it was a track car you could drive daily. The Miata, even the NA (or first gen) Miata is still very affordable, easy to work on, and the engines will take you to 200,000 miles (322,000 km) without needing anything other than routine maintenance. Miatas don't ask to have a modification list that drops down to your knees like the Nissan 240sx or the Toyota Supra, but they don't mind being heavily modded either! And by being easy to work on (even despite its small size) it's a very approachable car to punks like me who want to get more comfortable with tinkering.
As the 90's moved on and Japan's economy sunk into ruin the import car was able to flourish. Japan was still producing cheap and reliable cars, but the fall of Japan allowed Korea to formally introduce itself through Kia's tremendous surge in the 90's which would later give way to Hyundai's surge in the mid-2000's. Through effective marketing and a still-weak Japanese economy, Korean imports were able to become synonymous with Japanese imports in the west in terms of reliability and affordability, although both have started to move towards luxury in the 2010's.
A large segment of future of import cars, ironically, is in the past. The biggest acronym to become popular for gearheads/petrolheads in recent times is JDM - Japanese Domestic Market. Basically, cars that were never intended to be sold outside of Japan. The U.S. is especially tightening its buttocks to the thought of those 3 letters, because the Japanese bubble's best cars are finally available on the U.S. market. Although Europe and the U.K. have been enjoying JDM cars for some time, the U.S.'s import laws forbid JDM cars less than 25 years old from entering the country. For years wide-eyed nerds have been scammed out of their money from shady sources promising JDM imports, but fortunately I happen to live near a legitimate importer.
Cars like the GT-R above are completely changing the idea of "import cars" now that they can be purchased legally and easily in America. China is also becoming more and more competent in making cars, who knows where the future of Asian imports in the west will go outside of the novelty of reliving the Japanese economic bubble. For now, it's certain to say that Asian imports are fundamental to the identity of the western auto world. • • •
A full article of the Skyline GT-R will be coming soon, but for now I'd like to thank Montu Motors in Oldsmar, Florida for providing it as a model. At the time of this article being published, this particular Skyline is still available for sale. This is NOT a paid promotion of Montu Motors.