The arrival of the 1960s saw the emergence of Japan’s car making expertise.

The learning curve was a steep one and success was elusive — at first.

But global success was only a few years away.

Without a doubt, 1961 was one of the most prolific years, maybe the most prolific — for totally new cars. 

Hino Contessa

In 1953 Hino began making the Renault 4CV from imported knocked down kits. 

Both companies needed the arrangement. 

Like most of Japanese industry, the company was in poor financial shape after WWII while Renault needed to earn much-needed export cash.

By 1961 Hino had gained enough knowledge and technical ability to recast the Renault 4CV in a locally designed body and give it an improved engine with increased power. 

The result was the Contessa.

Hino was acquired by Toyota in 1967 and its story is told by Toyota on its official website. 

Here’s what it says about the Contessa: “Hino radically redesigned the body, giving the car an elegant styling that befitted its name (meaning “countess” in Italian). 

In 1963, the car was entered in the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix and took first place in its class.

Toyota Publica

The Publica was Toyota’s effort to meet the Government’s requirements for a low cost “national car”. 

Top speed had to exceed 100km/h, weight was limited to 400kg and fuel consumption could not exceed 3.0L/100km. 

The design team was led by Tasuo Hasegawa. 

Initially a front-wheel drive proposal was developed, but this proved too technically difficult for Toyota at the time. 

The result was an air-cooled, 697cc two-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox. 

Performance was not a strong point and neither was the Publica’s styling.

Cute would be a generous description. 

Rudimentary was more realistic.

The car never sold well, just 270,000 units in six years. 

It failed to attract increasingly aspirational consumers because the car looked cheap and the technology was basic.

Tasuo Hasegawa and his team took heed of Publica’s shortcomings when they were given their next project to develop — the Corolla. 

While the 1966 Corolla was small, it was stylish, sprightly and well-appointed. 

It was Toyota’s first world class car.

 

Isuzu Bellel

Isuzu was another Japanese car company which resurrected itself from the ruins of WWII by making cars under licence. 

It had plenty of truck and bus building know-how, and saw its entry into the passenger car market via the Hillman Minx.

Like Hino, Isuzu chose 1961 to released its locally design and engineered car, the Bellel.

It was the first Japanese car to offer a diesel engine. 

If you think the Bellel has a resemblance to the Pininfarina designed Peugeot 404 and BMC “Farina” models, I agree. 

The car was riddled with quality problems, including leaking weather seals, cracking in pillars and peeling paint. 

After the initial enthusiasm abated, private buyers shunned it. 

Legend has it that taxi companies bought it but because drivers and customers disliked the car so much, they had to pay the drivers extra wages to operate one.

David Burrell is the editor of Retroautos.com.au

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Burrell

David Burrell is founder and editor of Retroautos.com.au, a free online classic cars magazine. Dave has a passion for cars and car design. He's also into speedway, which he's been writing about since 1981. His first car was a rusted-out 1961 Vauxhall Velox. His daily driver is a Pontiac Firebird. Prior to starting Retroautos, David was an executive in a Fortune 500 company, working and living in Australia, NZ, Asia, Latin America and the UK.
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