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The Japanese Car Industry—From Acura to Yamaha

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Mario Buildreps is a graduate engineer who hopes to make you aware of topics in a way you have not experienced before.

One of the first self-propelled vehicles in Japan was this Panhard used as a bus in 1903. The first cars in Japan were mainly used for public transport. The right rear tire was just repaired.

One of the first self-propelled vehicles in Japan was this Panhard used as a bus in 1903. The first cars in Japan were mainly used for public transport. The right rear tire was just repaired.

One of the first steam-propelled carriages in Japan

One of the first steam-propelled carriages in Japan

The First Horseless Carriages Were Used For Public Transport

The first car or self-propelling vehicle in Japan, introduced in 1898, was a Panhard. These Panhards were imported from France.

The first Japanese attempts to manufacture their own automobile started in 1904. Yamaha built at that time the first steam car. This car was built to use as a bus for a maximum of ten people. The steam cars did not last for long, they were quickly followed by petrol-driven cars.

Most of the designs dealt from the beginning with many technical problems. Solid tires that regularly ran off the rim, were one of the major ones.

Leading Car Manufacturer in the World

Primarily due to its long history in car development, and secondarily due to the financial aid of the US just after WWII, Japan became an important car manufacturer.

Japan is one of the largest car manufacturing countries in the world, although it recently lost its leading #1 position to China and the U.S.

Between 1980 and 2009, Japan and the U.S. regularly leapfrogged when it came to the position of the largest car manufacturing country. From 2009 on, China took over this leadership, and left the other two far behind.

Leading Car Producing Countries in 2013

RankNumber of Cars

1. China

22.1 million

2. United States

11.0 million

3. Japan

9.6 million

4. Germany

5.7 million

5. South Korea

4.5 million

Rest of the World

34.4 million

Total

87.3 million

Yoshida Takuri: The First Japanese Passenger Car in 1907

The first domestic made petrol-powered Japanese car was theYoshida Takuri. The car was built in 1907 by Automobile Shokai, owned by Shinataro Yoshida. Shinataro Yoshida was at that time also president of the Sorinshokai bicycle factory in Tokyo, and traveled often to the US for importing bicycle parts.

This automobile was ordered by Takehito Arisugawa, the Imperial Prince of Japan. The order was to build a modern passenger car with combustion engine. The car had to be 'homegrown' as much as possible. But some of the parts for the first two cars were imported from the US, like the engine, transmission and longitudinal axles, because they weren't yet available in Japan. The design of the Takuri was based on the Ford model A.

After using imported parts in the first two models, Automobile Shokai developed and built its own engine and parts for the other ten Takuri models.

The car was nicknamed Takuri after the rattling noises the engine and gearbox were making when running. Takuri is derived from a Japanese word 'gata-kuri' which means 'a rattling sound caused by irregular movement'.

Yoshida never established itself as a long lasting car manufacturer in Japan.

One of the first domestic made cars were already sophisticated machines, like this Yoshida Takuri from 1907. It was the first domestic, gasoline-powered automobile built in Japan.

One of the first domestic made cars were already sophisticated machines, like this Yoshida Takuri from 1907. It was the first domestic, gasoline-powered automobile built in Japan.

Specifications of the Yoshida Takuri

ItemSpec

Vehicle name

Takuri

Company name

Automobile Shokai

Designed by

Komanosuke Uchiyama

Years manufactured

from 1907 to 1910

Amount Produced

12

Number of doors

2

Maximum amount of passengers

5

Maximum speed

35 km/h (22 mi/h)

Vehicle weight

800 kg

Engine

2-cylinder water cooled

Displacement

1837 cc

Maximum power

8½ hp at 400 r.p.m.

Gears

2 forward speed, 1 reverse speed

The DAT car was presented in 1914.

The DAT car was presented in 1914.

The DAT car in 1914

After the modest success of the Takuri, another pioneer, Masujiro Hashimoto, founded in 1911 in Tokyo an automobile factory called Kwaishinsha Co., that we know today as the Nissan Motor Company.

Hashimoto completed after three struggling years in 1914 his first car, called the DAT car.

The name DAT car was derived from the last names of the major investors of Hashimoto: Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi.

The company became initially known as Datsun, which became later Nissan. Datsun was the first long lasting car manufacturer of Japan.

Public transport developed quickly in Japan. This bus in 1929 was already much more sophisticated. Long lines of people are waiting for the bus.

Public transport developed quickly in Japan. This bus in 1929 was already much more sophisticated. Long lines of people are waiting for the bus.

The Otomo of 1924.

The Otomo of 1924.

The Technological Gap

Up until 1930 there was a huge technological gap between Japan and Europe and the US. GM and Ford were so far ahead of the Japanese car technology, that it knocked down most of the own car production in Japan itself.

Until the 30s Datsun was not able to produce cars in large numbers. Because of this, most cars in Japan were imported. Only the richest were able to afford their own car.

A new company, Hakuyosha Ironworks, tried to fill the gap in 1924 with the introduction of the Otomo, with the first full scale production of cars in Japan. Hakuyosha produced 230 Otomos between 1924 and 1927. Hakuyosha Ironworks never established itself as a lasting car producer in Japan.

The Datsun 11 of 1932.

The Datsun 11 of 1932.

Revival of Datsun Resulted in Acquisition

Datsun produced between 1914 and 1926 several models, like the DAT 31, DAT 41 and DAT 51. These models were fully handmade and only produced in small numbers. Most of the parts of these three models were produced in Japan.

DAT merged in 1926 with Jitsuyo Jidosha Seizo, to become DAT Automobile Manufacturing Company.

After a few years of development, came DAT in 1932 back with a modern and revolutionary car, the Datsun 11. Datsun built in one year 150 units, which was more than the bestseller Otomo did in one year.

In 1934 was the freshly merged DAT company acquired by Nissan, and became Japan's largest car manufacturer. In 1937 produced Nissan 15,000 cars.

Invasion of the Big Three American Car Manufacturers

In the mean time the biggest three American car manufacturers, Chrysler, Ford and GM, established production facilities in Japan, and produced between 1925 and 1936 more than 200,000 cars. More than 10 times the amount of Japan's own domestic production.

But due to the rising of prewar tensions between US and Japan at the end of the 30s, all American manufacturers had to abandon their factories.

The Toyota type AA. A comfortable passenger car, in 1936.

The Toyota type AA. A comfortable passenger car, in 1936.

WWII - Pause in Production

Around 1939 most of the car producing facilities were converted to truck manufacture facilities, including the facilities that the foreign manufacturers left behind.

This ground shaking change lasted for almost 20 years, in which period almost no domestic passenger cars were built. Most production facilities kept on producing trucks, until the beginning of the 60s.

Most of the facilities of the largest car manufacturer at that time, Nissan, was ruined by bombardments of the allies. Only in 1947 was Nissan able to pick up production of the Datsun DA model in small amounts.

Nissan Prince Skyline of 1966.

Nissan Prince Skyline of 1966.

Post-War Boom

Only after the merging of Nissan with the Prince Motor Company in 1966 was Nissan able to produce the Prince Skyline in mass production. More than 670,000 units of this car were produced. This car meant the breakthrough of the Japanese auto industry.

At the same time, in 1966, Nissan started to produce the Sunny series. This car was exported to the US and Europe under the name Datsun Sunny 1000.

In 1983 Nissan stopped using the brand name 'Datsun'. Nissan produced from 1966 up to 2006 nearly 16.5 million cars under the name Sunny.

Datsun Sunny 1000 of 1966.

Datsun Sunny 1000 of 1966.

The Dome Zero - A Super Car of 1978

Japanese Car Brands

  • Acura: Introduced as the first Japanese luxury car brand in 1986, as a part of Honda. The success of the Legend inspired Nissan and Toyota to launch luxury brands as well.
  • Daihatsu: Claimed to be the oldest still-existing Japanese car maker. Producer of mainly small cars.
  • Datsun: The export brand name of Nissan until 1983.
  • Dome: The Dome Zero was introduced in 1978 as a new super car to compete in the 24 hours of Le Mans. It was far ahead of its time, but never became a success.
  • Hino: Mainly a truck manufacturer. Hina produced its first vehicle in 1917, and is active around the world in producing light to heavy trucks.
  • Honda: Started in 1937 as a supplier of engine parts. Honda became after WWII manufacturer of motorcycles. The Honda Dream D was their first motorcycle in 1947. Honda started to produce cars in 1963. Honda is one of the largest producers of combustion engines in the world.
  • Infiniti: Introduced in 1989 as the luxury brand of Nissan. After a slow troublesome start, Infiniti settled itself among the best German car manufacturers.
  • Isuzu: Founded in 1916. Isuzu started to produce their first car in 1922, the Wolseley A9. Isuzu is one of the largest producers of small Diesel engines.
  • Lexus: Introduced in 1989 as the luxury brand of Toyota. The first models were sold in the US, and later globally. It was Toyota's goal to build the best car in the world. Their first flagship the LS 400, which to compete with Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
  • Mazda: Founded in 1920 in Hiroshima as Toyo Cork Kogyo. Mazda was during WWII an important producer of weapons for the Japanese army. Inspired by the NSU RO-80, started Mazda to produce the RX series with Wankel engines.
  • Mitsubishi: Founded in 1870 and produced its first cars in 1917. Their first successful car was the PX33 for the Japanese army. The Mitsubishi Colt was and is still their best-selling car.
  • Mitsuoka: Founded in 1968. Mitsuoka is a small niche brand that manufactures its cars on platforms of Nissan and Infiniti.
  • Nissan: Founded in 1911 as Kwaishinsha Co. Their first car was produced in 1914 under the name DAT car. Throughout history Nissan remained one of the largest car manufacturers in Japan.
  • Ohta: Ohta was one of the largest car producers in Japan between 1934 and 1957. Ohta stopped producing cars at the end of the 50s when it was taken over by Kurogane Truck Company.
  • Otomo: Founded in 1924 as Hakuyosha Ironworks. Hakuyosha was the first company to make passenger cars in larger numbers - the legendary Otomo.
  • Prince: Founded in 1952 as an aircraft builder and merged with Nissan in 1966. After the fusion they produced their first mass product, the Nissan Prince Skyline.
  • Scion: Introduced in 2002 by Toyota as a cool brand to attract a younger clientèle. The odd-looking xB was their best selling model.
  • Subaru: Founded in 1953. Subaru became famous for its technical superior quality, with permanent 4WD and boxer engines. Subaru was with the Impreza model multiple times winner of the World Rally Championship.
  • Suzuki: Founded in 1907, Suzuki started to build its first cars in 1937. Suzuki became a manufacturer of mainly small city cars and all-terrain vehicles.
  • Toyota: Founded in 1933, Toyota started to produce its first car in 1936, the Model AA. Toyota started its first exports in the 60s, and competes head-to-head with GM and Volkswagen for the largest car producer in the world.
  • Yamaha: Founded in 1887 as a producer of music instruments. Because of Yamaha's expertise in metallurgy and production techniques, they decided to copy American and German motorcycles, and make them even better.

For a while, this was a major feature of Japan's car industry: copying and perfecting cars and motorcycles. And with success. Japan became in a few decades one of the leading nations in both design and manufacturing of cars.

That's all folks!

© 2015 by Buildreps

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