The Japanese car scene would look much different if these cars never existed

If I were to write about the history of cars, a single chapter wouldn’t be enough to talk about the Japanese car industry’s impact in shaping that history. I’d need a few chapters to properly encapsulate what Japan’s car history means to the larger history of the automotive world. From humble beginnings to global domination, Japan’s car scene has given so much to the auto world. That includes some of the most iconic car models to ever hit the ground. These ten models are classics in the basic sense of the term “classic.” More importantly, these ten models are classics because they’ve earned the right to be called one, whether it’s through sheer popularity or long-lasting impact in the business.

Toyota Corolla GT AE86

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The Toyota Corolla GT AE86 deserves a chapter of its own.

Arguably the most famous Corolla in history, the AE86, wasn’t just a great car, but it was also a hellacious drift car and a super competitive race car that won the European Touring Car Championship in 1988.

The Corolla GT AE86’s list of accomplishments runs long and deep. That’s owed to the car’s nimble handling, responsive steering, and a 1.6-liter twin-cam engine. All of that came together to make the AE86 one of the best driving cars in the market and a go-to car for racers and drifters alike. Speaking of drifters, no less than Keiichi Tsuchiya, better known as the Drift King, drove the AE86 to reach his status as one of the greatest drifters of all time. As accomplished as the AE86 is, you can argue that the model’s greatest claim to fame is its starring role in Initial D, one of the most popular Manga comic series of its era. To this day, the Toyota GT AE86 remains a hot ticket item among fans and collectors. Good luck trying to find a good condition AE86 today. If you do, prepare to shell out at least $30,000 for it.

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Toyota Corolla GT AE86 specifications
Engine: 1.6-liter twin-cam engine
Horsepower: 112 horsepower
Torque: 100 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 8.6 seconds
Top Speed: 118 mph

Toyota Land Cruiser J40

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Not every car on this list is of the performance variety.

The Toyota Land Cruiser J40 was a body-on-frame SUV that lacked all the creature comforts you’d expect from today’s SUVs. It was, for all intents and purposes, a purely utilitarian, short-wheelbase off-roader that was unmatched in its off-road capabilities

. It’s a testament to the J40’s stature as one of the greatest SUVs of all time that Toyota produced the model from 1960 to 2001. That’s over 40 years of the same model hitting the market without interruption. The Land Cruiser J40’s popularity also spurred numerous iterations, including the FJ40 and the 2FJ40. Through it all, the Land Cruiser J40 withstood more than just the test of time; it’s also become one of the most sought-after classic SUVs in the world.

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Toyota Land Cruiser J40 specifications
Engine: 3.9-liter six-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 125 horsepower
Torque: 189 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: n/a
Top Speed: 97 mph

Mazda Cosmo

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Mazda Cosmo Sport

When you mention the word “Cosmo” to car enthusiasts, a lot of them will immediately remember what is arguably one of the most important Japanese sports cars in history.

The Mazda Cosmo is known for its longevity — it was produced from 1967 to 1996 — as much as its performance capabilities as a bonafide “halo” model for Mazda.

But the Cosmo’s true claim-to-fame is its stature as one of the first production cars to feature a two-rotor Wankel rotary engine. The single-piston engine took the industry by storm when it was introduced. The rotary engine was not only smaller and lighter than conventional engines, but it also produced more power and had a higher-revving capacity than standard engines of that time. The history of Mazda’s Wankel rotary engine will always be tied to the Cosmo, making the latter one of the most important vehicles, not only of its era but the overall history of cars.

Mazda Cosmo specifications
Engine: Two-rotor Wankel rotary engine
Horsepower: 110 horsepower
Torque: 96 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 8.2
Top Speed: 115 mph

Read our full review on the Mazda Cosmo

Honda Civic

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Every model that has made it big in the industry has roots to a time when automakers were just trying to make an impact in the business. That sentiment holds for a lot of models these days, none more so than Honda’s super popular Civic compact sedan.

The Civic is one of the most popular car models in the world today, but that wasn’t the case in 1972 when Honda introduced the first-generation Civic to the masses.

At that time, Honda needed an economical, durable, and affordable car to beef up its automotive lineup after initially finding success in the motorcycle segment. That’s when the Civic came into the picture. It wasn’t the fastest car by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it the fanciest ride that money could buy. But it checked a lot of requirements that Honda needed for an affordable ride. It’s not a coincidence that the Civic turned into Honda’s first commercially successful vehicle. Since then, it’s become one of the most identifiable vehicles in the entire auto industry. It’s even evolved from a cheap subcompact to a sophisticated compact vehicle that’s teeming with a lot of Honda’s newest technologies. That’s how far Honda and the Civic have come in 40-something years.

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1972 Honda Civic specifications
Engine: 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine
Horsepower: 73 horsepower
Torque: 74 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 13 seconds (est)
Top Speed: 80 mph (est)

Datsun 240Z

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What else has to be said about the Datsun 240Z that hasn’t been said already?

The 240Z was the first Japanese sports car to find commercial success in the U.S.

It arrived in 1970 at a time when safety regulations effectively placed domestic performance cars in a state of flux. As people started to look elsewhere to satiate their thirst for vehicular performance, the 240Z arrived like manna from the skies, packing a 2.0-liter straight-six SOHC engine that produced a stout 130 horsepower. It helped, too, that the 240Z stood out from the crowd with a drop-dead sexy design that reminded folks of exotic European cars of that era. From the Porsche headlights to the Jaguar body to the Aston Martin profile, the 240Z was an affordable performance car that looked way more upscale than it actually was. American car buyers gravitated towards the 240Z like moths to a light, and to this day, the “Fairlady” remains a hot ticket item among car collectors and enthusiasts.

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Datsun 240Z specifications
Engine: 2.4-liter inline-six engine
Horsepower: 151 horsepower
Torque: 146 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: Eight seconds
Top Speed: 126 mph

Read our full review on the Datsun 240Z

Toyota 2000GT

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Much like Honda, Toyota wasn’t the car brand that it is now. There once was a time when the Japanese auto giant was an obscure automaker with dreams of selling cars in the U.S. in small quantities. One of its models, the 2000 GT, was a small but peppy sports coupe that sported an underrated six-cylinder engine.

The 2000 GT is one of the most important cars Toyota has ever built.

Its arrival in foreign markets, the U.S. most notably, helped put Toyota on the map. Not only did it look astonishingly sexy, but the aforementioned six-cylinder unit had enough bite (150 horsepower) that it delivered impressive performance capabilities to go with racecar-like handling credentials. It’s an understatement to say that Toyota struck gold with the 2000 GT. Toyota didn’t sell too many 2000 GTs in the U.S., but it did do something far more important than putting money in the automaker’s coffers; it introduced Toyota to a region that would end up becoming the automaker’s largest market in the world. That’s called impact, folks.

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Toyota 2000 GT specifications
Engine: 2.0-liter inline-six engine
Horsepower: 148 horsepower
Torque: 129 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 10 seconds
Top Speed: 128 mph

Read our full review on the Toyota 2000GT

Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Hakosuka

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When you’re talking about Japanese performance cars, no name can elicit swoons and over-the-top gasps like the Nissan Skyline GT-R.

We all know the GT-R nameplate for what it is today, but its roots stretch all the way back to the model many people call the “Hakosuka,” which translates to “box” in English.

That’s what the OG Skyline GT-R looked like. But underneath the boxy profile and the squared lines sat a 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine that produced 160 horsepower, enough to turn heads back in the late 1960s. The Nissan Skyline GT-R will always be one of the greatest automotive marvels Japan has ever produced. That it was never imported to America has made it that much more expensive and highly collectible among car collectors the world over. Remember, whenever we talk about the car we know as Godzilla today, proper homage must go to the Hakosuka as well.

1972 Nissan Skyline GT-R Hakosuka High Resolution Exterior AutoShow
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Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Hakosuka specifications
Engine: 2.0-liter inline-six engine
Horsepower: 160 horsepower
Torque: 129 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 8.1 seconds
Top Speed: 121 mph

Read our full review on the Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Hakosuka

Isuzu 117 Coupe

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Not a lot of people remember Isuzu as a carmaker, but back in the ‘60s, Isuzu built some ravishing car models, including the 117 Coupe. You don’t expect a Japanese automaker back then to come out with a coupe that carried stylish curves and swooping lines, but that’s exactly what Isuzu did when it rolled out the 117 Coupe. Of course, the real secret here is that the 117 was actually penned by Georgette Giugiaro, which explains the car’s aesthetics. Isuzu enjoyed a lot of success with the 117 at the helm. Production lasted until 1981, and while the coupe wasn’t exactly a bastion of performance, it was elegant in ways very Japanese cars were back then. Good luck finding a well-maintained Isuzu 117 Coupe these days.

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Isuzu 117 Coupe specifications
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-four engine
Horsepower: 118 horsepower
Torque: 105 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 10.2 seconds
Top Speed: 120 mph

Mazda Luce 1800

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The Mazda 1800 Luce wasn’t a powerful car, and it certainly wasn’t a fast one, either. In top form, the sedan was powered by a 1.8-liter engine that barely produced 100 horsepower. You’re not going to win a lot of races in the 1800 Luce. That much is certain. So why is this model on this list?

The Luce 1800 is on this list because it’s beautiful and, more importantly, it made a far bigger impact on the growth of the Japanese auto industry than most people realize.

The Luce, for all intents and purposes, was Mazda’s moneymaker when it entered the U.S. market in the early 1970s. Like the Civic in Honda’s case, the Luce gave Mazda credibility and recognition outside of its home market, and the Japanese automaker has built on that credibility since then. On top of that, the Luce also remains one of the best-looking Japanese cars ever built. That’s a credit to Mazda’s decision to venture to Europe and have famous Italian design house Bertone pen the design of the Luce.

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Mazda 1800 Luce specifications
Engine: 1.8-liter inline-four engine
Horsepower: 100 horsepower
Torque: 112 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 12 seconds
Top Speed: 103 mph

Toyota Celica

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As much love as the Toyota Supra has received, it’s worth mentioning that it wasn’t the only performance car that helped Toyota become a big player in the global car scene. For those who couldn’t afford the admittedly pricey 2000 GT, Toyota built a budget-friendly sports coupe that still carried a performance vibe to it. Enter the Toyota Celica. The first-generation Celica arrived in 1970, and the model immediately took off. It lasted seven generations, spanning 36 years before Toyota shelved the nameplate in 2006. More than its longevity, the Celica proved that Toyota was also capable of offering an affordable performance model that allowed owners to enjoy the thrill of a Japanese-built sports coupe without having to pay too much of a premium for it. To date, the Celica remains popular among car aficionados, so much so that rumors of a return are never far from the surface.

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Toyota Celica specifications
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-four engine
Horsepower: 114 horsepower
Torque: 105 pound-feet
0 to 60 MPH: 11.5 seconds
Top Speed: 108 mph

Read our full review on the Toyota Celica

Where to buy classic Japanese cars?

Classic Japanese cars are available in a lot of places, including dedicated dealerships and online car sites. You can score good deals in any of these places, though the rarer the classic, the pricier they are.

How to buy Japanese classics?

If you’re buying a Japanese car that’s deemed a JDM, you’re going to have to go through a long and stringent process that includes plenty of paperwork on the authenticity of the said car. It’s easier to buy a Japanese classic JDM that’s already located in the U.S. That means that it already went through the proper channels to become legal to purchase.

What do people think about Japanese Classics?

Classic Japanese cars have gained popularity in recent years as prime collectibles, in part because a lot of these models only became legal to be imported to the U.S. in recent years. The demand for these cars has skyrocketed as more have become available to purchase.

Are Japanese Classics legal in the United States?

Classic Japanese cars are legal in the U.S., provided that they are over 25 years old, and meet the exemptions laid out by EPA and FMVSS regulations.

Are classic Japanese cars valuable?

Some classic Japanese cars have become valuable in recent years as more of the models become available in the U.S. The demand continues to stay on an upward trend, so expect a lot of these classics to gain prestige in the coming years. The more prestigious they are, the more expensive and valuable they become.

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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