Last Updated on August 16, 2022 by E. Lindgren
JDM classics are a rare thing nowadays. Not only were mostly produced in a very limited number but as time has gone on many have either been crashed or rusted away, perhaps even stored away somewhere where they’ll never be found again.
It is important to remember these classics. Many of these were the first of their kind and acted as the foundation for many of the JDM cars that were to come. Chances are that if any of these had failed, perhaps cars such as the Toyota Supra, Honda S2000, Mazda RX-7, or Skyline GT-R would not have been manufactured in the first place. And that means that the JDM community and culture as is maybe wouldn’t have existed either (what a horrible thought to have).
Here are 9 of the most legendary and perhaps most important JDM classics to have come out of Japan.
9. Toyota Sport 800 (1965–1969)
Not to be confused with Honda’s S800, the Sport 800 was Toyota’s very first production sports car which in Japan was known as the “Toya-Hachi” (ヨタハチ), meaning “Toyota 8”.
The Sport 800 used the same powertrain as the economy car Publica 700, a 790 cc flat-two with 27hp to 44 hp depending on whether you had the air-cooled version or not. This was enough to almost hit the 100 mph (160km/h) top speed marker, but not quite.
The Sport 800 was mostly manufactured to compete with Honda’s S500, and later S600, and S800 models. While the Honda models were more powerful, the Toyota Sport 800 was a lot lighter which evened out the battlefield.
While the Sport 800 was one of the best handling cars of the era, it did eventually lose out against the S800 due to lack of power.
But the Sport 800 is on this list for another reason. This was Toyota’s first sports car; you can almost view it more as a trial-and-error car. Because the errors, strong points, and expertise Toyota gained with the Sport 800 was channeled into a completely new sports car which you will learn more about further down.
8. Honda S800 (1966–1970)
Believe it or not, during the 60s Honda held a great reputation for producing great sports cars, mainly thanks to the Honda S600 and later on the S800.
The S800 only weighed in at about 740 kg (1,631 lb.) and its tiny 791 cc I4 engine produced a mere 70 hp. But that’s still twice as much as the Toyota Sport 800. The 70 horsepower engine was enough to make it Honda’s fastest car at the time, managing to achieve a 100 mph (160km/h) top speed.
In 1967 it was named the fastest production 1-liter car in the world.
Honda makes some of the best motorcycle engines in the world, and you can see the inspiration in the S800’s engine as it has an astonishing 10,000 RPM redline.
Almost 30 years later, we can thank the S800 for bringing us the much appreciated Honda S2000, which still shares the principle of the S800 with its 9,000 RPM redline.
7. Datsun 510 (1967-1973)
The Datsun 510 was an incredibly important car for Nissan. At the time Nissan was really struggling overseas, the predecessor Datsun 410 was considered underpowered in comparison to the competition (Ford, Toyota, BMW…).
So, Nissan manufactured a completely new engine known as the L13 (1.3L I4) and L16 (1.6L I4) L-series engine which was then fitted to the Datsun 510. (You can read more about the L-series engine here)
This new L-series engine completely turned the tide for Datsun (Nissan) and instead of being the slowest in its class had now become the fastest, and was marketed for its great performance.
The Datsun 510 didn’t just save Nissan from having to pull out of the international markets due to low sales, it also inspired them with their new performance engine to create their own sports car – The Fairlady Z.
6. Nissan Fairlady Z (1969-1983)
By the late 1960s Nissan’s USA president of the time, Yutaka Katayama saw there was great potential in manufacturing an affordable sports car. They figured if they could produce a sports car that would share a lot of its parts with other models under the Nissan brand, then it could be possible to produce a sports car that almost anyone could afford. And so, the Fairlady Z or Datsun 240Z (in the U.S.) was born.
The JDM version received a 2.0L SOHC L20A I6 producing 130 hp while the Americans received a more powerful 2.4L L24 I6 with twin Hitachi SU carburetors which boosted power to 151 hp. Nissan had managed to produce a good-looking, high-performance Coupé which sold over 160,000 examples in just less than four years.
The Z would almost be undisputed as one of the world’s greatest affordable sports cars.
5. Mitsubishi Lancer 1600 GSR (1973-1979)
Nowadays when people think about high-performance Mitsubishi’s they tend to recollect the Evolution Lancer which was produced between 1992 through 2016. But before the ‘Evolution’ trim came to be a standalone model Mitsubishi still had some performance models up its sleeve. One of them being the Lancer 1600 GSR.
Mitsubishi had seen some on and off success in rallying with cars such as the Mitsubishi Colt and Galant, but in order to even stand a chance at the grueling Safari Rally of Kenya they would need to come up with something new, the Lancer 1600 GSR.
In rally spec, the 1600 GSR put out about 170 hp @ 7,800 RPM which made it suitable for this fierce 6000 km race with unforgivable terrain and extreme temperatures. The 1600 GSR proved to be exceptionally durable.
The Lancer 1600 GSR would go on to take home five consecutive titles between 1972 through 1976 making it one of the most successful off-road racing vehicles.
The 1600 GSR also helped inspire what was to be known as the ‘Evolution’ which would completely dominate the Safari Rally once again during the 2000s.
4. AE86 Toyota Sprinter Trueno (1972-2000)
Most JDM fans or followers of the Japanese Animé Initial D will recognize this one, the AE86 Toyota Sprinter Trueno. This small sports car was also known as the Hachiroku and featured a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout. The AE86 itself was built upon the fifth-generation Toyota Corolla platform.
On top of being an affordable and great handling sports car, the AE86 is perhaps most praised for introducing the world to drifting. Prior to the AE86, drifting was mostly considered ‘wasteful’ and ‘inconsiderate’ over in Europe and the States. But thanks to Initial D and the occasional AE86 drifting montage it brought a new spark to the term ‘drifting’. It didn’t take long for people overseas to start modifying their cars for drifting.
The AE86 has arguably also had a large impact on the JDM community in itself, and should be considered more than just a classic. With all the AE86 drifting videos which started to appear during the 90s, people started getting together and discussing this unorthodox phenomenon they had witnessed. It got people excited and brought a lot of new attention to Japanese domestic cars (JDM). Previously there hadn’t really been anything to talk about regarding JDM cars, but thanks to the AE86, there was.
3. Mazda Cosmo (1967-1996)
At the release of the very first Cosmo, the L10A was a very controversial car at the time. The chassis design was oddly shaped with unorthodox proportions. The dashboard of the interior almost resembled the one of an airplane. But what stood out most of all was the Cosmo’s engine.
The Mazda Cosmo was the very first car to be fitted with a rotary Wankel engine. In the case of the L10A it was fitted with a 982 cc ‘0810′ Wankel engine producing 110 hp and were later with the L10B upgraded to 130 hp. This was extremely impressive considering some of its competition didn’t even have half of this power.
Because the rotary engine displacement was less than 1.0L Japanese buyers were able to enter a far lower road-tax bracket while still reaping the benefits of the performance of the rotary engine. This made the Cosmo very popular in Japan, especially since it was cheaper than the Toyota 2000GT.
Contrary to some belief, the first Nissan GT-R did not begin with the R32 Skyline; rather, the very first GT-R was known as the Nissan ‘Hakosuka’ Skyline GT-R. Introduced in 1969 and later modified into the faster and slimmer version admitted as the ‘KPGC10’ variant. The 1969 GT-R’s more popular nickname among car enthusiasts is Hakosuka, which in Japanese translates to “Box Skyline”.
The Hakosuka engine was derived from Prince Motor Company GR8 race engine and featured a 2.0L DOHC I6 with Mikuni-Solex Carburetors which boosted power output to 160hp @ 7,000 RPM. And there is a reason Nissan went with this engine, they had the intention to go racing.
The Skyline GT-R Was an Unprecedented Racing Machine
The Hakosuka didn’t just win a few races here and there, it completely demolished any other brand or model of car. Racing the 1969 Skyline GT-R with anything but another GT-R would result in a Tortoise vs. Hare race.
You may think we’re overexaggerating, but we’re not. The Hakosuka managed to win 49 consecutive wins within the Japanese domestic racing series. And managed to secure its 50th win in 1972. The saying goes that the Hakosuka was a fully built racecar which then was detuned for the road.
The Hakosuka would go on to inspire future GT-R models such as the R32, R33, and R34 GT-R. In terms of Nissan performance cars, this may just be the most important one of all.
1. Toyota 2000GT (1967–1970)
At this point in time, Toyota couldn’t really challenge automakers such as BMW, Honda, Porsche, and Jaguar. And although their Toyota Sport 800 was a great handling sports car, it was far too underpowered to compete with other automakers. So, they decided to create a far more powerful sports car, the Toyota 2000GT.
The 2000GT was only produced between 67” through 70”, but during that time period, it revolutionized the way the World viewed Japanese automakers. At the time, Japan was often viewed as a producer of simplistic and practical vehicles. But the Toyota 2000GT completely changed that.
The 2000GT was a limited-produced front-mid engine, RWD sports coupé which was co-developed by Yamaha. It received a 2.0L DOHC straight-6 engine coupled with three 2-barrel Mikuni-Solex carburetors producing 148 hp powered through a five-speed manual transmission. This was enough to achieve a 217 km/h (135 mph) top speed.
The 2000GT wasn’t just fast enough to compete with cars such as the Ferrari 250 GT, Mercedes 300SL, and Jaguar E-type, it also featured a very beautiful and elegant design (Designed by Satoru Nozaki).
The 2000GT was limited to just 337 units, with 60 of those heading to North America. This was a low figure, even in comparison to other supercar makers. This led the Toyota 2000GT to become extremely collectible and in March, 2022 a 1967 Toyota-Shelby 2000GT sold for a breathtaking $2,535,000!