Last Updated on September 9, 2022 by E. Lindgren
The Japanese car industry wasn’t always as big as they are today. Despite most Japanese carmakers being extremely old, it wasn’t really until the 1960s before they started truly mass-producing passenger vehicles. However, there are a few exceptions of some really old Japanese-made passenger cars.
The term JDM refers to cars specifically sold with the intention of being used and driven on the Japanese domestic markets. The JDM term didn’t really get used until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite this, there were still cars sold specifically for the Japanese market way before the JDM term started getting used.
That means that there are JDM cars that are significantly older than the ‘80s and ‘90s legends that are mostly referred to when talking about JDM cars.
The very first Japanese-made car was manufactured in 1907 by Komanosuke Uchiyama an engineer from Tokyo Motor Vehicle Works. The vehicle was powered by a gasoline engine and was called the Takuri.
Despite this early success, it took nearly two decades of development and hard work before the Japanese automobile industry would mature and establish itself as a successful venture.
During the 1930s, Ford and GM dominated the Japanese domestic automobile market, and in 1936 the Japanese government passed the Automobile Manufacturing Industry Law which was intended to promote the domestic auto industry. In other words, Ford and GM were consequently pushed out of the country to favor domestic automakers.
This led Toyota, Nissan, and Isuzu to gather a large market share, especially since they produced military vehicles for the Japanese army during the Second World War.
Up until the 1960s, most automobile production was made up of commercial trucks with a few exceptions, such as these very old Japanese passenger cars!
1917 – Mitsubishi Model A
The Mitsubishi Model A was the first series-produced car manufactured in Japan and was introduced in 1917. The car was built by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company that would in time turn into Mitsubishi Motors as we know them today.
The Model A was a four-door seven-seater and featured a 2.8L straight-4 producing a whopping 35 hp. Despite being built in 1917, the Model A was actually capable of close to 100 km/h (97) or 60 mph top speed.
Only 22 were ever built, and the majority were used for government officials or high-level executives within the Mitsubishi company.
Mitsubishi’s Model A is one of Japan’s oldest JDM cars, and it would actually take Mitsubishi another 37 years after the Model A production ended before they created their next production car in 1960, the Mitsubishi 500.
1924 – Kurogane Otomo
The Otomo was originally produced in Tokyo by a man known as Hayataya Toyokawa in 1924. He had previously experimented with building cars, and the Otomo was based on his prototype car known as the ‘Ales’.
The Otomo featured an air-cooled 944 cc inline-4 and came either as a two- or four-seat saloon, tourer or van. In 1926 a water-cooled version was offered that produced 24 hp.
During the 1920s the Japanese automobile industry was completely ruled by the auto giants Ford and Chevrolet. And the Otomo was produced as a way to compete with American cars such as the Ford Model T and Chevrolet Capitols.
However, the American companies had scalability on their side and could produce cars at a significantly lower cost, along with better and more powerful engines and technology.
The manufacturer of Otomo would eventually venture together with other smaller Japanese automobile manufacturers in order to better compete against American automakers.
1935 – Datsun Type 14 (First mass-produced vehicle)
By the time the Type 14 came around, Datsun had actually already been producing cars for almost 3 decades, with their first car, the DAT that came out in 1910. But up until the 1930s most passenger cars were sold in very limited quantities as most cars were still only affordable to the very rich and privileged.
However, Datsun can safely claim to be the first Japanese automaker to mass produce a car. Their Datsun Type 14 model was not only relatively affordable, its simple design made it very easy to manufacture. This resulted in around 3,800 Type 14 sold in its first production year, of which 53 were exported to Australia and New Zealand.
The Type 14 features a 722cc inline-4 engine generating a measly 15 hp @3,300 RPM through a 3-speed manual. It was still capable of an 80 km/h top speed which at the time was seen as extremely impressive.
Despite not being the oldest car on this list, it is perhaps the most important in what it meant to the domestic Japanese automobile industry as now the Japanese had the option to opt for a Japanese-made car instead of exports from Ford and GM.
1936 – Toyota AA & AB
The Toyota AA (sedan) and AB (cabriolet) were Toyota’s very first production cars and began production already in 1936. These models were based on the Toyota prototype known as the A1 but were slightly redesigned for the AA and AB version.
During its production run between 1936 to 1943, 1,404 AA sedans were manufactured along with 353 AB convertibles.
The AA version featured a sleek 4-door design that was largely resembling the design of Chrysler’s DeSoto Airflow. The chassis featured a complete metal body, in comparison to earlier models that used a fabric-over-wooden-frame body.
Just like today’s Rolls Royce, the Toyota AA and AB had ‘suicide doors’ that opened backward.
Both the AA and AB featured a 3.4L Inline-6 known as the Type A, and was mounted to a 3-speed manual transmission. The engine came from the Chevrolet Master but was slightly redesigned and produced 62 horsepower.
The successor to the AA was the AC which started production in 1943.
The AA & AB is Toyota’s oldest production cars.
1936 – Kurogane Type 95
The Type 95 was built by Tokyu Kurogane Industries which at the time probably was the largest automobile producer of cars. The reason most people don’t know about this company is that it only existed from 1926 through 1962 before joining the Nissan Group.
The Type 95 was Japan’s first four-wheel drive passenger car and was predominately used during wartime, especially during World War II.
The Type 95 was featured either as a 2-door roadster, 2-door pickup truck, or as a 4-door phaeton and used a 1.3L-1.4L air-cooled 2-cylinder engine producing around 33 hp @ 3,300 RPM.
Some of the Type 95 came modified from the factory to more easily fit different assortments of machine guns and were also designed to easily fit within a Kokusai KU-8 airplane.