Sure, you’ve got your Packards, your Ferraris, and your COPO Camaros. But if you’re looking for the next place to put your car collecting dollars – and have some fun – look at Japanese cars that are seeing values rise.
Despite hundreds of thousands of them, like the Datsun Z cars, rolling off the assembly line, many are rare. In the ’60s and ’70s, they were practically disposable. Many lost the battle with the rust monster. Others were run hard until they broke. Today the survivors are the stuff of auction bidding wars.
For most of these cars, originality is not an issue like it was with the snobby European collectors. Performance and comfort upgrades, from superchargers to stiffer springs, don’t seem to hurt values. Or buy a car in need of some TLC and tune it to suit your style. Some of the rarest cars are Japanese Domestic Market, or JDM cars, that have been imported by individuals or specialist tuners. One easy way to tell if it’s an import is if the car has the steering wheel on the right side instead of the left.
Here’s a look at 11 collectible Japanese cars that might inspire you to search a forgotten treasure.
Acura Integra Type R
The first year of production for the Type R was 1997 with only 320 produced. Acura engineers massaged the 1.8-liter 4-cylinder to push out nearly 200 horsepower. The front-wheel-drive beauty had a few upgrades, including a close-ratio five-speed transmission, a limited-slip differential, stiffer suspension components and body bracing. Because of their rarity, this example with just over 1,000 miles sold for $63,800 at auction.
The NSX was a game-changer when it debuted in 1989. It was the first production car with an all-aluminum body, and it offered Italian sports-car performance combined with Japanese reliability. The 3-liter V6 pushed out 300 horsepower, but its light weight meant the NSX had blistering performance and balanced handling. It went through several generations during its production run from 1990 to 2005, and some models gained T-Tops and other amenities. This example had about 20,000 miles and sold at auction for $44,000.
Datsun 240/260/280 Z
From 1970-1978, more than 340,000 Z cars were built in three different models. The original recipe 240Z is the most desirable. It was the Japanese attempt to capture the sports car market dollar with a perky 2.4-liter engine and compact two-seat curvy style. The Zs gained weight and length over the years, and the 280 ZX is known as the “Whale” because it gained 24-inches in length to make room for small back seats. This one, a 1972 240Z, restored by its third owner, brought $40,700 at a recent auction.
While it’s never been as popular as the Miata, the S2000 offers riding-on-rails handling in a sophisticated wrapper. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder and six-speed manual offer a connected driving experience. Plus, there’s a power top, leather seats and power-adjustable heated seats for cold-weather, top-down fun. There are some special editions to look for, like the Club Racer (CR) version that cuts 60 lbs. of weight for high-speed track days. This 2002 model sold for $23,500 at auction.
The rotary or Wankel engines weren’t known for their longevity, making runnable RX7s a rarity. If you can find one in running order, they offer high-revving power and sporty handling. Look for turbocharged models for extra oomph. A 1997 RX7 with twin turbos on the 1.3-liter rotary sold for $33,000 at a recent auction. It also had less than 10,000 miles, which contributed to its survivability. Plenty of performance upgrades are available, including ECU tuning.
Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4
This example is one of only about 1,000 total 3000GT VR-4 Spyders, and one of 38 with this color and interior combination. The twin-turbo 3-liter V6 is mated to a six-speed manual transmission driving all four wheels. With a high-rev launch, it will reach 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. Examples of this car have hit 400,000 miles and are still rolling on. This one sold at auction for $30,250.
The Skyline was unobtainium for Americans for years until they became old enough to import or were modified to meet U.S. regulations. There’s a range of versions, from the base Skyline to the GT-S, and the GT-R at the top of the heap. This 1991 Skyline R32 GT-R has a 2.6-liter six-cylinder and five-speed manual transmission. It brought $47,300 at a recent auction.
A JDM car, the Figaro is as cute as a Hello Kitty knapsack and just about as fun. The retro-style convertible is rare in the U.S. as they’re imported individually. It features a 987cc engine and a three-speed automatic transmission. This 1991 model sold at auction for $20,350.
Toyota Supra Twin Turbo
A 1993 Supra Twin Turbo Premier Edition sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction for $104,500. It was in original condition, including the twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed transmission. The pristine condition – less than 19,000 miles – was one of the reasons this one broke six figures. Various versions of the Supra are climbing in value, and many of the special editions are surprisingly rare.
The spunky MR2 mid-engine sports car was the Japanese answer to cars like the Fiat X1/9. The funky square shape of this generation is unmistakable. There were turbo and sport packages available for even more power. What it lacked in storage space, the MR2 made up for in fun potential. This one with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder and the Sport package sold at auction for $13,750.
Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruiser
Japan’s answer to the Jeep Wrangler, the FJ-40, is known for its off-road prowess. There are few left in original condition because they were often worn out on backcountry trails. This one has been restored with a 5-liter V8 engine, a two-inch suspension lift, and upgrades to handle serious off-roading. The top bidder took this one home for $24,200 at a Barrett-Jackson auction.
All photos courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.