Ah yes, the classics. Every collectible genre has them, but some are cooler than others. Classic stamps or spoons, nah. Classic Hot Wheels or Matchbox, getting better. Classic cars of any sort are cool and the classic JDM cars have one of the largest followings out there. With so many cool examples over the years, it's hard to narrow down a list to just 4 or 5 to talk about here but we will try. With the import scene blowing up in the early 2000’s many of these cars were not nearly as popular when they were new as they are today, decades later. The classics are always hard to beat, and I feel like the older Japanese cars are better than the new ones, at least when it comes to the sportier variants.
One of my favorite classic Japanese sports cars is the FD RX7. They are one of the sleekest, best-looking cars of the era and came with a unique power plant to boot. The FD variant was produced from 1992 to 2002 and while the rotary engine wasn't new to the RX-7, it was in its most potent form in the FD. To be clear, we only got the FD here in the states for the 1993 to 1995 model years because we can’t have cool things for too long. The “Wankel” rotary engine is impressive in that it’s the only alternative to the piston engine ever offered in a production car. It uses ⅓ of the moving parts and is very small for its power output. It had been around since the late 20s but the inventor licensed the idea to many of the big manufacturers worldwide to make it work. The FD RX-7 Turbo was the cream of the crop for the lineup and was no joke with 255hp and a curb weight of less than 2800 lb. The car racked up accolades with all of the magazine publications and performance enthusiasts. That 255hp came from a little 1.3L fire-breathing 13B Wankel rotary engine. Breathing assistance came from a sequential twin-turbo setup. The FD RX-7 was the best of its kind and has already become a classic Japanese sports car.
One of the cars Mazda had its sights set on beating with the FD was the vulnerable Honda/Acura NSX. The NSX was never at the top of my sports car wish list and that wasn’t because it isn’t a great one, I just never paid it much attention. At its price point, it seemed underpowered on paper compared to its competition, but I respect the car for what it is, a reliable, well-balanced sports car that you could drive every day. We got the car under the Acura nameplate, but the rest of the world got the Honda badge on theirs. The NSX was designed in the late 1980s and was fitted with a 3.0L V-6 built from the ground up for the car and it featured the first V-TEC system offered in a US-spec car. The V-6 made a great sound and performance was nothing to scoff at either with 270hp. Honda bumped the displacement to 3.2L in 1997 and increased power to 290hp. In 1995 Honda offered a Targa trim, the NSX-T and by the 2002 refresh they only offered a Targa model. The NSX is legendary as it came out swinging at Lamborghinis and Ferraris and while the others may have out-shown it, none of them have stood the test of time like the NSX. You can buy a 100,000-mile example and maintain it like an accord, and it will keep on delivering. Like any of the 90’s Japanese sports cars, they are only going up in value but it’s hard to beat the NSX for a mid-engine Japanese sports car from a great analog era.
You can't have a list of classic JDM cars without including one of the coolest OG Japanese sports cars, the Toyota 2000GT. In my opinion, the 2000GT is one of the most beautiful cars to ever come out of Japan. Some people have called the 2000GT a Japanese copy of the Jaguar E-type and while the engineers looked at that car for inspiration, they also looked at the Lotus 26Rs chassis and suspension for inspiration. Power came from a 2.0L inline six-cylinder that was co-developed with the people over at Yamaha who know a thing or two about rev-happy engines. The little mill was good for just under 150hp and revved to a lofty 7,000 rpm. It had sports car goodies like four-wheel disc brakes, a limited-slip differential, and a five-speed transmission. Toyota wasn't always the giant it is today and at the time nobody thought the small Japanese company could make a car that could compete with Jaguars, Porsches, and Corvettes but they did it. As much of a halo car as it is there were not that many built. Produced from 1967 to 1970 there were only 351 units built for the world with only 62 of those making it to the states. This makes them pretty darn collectible and if you want a pristine example be prepared to shell out 500,000 bucks or more for this classic JDM Jem!
Another car that must be on the list is the Nissan Skyline GT-R. The GT-R is the poster boy for performance JDM cars and has graced the walls of young boys all over the world via posters. Many people don't realize that the Skyline name goes back to 1957. The “GT-R” spec came about in 1968 and was produced in the first generation from 1969 to 1972. It featured a 2.0L 160hp inline six which made it into the second-generation car which was produced for the 1973 model year only. After a 16-year hiatus, the GT-R returned for the 1989 model year with my personal favorite, the R32. The Skyline GT-R came back with a vengeance from a performance perspective. It featured a brute of an engine with the RB26DETT, 2.6L inline-six good for 276hp. It was probably north of 300 but Japanese manufacturers had a gentleman's agreement to restrict hp numbers on paper to 276. Anyways, the GT-R also came with ATTESA all-wheel-drive and all-wheel-steering. The R33 (1995-1998) was an evolution of the R32 with the same engine but some upgraded parts. The R34 (1999 to 2002) also ran with the same engine and a similar drivetrain. The GT-R was always a piece of Japanese unobtanium but now that import restrictions are expiring (25 years) they are making their way to our shores more and more. The R35 took the United States by storm as it was the first GT-R to legally grace our shores. It debuted here in 2008 and has largely gone unchanged other than a few refreshes and bumps in power. The GT-R earned its nickname “Godzilla” decades ago and the car is still earning that nickname today.
I think we need a Mitsubishi on this list and it’s hard not to pick one from the 1990s that was one of the quickest, most advanced street cars of the era, the 3000GT VR-4. The VR-4 holds a little bit of a special place in my heart as a good friend of mine had its Dodge-branded sister, the Stealth in twin turbo guise and we had some good times in that car. The VR-4 was a serious performer in the 1990s with a 300hp twin-turbo V-6, all-wheel-drive, all-wheel-steering, and active aero. The VR-4 had performance options that wouldn’t become mainstream for decades. The biggest issue with the VR-4, performance-wise, was that it was a heavy bitch at over 3,800 lbs. This was hundreds of pounds heavier than its competition which was the Toyota Supra twin turbo and Nissan 300ZX twin turbo which were both also amazing 90s Japanese sports cars. Both lacked the Mitsu’s all-wheel drive though which is a big deal depending on where you live and driving conditions. It was a ’90s halo car with its styling and performance. 0-60 in just over 5 seconds and a top speed of 155mph were big numbers for any car, much less a Mitsubishi. The VR4 is rare as well, at least I don’t see them on the street but every once in a great while! It was one of the 90’s best Japanese sports cars and if you have one, I’d hang onto it as it is sure to be, if not already a classic JDM car!
There have been so many great cars to come out of Japan over the decades, but these are just a few that stand out to me. Of course, there are many others and I left off my top JDM car, the Toyota Supra mostly because it would have been a thirty-sentence paragraph about why I like them so much. Cars like the Subaru Impreza and Nissan Z are JDM legends that have kept their lineage alive while others have come, gone, and returned. With the 25-year import law coming up for some of these legends they will become more and more available for import to the US so if you've got a particular classic JDM car that you just must have it's a good possibility it's available now or will be soon! From all of us here at Gearbox have fun, be safe, and keep the shiny side up!