Recently this column mentioned Miles Collier—the Florida-based automotive collector, historian, preservationist, and philanthropist—and one of the leading minds behind Stanford University’s Revs Program. Collier recently invited me to attend his ultra-exclusive biennial “Symposium on Connoisseurship and the Collectible Car” to give a presentation on the rising collectibility of vintage Japanese cars.
Japanese “classics” were of personal interest to this writer from an early age, accompanied by visions of driving a modified Datsun 510 in the style of a vintage Trans-Am racing car. Shortly after getting a driver’s license, I acquired another rear-wheel-drive Japanese sports car icon: a mid-1980s Toyota Corolla GT-S. This great car was used to perfect driving skills on West Marin’s windy back roads in the middle of the night, to the severe protest of my mother and clandestine bemusement of my father—who no doubt recalled his own youthful days in the early 1950s, when he learned to “drift” his cars in grassy fields that now comprise part of the Stanford campus!
Today, many of the Japanese sports cars of those earlier days have achieved collectible status—Collier’s acknowledgement of this by including the genre in his symposium is testament to that.
From sales failure to number one luxury brand
When Japanese cars hit American shores in the late 1950s, they were the victims of shortsighted marketing. Toyota’s first offering, the Toyopet, was a commercial failure; American consumers wouldn’t give half a chance to a vehicle whose name combined the words “toy” and “pet”!
After regrouping occurred, major successes followed, and eventually premium brands emerged—Honda’s Acura in 1986, and later Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti in 1989. Executives at Mercedes-Benz and BMW appeared unconcerned by the Japanese competition, but they should have been; within a couple of years Lexus had become the top-selling premium import brand in the U.S.
Japanese “VIP-style” cars have never been better
Driving some of the latest Japanese luxury sedans, it’s almost possible to forget their European competitors altogether.
The Lexus GS350 F-Sport is a splendid example of what a luxury sedan like this should be—exceedingly comfortable, quiet, capable, and quick when needed, and loaded with just about every technological amenity one could desire in an automobile. My personal tastes are more old-school, though; I long for a bygone era of burlwood dashboards and Connolly hides. Despite this longing, the user interface in the Lexus is delightful and simple to operate. One especially appreciates the HDD navigation on the optional large 12.3 inch screen, and the nicely weighted central “mouse” that makes intuitive and efficient work of the controls. The optional Mark Levinson 17-speaker sound system is also a real winner. Most buyers won’t opt for the $5,690 F-Sport appearance and performance package, but it does give the GS a suitably aggressive look and endows it with substantive upgrades, including the very comfortable 17-way power driver’s seat, good-looking 19-inch wheels, better brakes, and special suspension. At a sticker price of just over $59,000 as tested, the GS350 seems a great value for the money. Commuting in this car every day would be simply delightful.
Infiniti’s V8 luxury hot rod
Infiniti’s closest competitor to the Lexus is probably the V6-powered M37 sedan (available with rear- or all-wheel-drive), but for this test we drove the $70,000 M56 with sport package, a 420-horsepower V8 rear-drive hot rod disguised as a respectable sports sedan. Step on it in this beast and you’d better be prepared to know where you are pointing the wheel—this car is legitimately fast! The optional $3,050 technology package includes a variety of built-in safety features to keep occupants safe, and one feature is particularly appealing—the blind spot warning technology, which flashes a small light on the left or right windshield pillar every time it detects a vehicle in your blind spot.
The M56 certainly earns the title of “drivers’ car” more than the Lexus—though I preferred the Lexus overall; it feels decidedly soft by comparison. The Infiniti has razor-sharp steering, more taut suspension, and a ton of power. But in real-world terms, these features might just be more than are needed. It is an enormously impressive vehicle, but I’d probably go for the more economical M37, or the Lexus GS350, if buying one with real dollars.
David Swig is a car enthusiast and a regular participant in historic car activities, including circuit racing, road tours, and Concours d’Elegance. He is an expert on specialty collector cars, especially sports racing cars (1950s thru 1980s). David and his brother, Howard, are carrying on the California Mille for their father, Martin, who founded the car tour in 1991.