Columns / Lists

Rising Sun: Top 5 Vintage Japanese Speed


The words “vintage Japanese sports car” may not fit together in some peoples’ minds, but it’s a category near and dear to my heart. Ask again tomorrow and I’m sure the list would be different (there are too many I love), but here are the 5 coolest vintage Japanese sports cars, as decided by me, this particular minute of this day.

5.  1968 Datsun 510. No list of cool Japanese sports cars would be complete without a 510 on it. The car was a huge success in America, and continues to be highly prized as a collector and vintage race car. The little econo-box that could. Flat lines, gutsy motor, inexpensive, and great aftermarket support made this car a favorite of weekend warriors and professional racers alike. It’s just hard to not like the unassuming little car from the land of the rising sun.

4.  1982 Mitsubishi Starion. I know, I know, what is an EFI car doing on this list? But after seeing Jackie Chan and Richard Kiel in Cannonball Run II, everybody wanted one. You did see Cannonball Run II, right? The production version couldn’t fly, nor go underwater, but it was was the top of the engineering food chain at the time. Oh yeah, and rumor has it this was a FAST car, being one of the first to popularize the use of a turbo in performance 4-cylinder engines. When it was produced, this was among the fastest production cars in the world.

Datsun 510

Datsun 510

Mitsubishi Starion

Mitsubishi Starion

3. 1965-1969 Toyota Sports 800. Never heard of it? That’s probably because there were only about 3,100 sold, and it’s theorized that only about 10% of them are still around, most in Japan. There is a teeny-tiny number of them here in the States, but they are hard to find. This car was never sold in the US proper, but about 300 were “left hand drive” models sold in US-occupied Okinawa (aimed at service men and women stationed there). It was the first sports car Toyota ever put into production, and featured a targa top several years before Porsche would make the feature famous. The car had a 2-cylinder boxer motor and twin side draft carbs. Top speed? Toyota said it could reach 100 mph with a scant 45 bhp from its 790 cc motor!

2. 1979-84 Mazda RX-7. I struggled with where to put the RX-7 on this list. I know it’s a very cool car. Light weight, well balanced and set up to corner like it was on rails… it was a capable automobile. I just can’t ignore how amazing the car looked, ran, and oh yeah… it had this weird engine that used rotors? How could my list possibly leave off the quintessential example of rotary motoring? It couldn’t, I didn’t, and coming in at number 2 is the awesome little RX-7.

Toyota Sports 800

Toyota Sports 800

Mazda RX-7

Mazda RX-7

1.  Toyota 2000 GT. Big brother to the cute little Sports 800, this Toyota was a wake up call sent from Japan to the big European and American auto makers. The 2000 GT is the ultimate in collectable Japanese sports cars, and considered by many to be the first Japanese supercar. The flame lit by the 2000 GT would later provide us pavement-pounders like the Supra and Skyline. The car was powered by a 2.0 liter, inline 6-cylinder motor sourced from a luxury sedan and tweaked by Yamaha. It sported three Solex carbs, put down 150 horsepower, and was touted by Toyota as being able to reach speeds to 135 mph. But let’s get to what makes this car so coooool. James Bond drove one, a specially-made convertible. Carroll Shelby entered two of them in the 1968 SCCA production car races. Twiggy even owned one, though I’m still trying to decide how many cool points that’s worth. Bottom line is, the 2000 GT was a car people noticed. It got great reviews and really focused a lot of attention on the Japanese sports cars that came after. It’s the car that pushed Japan to create competitive automobiles, showed the world they were capable of it, and rocketed Toyota to the front of the pack in Japan. Hands down, coolest Japanese sports car ever!

Toyota 2000 GT

Toyota 2000 GT

What say you? Care to contend my picks or add some of your own? Let ‘er rip in the comments!


  1. Finally some love for the Starion! I fell in love with these things at the Pull A Part of all places. Still have yet to own one but yes they have amazing lines, factory wide body kits and is the DSM you wont see with crank walk lol.

  2. Good choices, but you left out my favorite, the 240Z.

    A good line I remember from a Car & Driver long-term review the Starion, paraphrasing from memory: Every time I get in the car I tell myself I’m going to behave like a responsible adult, and the next thing I know I’m leaving Dunkin Donuts sideways.

    • The 240 Z is such a great car, and I love the history surrounding this car. It came down to the 240 or the RX7 and the rotary was just to cool to bump off the list! I think other notable cars that didnt find a spot on this list would be the R30 Skyline, the first gen Celica’s etc etc etc… I knew I wouldnt be able to decide!

  3. The 240 brings back some memories. A buddy had one years ago that went through several power-plant evolutions. 240 to 280 to 300 (with dual Weber downdrafts instead of the turbo), then finally a Chevy 383. The throttle was always setup like a toggle switch, so you could never leave a stop light in an inconspicuous fashion…

  4. I can’t believe you left out the Datsun B210, Japan’s own little “AMC Gremlin.” That car defied boundaries with design and style. Timeless. Some sort of aficionado you are…

  5. You scoff, but I used to hang around with a guy who built a tube-frame B210 for SCCA racing. It was a beautiful (really!) and fast race car.

    Nice guy, too. He swapped out the carbs on my ’73 240Z with a set from a ’72 that I picked up at a swap meet. Took him a fair amount of time, and he didn’t charge me a thing.

  6. Being a Toyota guy I have to throw out the 74 Celica coupe and 77 Celica Liftback. Both were modeled after American muscle, the 74 resembles a 68 camero and the 77 Lifback looks an awful lot like a little mustang. They were lacking lots of power with a 18RG or 20R motor. Had Toyota tried to keep up with the Fairlady Z’s and their inline 6’s the Celica’s would have been a car a great car with lots of power and little weight.

  7. Jackie Chan’s Mitusubishi Starion, is actually a 1983, like mine.

    There was a 1982 Starion, however it was not turbocharged, and the front end was a bit different, and had the side mirrors on the front fenders.

  8. I forgot to mention, the 1982 starion was only sold in Japan.

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