IN the 1960s, car design was split into two in a very real way. On the one hand, the Americans and some European brands were building cars that pushed the boundary of luxury and size, while on the other hand, the Japanese and some European brands were coming up with very small family cars.
The Japanese and many European economies were still in the process of recovering from World War 2 and the market was building up an appetite for cars, but many people could not afford to buy full-sized cars that were in the market.
Don’t get me wrong, there was always a market for affordable entry-level cars since Henry Ford proved its existence, but in the 1960s, we began seeing modern cars that were designed for when they began seeing light at the end of the tunnel of the hard times of post-war recovery.
The 1950s saw some cars that were built to be cheap but they were quite dreadful and designed with no joy or wit. Cars like the Ford Prefect, Morris Minor, Standard Vanguard and Vauxhall Cresta were all, in my opinion, sinfully boring cars.
Apart from the 500, even Fiat couldn’t muster anything really interesting in their normal line-up.
Don’t even bother looking at German cars from that era. Apart from Mercedes-Benz and the Volkswagen Beetle, almost everything else were dowdy plump matrons.
Somehow, in the 1960s, almost everyone got cute.
Maybe it was the music, maybe it was because the world economy was finally steaming along again, maybe it is the first time that the middle class finally became a force to be reckoned with or maybe it was just sheer dumb luck. Whatever it was, cars in the 1960s were finally interesting.
Although people mostly talk about European cars of the era that left it’s mark in the world, actually it was the Japanese that left a lasting impression with their tiny and, some say, tinny little cars on the whole wide world.
In the 1960s, the Japanese began their export drive and their cars found reasonable success as entry-level products in the United States and some European markets.
Advertisements for them tended to paint pictures of picnics and outings, and generally cheerful young people getting their first taste of personal mobility and freedom. Even the Honda cub had a very memorable advertisement campaign. “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”, which really helped to paint mopeds as fun toys for all ages.
Among the reasons Japanese cars of the 1960s are generally forgotten or ignored is probably down to the fact that they never really achieved popularity.
Their cheap and fuel miser image did not make sense because petrol was still cheap in the United States and most of Europe, but all that changed in the 1970s when the first spike in petrol prices was seen.
Most people remember 1970s Japanese cars because they were fast becoming household names. Models like the Toyota Corolla and Datsun began making their mark.
While these cars are fine examples, I am of the opinion that 1960s Japanese cars are far more interesting and good looking.
Toyota Corolla E10, The Mazda 1000 and the first Datsun Sunny, the B10, are all beautifully-formed compact family cars that had charm and a certain sense of fun to them.
My favourite of these three is the Mazda 1000, which was also marketed as the Familia in Japan and some markets.
This car has nicely balanced proportion, the bonnet was sufficiently long to give a sense of power and luxury, while the boot stuck out the back just enough to help it sit comfortably on its haunches.
The front wheels were pushed far forward to give it a short and sporty front overhang while the C-pillar sit just slightly behind of the rear axle line and beyond that was that relatively long boot.
It gave the car a laid back feel, almost like one of those full-sized American cars of the time with their ridiculously long boot that looked super cool.
The Mazda 1000 had attitude, even though it was small. It was the Danny DeVito of 1960s Japanese small cars.
Compared with the more upright Sunny and Corolla, the Familia had a low-slung look, and if I’m honest, this compromised the cabin space a bit, but it more than made up for it with the good looks. I guess this is why Mazda still makes the best looking cars out of Japan, they’ve always known how to give their cars attitude.
Well, except in the 1980s, when their cars were particularly detestable. But that is for another day.
After Form Five, we used to go down to Penang from Sungai Petani in a friend’s Mazda 1000. It was already a classic then, being more than 20 years old.
I remember the car distinctly for two reasons, one because the owner is my best friend who was and still is OCD about his cars and secondly because the car broke down in the middle of evening rush hour in front of Chowrasta Market.
The car was so small and we were all big boys, pushing it felt almost comically easy. It was a tiny and light car. We probably could have lifted it onto the kerb.
It was a cute little car, the only thing cuter than the sedan, which came with either two or four doors, were the station wagons.
Back in the day, the wagons were usually owned by small businesses, like sundry shops or egg farmers, or plumbers and electricians, because small vans were still too expensive for them.
Today, you would be hard pressed to find these cars but if you do, give them a second chance. It wouldn’t be easy to restore them because parts are thin on the ground but they are not difficult to repair and maintain because, even then, Japanese cars had simple and reliable engines.
I can bet that if you do get into one, it would be difficult to suppress a giggle. These are fun little cars and they never gave anyone any trouble.