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Japanese production sedan could seriously hound the favoured Zephyr V6s and hot-rod six-cylinder Vauxhall Victors was liable to have you cited for suspect delusional tendencies. Before the race, that is!
In that B&H 500, a race for standard production cars, the potent little Datsun 1600 was driven expertly by front-line single-seater driver Dennis Marwood, along with Brian Innes. It embarrassed a number of the larger-capacity front runners as Marwood moved through the field to the business end, with the Datsun proving both fast and reliable, while many of the Zephyr and Victor brigade struck reliability issues under pressure. Eventually Dennis finished fourth outright, his well driven Datsun having punched far above its weight. Another 1600 Datsun finished in seventh place. The next four-cylinder machine home, the previously dominant Fiat 1500, could only make 10th.
These were accurate indicators of a shift in power towards Eastern racing marques in various categories of local motor sport over the next 20 years. Lightweight, high-performing Japanese machinery endowed with seemingly bulletproof reliability would continue to hunt down bigger-capacity rivals over the following years, particularly in production car races. Mazda’s four-door rotary-powered Capella would also prove to be a giant killer and, a few years later, would almost humble its much bigger-capacity Chrysler Charger and Leyland P76 rivals.
By the mid to late ’70s, the panorama of New Zealand motor sport was changing. The previously dominant V8-powered saloons and single-seaters were on the wane, too expensive and unreliable to be sustainable.
The time was ripe, and Reg Cook on the asphalt with Datsuns, and Bill Shiells’ expertise with Mazda rotaries, was about to transform both the rally and dirt- oval saloon scene. Cook and Shiells were magicians as engine developers and tuners, coaxing massive amounts of power from relatively small Japanese engines.
The rest, as they say, is history. For many years from the mid ’70s to the early ’80s, Cook and his various Datsun coupés were almost unbeatable as he reigned supreme in New Zealand’s premier saloon-car racing championship, the Shellsport series. He won the outright NZ Saloon Championship, in the 1300cc category in 1975–’76, and again in 1977–’78, by which time his normally aspirated 1.3-litre Datsun engine was developing a whopping 122kw (163bhp). He repeated his success in the larger 2.0-litre class with two more title wins during the early ’80s.
Meanwhile, Ron Kendall’s Shiells-built 13B rotarypowered speedway Mazda Capella proved its giantkilling capabilities against more cumbersome and heavy Australian and US V8-powered rivals. Equally, Rod Millen was pretty much invincible in the NZ Rally Championship, winning the outright title three years running, from 1975 to 1977.
Later, of course, came the great Nissan Skyline Group A saloon era of the mid ’90s. Group A proved to be tailor-made for Japanese engineers as they developed highly refined, high-power force-fed engines that were then shoehorned into lightweight cars. As they became the dominant force in Group A racing, the old myth that there’s no substitute for cubic inches found itself on very shaky ground. Eventually the local Australian manufacturers, realising that their revered V8s would never get on terms with the crushingly successful ‘Godzilla’ Nissan Skyline, pulled the plug on the series. Instead they went back to the future with a new Falconand Holden-only V8 series in 1993. When you can’t beat ’em, what’s the best solution? Easy, legislate them out of the contest!
Bear with me — I even wrote a poem celebrating the Honda’s charms. I’ll only quote a few lines here (apologies to Brian Wilson):
She’s my lil’ red CRX, We got a good thing goin’ here, the suburban screamer and me. Shades on, he’s combat hyped Saturday morning, in the tarmac war Lashed down low, he’s clutching the leather wheel rim, and pumping the metal plates. She’s my lil’ red CRX, five speed, 16 valve, twin overhead cam rocketship. Japanese high-tech wizardry, blitzkrieg performance, for the inept masses.
My 1985 Nissan Sylvia/gazelle, with its FJ 20 turbo Group A–based high-performance mill, was the most exotic Japanese cult car that was ever in my possession. It boasted racing driver Matt Halliday as a previous owner listed on the papers — which I still have. By the time it came into my hands the Nissan had been seriously caned, and despite being in need of a rebuild, it was still a highly impressive piece of kit.
I’m always on the lookout for interesting early pieces of Japanese tin, original runners, derelicts or even production dirt-track machines. An ultimate fantasy of mine involved the unlikely possibility of me stumbling upon an original survivor with early B&H endurance racing heritage on its CV. Wouldn’t that be cool, to track down, for example, a mid ’70s Datsun 180B two-door or a late ’60s Datsun 1600, with matching numbers and genuine B&H credentials?
My greatest automotive regret was passing up on a genuine 1985 R30 Skyline coupé, Turbo 2000RS FJ20 (Group A production version) being offered at a car fair in the mid ’90s for around eight grand. It was the car I’d always wanted, but I managed to convince myself it was too much. What was I thinking? The asking price was bugger all, and these babies are now very serious collector’s pieces, and priced to match.
Toyotas have been my other main passion. I’ve always wanted an early ’70s Corolla coupé, like the modified version that Dick Sellens raced in the up to 1300cc NZ Saloon Car Championship in 1971–’72. In 2001 I knew an old lady on Auckland’s North Shore who had one in nice condition, and for several years she convinced me that I would be the lucky guy to be first in line when she was ready to part with the car. I would ring her regularly to let her know I was still keen, but somehow she never reached the crucial decision. Instead, I acquired a 1983 Toyota Sprinter, and that was a revelation. It had the earlier, glorioussounding eight-valve twin-cam motor — possibly the rare and now revered 2T-G engine — that just wanted to rev, winding out in an exhilarating blast of acceleration. I loved driving the Sprinter, even though the bodywork wasn’t so flash, and it opened my eyes to what a magnificent engine the Toyota twin-cam was and still is.
I also find early examples of the ordinary four-door
Japanese imports: Performance for the masses
It was the decision to change import tariffs and loosen up the regulations in the late ’80s that allowed a massive influx of Japanese imports into the country. Very much a two-edged sword, this move hastened the decline of local car assembly while allowing those who couldn’t afford a European performance car the opportunity to get behind the wheel of some serious performance machinery.
With almost trance-like disbelief, I was intoxicated by the dazzlingly rakish Eastern imports — almost all of them within my price bracket. After many years of driving tired and worn-out British and Australian cast-offs, I suddenly found myself in charge of a sexy two-door machine with mind-blowing features and capable of neck-snapping high performance. Cocoon-like wraparound dashboards, deeply sunken dials and sporting steering wheels — as far as I was concerned, we’d all been been delivered a miracle, and were ready to rock.
In 1990 a good friend and I lashed out our hard- earned readies and bought a couple of sleek two-door coupés. My friend purchased a bright-red 1981 E70 Toyota Corolla Sprinter, while I went for a 1982 R30 Nissan Skyline Turbo. I can still remember the surrealism of it all — our previous rides had been 10- to 15-year-old old bangers that were, in reality, well past their use-by dates. By comparison, this was a stratospheric change into some science-fictional wonderland. Apart from a locally assembled no frills 1982 Datsun Sunny I had bought in 1983 for an arm and a leg, the Skyline was my first experience of a fully optioned Japanese performance car. It was as if someone out of nowhere had shoved me behind the wheel of the space shuttle, the Nissan was so futuristic.
Subsequently the ’90s and the early years of the new millennium saw me indulge myself with five different coupés — the four Japanese missiles already mentioned, and a classic ’70 Holden Torana GT-R XU1.
While the Torana was fast, it was raw and uncouth, and its road manners were way inferior to the best Japanese performance cars I owned. They all had character, but as a balanced driving machine the Japanese beasts from the East were always more rewarding to pilot.
It’s been a few years since I’ve had a piece of iconic Japanese performance in my shed, but I don’t discount the possibility of owning another if the right piece of Rising Sun iron presents itself at the right price. As mentioned earlier, an original machine with genuine B&H history would be of interest — and it wouldn’t need to be anything exotic, like a Mazda RX-2, and could even be a humble Corolla.
What I have endeavoured to record on film are some images of the cars from a now rapidly disappearing time when they were still used as daily runners. The photos will hopefully bring back some memories for enthusiasts, and maybe inspire the rescue and resurrection of a few more of these great automobiles.