Takashi Toshida makes heads turn when he drives through Tokyo. His elegantly styled car looks like a vintage Jaguar.
What the admirers cannot see, though, is the reliable, relatively inexpensive Nissan engine underneath.
Toshida's car is one of several models produced by Mitsuoka Motor, Japan's smallest automaker. The company makes customized vehicles in the grand style of vintage automobiles. Besides Jaguars, it models cars on other classics such as Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. There is even a car that looks like a London Taxi.
Mitsuoka cars have ardent fans. 'If you want a car to show off, this is the perfect car,' Toshida says. 'People will look at you because your car is so unique.' Toshida, who owns a real estate company, so loves his Mitsuoka car that he bought two other models for his wife and 20-year-old daughter.
Mitsuoka Motor calls itself 'a small factory with a big dream.' The company produces about 100 cars monthly at its Toyama plant in central Japan. Established in 1968 by its president, Susumu Misuoka, it began as a used-car sales and repair shop with a staff of five. Today it has a staff of 380.
Mitsuoka cars became popular with the launch of the La-Seyde in 1990. It was modeled after a stylish car of the 1930s. It costs ¥5.2 million ($50,000) and customers are required to pay a 10 percent deposit when ordering it. The company sold 500 limited editions after only four days.
Underneath the La-Seyde is the Nissan Silvia (200SX) lightweight sports car platform. The doors are the only visible original Silvia equipment. Mitsuoka Motor changes the front, back and sometimes side panels, with optional wood veneer and leather upholstery.
'It totally changes the feeling of the car,' says Hisashi Ishihara, the manager of overseas operations. 'Today's car designs are all alike. The Japanese want something special - an original design that cannot be found anywhere.'
An agreement between the two companies allows Mitsuoka Motor to use Nissan engines and platforms in exchange for royalties. Nissan vehicles arrive almost daily to Mitsuoka's factory to be dismantled. The reusable parts are sold to used-car dealers. The platform is fitted with parts made by Mitsuoka craftspeople.
'The benefit of using Nissan engines is that there's no problem for the consumer of getting obscure spare parts,' Ishihara says. 'It also means easy maintenance and the consumption of fuel is cheap.'
The price is higher than a standard Nissan. The cars, most made to order, cost between $14,000 and $54,600, which includes the price of the original Nissan.
Buying for wives
One of Mitsuoka's best-selling cars is the $16,000, four-door Jaguar replica, Viewt. It is based on the platform of the Nissan March (exported to Western Europe as the Micra). Mitsuoka has a monthly production of 100 cars.
'Our customers are usually well-off, middle-aged men buying cars for their wives or daughters,' Ishihara says. 'Sometimes daughters bring their fathers to buy cars for them. Women love our cars because of their elegant designs. They also want Japanese mechanical reliability as well as something stylish and different.'
While we talk, a young employee nearby leans over a Ryoga and carefully waxes it. The Ryoga is a large, four-door beauty that looks like a Bentley. It has a shiny chrome grill, which evokes nostalgia for a more luxurious era. The unseen engine underneath is from a Nissan Primera.
Company President Mitsuoka, 62, is well-known for talking about cars. His staff describes him as 'crazy about cars.' Mitsuoka admits to always thinking about them. His love of cars started early.
'When I was a little boy, I assembled plastic model planes and cars together; anything that moved,' Mitsuoka says enthusiastically. 'Then I moved on to motors. I loved touching engines; anything to do with mechanics.'
He worked for Toyota after high school, then quit four years later. He joined a Hino dealership, where he sold trucks and passenger cars. Mitsuoka left when Hino merged with Toyota and stopped producing cars. If he had stayed, he would have had to work only with trucks. That, to the style-conscious Mitsuoka, would not do. 'Trucks are not pretty,' he says.
He opened an imported used-car sales company in 1968 when there were few such dealerships in Toyama. His business gradually grew, and he established branches throughout Japan. When he introduced Mini Cooper cars in 1982 to Japan, he succeeded at first. But he lost the business in what seemed to be a disaster. The Ministry of Transport changed safety regulations. Mitsuoka was stuck with a large inventory of Minis that did not meet the new regulations. The situation almost ruined him financially. Mitsuoka sank into depression.
He emerged from his slump during a visit to Florida and California. He was inspired when he saw replica models along their streets. He introduced his own replicas to Japan in 1982. It was the starting point for his success. There was one thing missing, though. He wanted to produce complete cars, not modifications. He decided he would make a sports car that would look like a Lotus Super 7, which he named Zero.
MAKING THE ZERO
There were a lot of problems. First, his cars had to pass the safety standard for drivers and passengers. This was not easy because there were no public testing facilities in 1993. A small company such as Mitsuoka Motor could not afford to build one. Other major automakers were too busy developing their own models to lend theirs. Mitsuoka fought with the Ministry of Transportation for three years. Finally, the ministry relented, and a public space for vehicle testing was opened.
In April 1996, the ministry allowed Mitsuoka Motor to start producing the Zero car, making Mitsuoka Japan's 10th manufacturer of passenger vehicles. Now Mitsuoka has dealerships in Malaysia, Brunei and Hong Kong. But product liability insurance makes it too risky to enter the U.S. market.
Meanwhile, his Japanese customers continue to enjoy driving his cars. 'It's an extension of myself - my identity,' says Noriaki Kondo, a 47-year-old interior designer. He owns a dark red Ryoga, the Bentley replica.
Kondo says his greatest worry is that Mitsuoka Motor cars will become trendy with the Japanese public. 'I don't want people to find out about these cars,' he says. 'I enjoy being one of the chosen few who owns one.'
E-mail Catherine Makino at [email protected]