Car Insights

When Japan staked its claim on coupes

While the idea of sports cars emerging from Japan was once unheard of, it didn’t take the land of the rising sun long to establish some vintage classics. 

Japan was a latecomer to the market for sporty coupes, but once its sights were set, there was nothing to stop a rampage towards global dominance.

Inspiration came initially from Jaguar, Fiat and Renault but by the 1980s Japan had found its own direction and was making cars that would create their own legends.

First and most evocative was the Toyota 2000GT, which sold in miniscule numbers and now costs more than $1 million. It was followed by the more accessible Datsun ‘Z’ coupe, which was effectively a half- price E-Type.

Mazda closed out the 1970s with its rotary engined RX7, which by 1986 was throwing out a challenge to Porsche’s 944. Toyota’s Supra and the ready to race or rally Starion from Mitsubishi arrived at around the same time, while Honda with the engineering credentials to produce something special, took its time. Not until the late 1990s did the brand with Formula One in its veins come good with the Integra Type R.

Apart from early Z cars, our selections will normally cost less than $50,000. Some will be considerably cheaper and still provide abundant enjoyment for the money.

All but one is more than 30 and up to 50 years old, but that should be of no concern. These two doors from Japan remain very capable under everyday driving conditions and could easily earn their keep as regular transport.

With minimal modification, any of them can also offer the owner some satisfying laps with minimal risk at their car club’s ‘track day’.

Parts to keep them running, and even repair bodies should damage occur, are still available. Some bits may not be cheap though and will usually come with a hefty freight charge from offshore suppliers.

DATSUN 240Z/260Z

As Britain faded as a source of beefy sports models, Datsun was there with its Z-cars and ready to fill the void.


The 240Z wasn’t made as a soft top and didn’t need to be. By the 1970s most owners of traditional sports models were equipping them with a hardtop and rarely drove without it. The original Z might have seemed underdone in the engine department, but there was some serious menace in that 2.4-litre engine.

Output was a match for the fuel- injected Triumph TR6 and top speed reached 190km/h. The suspension was tough enough to make the Z a hit with rally teams wanting something different and although the back brakes were drums the Z stopped okay.

Owning a two-seat Z in today’s market is a $50-75,000 prospect, with exceptional local cars and the Japanese spec Fairlady Z sometimes topping $100,000. Buying at a lower price and ensuring your Z is more versatile means choosing a four-seat 260Z 2+2, with space in the back for younger children or a lot of luggage with the seats folded.


It might be the most modern of this bunch and the only front- wheel drive, but Honda’s 1.8-litre Type R Integra doesn’t suffer any qualms of political correctness.

With 141kW, 176Nm of torque and Variable Valve Timing that mimics the onset of turbo boost, this winged wonder surges out of bends with scrambling front tyres and a workout for the driver’s wrists and forearms.


Five well-spaced ratios give you a gear for every circumstance and the brakes are more than most drivers will need. Not so the tyres, which at 195/55 on 15”x6” rims could go an inch larger in every direction without doing much more damage to the Integra’s already jiggly ride.  Early versions of the Type R were often seen in a frightful shade called Phoenix Yellow, but it is the other colours that lovers of the feisty Honda are eager to own.

At a USA auction in early 2023, a white 1.8-litre Type R set the tone for future sales when knocked down at a record-setting US$151,200. That car was showing only 6200 miles (10,000km) but the price helps to explain rapid increases in the cost of local cars which reach $50,000.


MITSUBISHI’S STARION has been ignored almost to extinction and without good reason. The shape looked good at launch in 1982 and remains attractive today. They are quick and comfortable with plenty of equipment included and no horror stories about mechanical failures.


Changing from Super to Unleaded fuel did diminish power by 15kW, but even the later cars would scamper through the standing 400m in an acceptable 16.4 seconds.

Earlier leaded-fuel versions were allowed to run on super into the 1990s and today thrive on 98 premium. These should be good for at least their original 125kW and might even punch out a little more.

The chassis used front struts and rear coils, and showed sufficient versatility to finish 9th outright at the 1985 Bathurst 1000 and 2nd in the 1986 Australian Rally Championship.

Several Starions have been offered for sale during recent years, with three selling at auction for less than $27,000 (plus applicable fees) and one car sitting unsold for some years at almost $70,000.


IT TAKES a PhD in nothing to identify the inspiration for this sophisticated Mazda coupe, and ‘Stuttgart’ is the correct answer.

Porsche in 1982, had produced a sleek and effective front engine coupe and soon after would add a turbo version. Mazda admitted that when shaping its Gen 2 RX7 it had assiduously benchmarked Porsche’s front-engined models and would sell more than 270,000 units.


Non-turbo cars with 110kW deliver decent performance and will most likely be local-delivery convertibles sold here from 1987-90 at over $60,000. More than 30 years later they are still nowhere near their new-car price, but our market is seeing turbocharged soft top Series 4-5 cars from Japan and which weren’t sold here at $40-50,000.

Convertibles excepted, virtually all of the cars seen in the late- 2023 market were turbocharged with 1.3-litres, fuel injected and delivering a minimum 144kW.

Turbo versions of the Series 4 and 5 are identified by their unobtrusive, mid-bonnet air intake. Some will have acquired body kits and wheel-arch extensions to keep wider wheels legal, with cars modified as such being worth less than those kept in stock condition. These can also cost $50,000.


Launched in 1983, the Supra was effectively a Celica that had gone too often to the steroid bottle. A 2.8-litre inline six delivered 125kW, accompanied by 229Nm of torque and plenty of unfulfilled potential.

New to Australia in 1983, the Toyota with its pumped wheel arches and aggressive profile, took time to win over an audience and did so via the race circuit.


MA61 Supras, as the cars were designated, had done okay in British Touring Car Championship but better at the 1984 Spa 24 Hour race, where one finished 5th outright. Three ex-Toyota UK cars then came to Australia where their best result was a Class win and 6th Outright at the 1984 Sandown 500.

Some owners found the MA61 in road spec a challenge to drive, with suspension set for lots of understeer and biased towards ride comfort and assisted, but still heavy steering.

Over 110,000 MA61 Supras were sold, not a lot of them going to Australian homes, and locating one in the used market here isn’t easy. Those that do turn up aren’t expensive though, with available cars costing less than $30,000 but having also covered significant kilometres.

This article first appeared in Unique Cars

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