Some of us are old enough to remember a time when Japanese cars were perceived as the ultimate consumer society consumable. Sometimes unkindly and incorrectly referred to as cheap Japanese junk, the cars were mostly objects that were used until they wore out (which could take decades!) and then dropped off at the tip, without looking back.
You can’t really put a finger on the date when this perception changed, as it was more by osmosis than design. However there’s no question the market for the often spectacular gear out of Japan has developed and matured.
Here you’ll find two of the all-time great examples, plus what our staff would buy. Down the back of this mag you’ll find our second annual Japanese Value Guide by Cliff Chambers, which has a wealth of advice and info. Enjoy!
When you look back at the history of Wankel engine cars, you could be forgiven for wondering what in hell people were thinking.
The promise of a smoother, more compact and quick-revving powerplant, delivering more horses per cubic inch than a conventional four-stroke reciprocating engine was attractive, but not necessarily compelling.
As pioneers such as NSU discovered, there were as many downsides as up to the then comparatively new technology. One was gaining reliability – chewed-out rotor seals was an issue – and the other was overcoming the buying public’s natural suspicion of any technology that was relatively unproven.
Mazda was really the only company that comprehensively overcame those issues. One of its tactics was to provide ample reassurance. In America the company offered a five-year or 75,000 mile (120,000km) warranty on engines, way back in the seventies.
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
If any car represents the coming of age of the rotary, it’s the RX-3 in its almost baffling array of variants. Sold as the Savanna in other markets, the series based on the Grand Familia platform rolled into the market in 1971 (March 1972 in Australia) powered by the 10A twin-rotor engine.
Displacing 982cc, the 10A was a little powerhouse, giving the RX-3 sparkling performance for its time. Of course there quickly developed a whole ecosystem of aftermarket tuners out there willing to help extract more.
Just to confuse the issue, the Series I RX-3s destined for the USA market were fitted with the larger 12A (1146cc) powerplant right from the start. We didn’t see that unit until the Series II arrived a couple of years down the track. The two series could be distinguished fairly easily from the exterior – particularly up front, where the second version boasted more prominent ‘pointy’ styling in the nose cone.
ONCE UPON a time, car-yards lined major metropolitan roads and many of those car yards housed Mazda rotaries that they couldn’t sell. Fuel consumption was a huge issue for buyers and sellers of rotaries from the 1970s-90s and remained an impediment until RX-3s started being viewed more as collectables than serious transport. The market today has changed dramatically with more RX-3s coming in from Japan with Savanna badging than are being discovered and refurbished here. Despite some vendors in Japan claiming that stocks of older rotaries are dwindling there are always cars popping up, albeit at continually climbing prices. Balancing that is the progressive disappearance of sad local examples. Cars that in years past were cheap enough to serve as a young ratbag’s first car have disappeared into wrecking yards and everything in today’s market ranges from acceptable to extraordinary condition. Lots of these cars have to a degree been modified and that will have an impact on future demand and value growth. Finding an early car that hasn’t acquired a later 12A or even 13B engine to replace the original 10A is difficult but is in the long term going to be worth the search. RX-3 sedans generally cost 30 per cent less than coupes and that relationship is likely to remain for as long as no one unearths a stash of pristine two-doors. With plenty of spares and repair outfits specialising in rotary Mazdas, finding the parts and expertise to keep a car running won’t be difficult. Joining one of the Mazda clubs that exist nationwide will help you decide which of these businesses might do the best job of taking care of your car and your wallet.
In general, the Series I cars had a reputation for having more sprightly acceleration, while the Series II (which was hampered to some extent by new emission regs) had a better top speed. There was also a Series III, but that wasn’t imported here by Mazda.
The example you see here is a Series II and is part of an exceptional collection that Mazda Australia has had the foresight to assemble over the years.
So what were they like to drive? Resident car historian and contributor Dr John Wright mentions a “choppy ride, vague steering and tippy-toe handling” by current standards. True enough, but treated as a modern classic, we reckon they’re a thoroughly engaging thing.
Mazda produced some performance specials over the years – a GT for the domestic market from late 1972 for the 1973 model year and a lairy-looking GT variant in the USA, called the RX-3SP. The GT would have been quite a weapon. The car ran wider rims, additional bodywork and badging, along with a very different interior. That would now be a prize for any collector.
Though the RX-3 unquestionably earned a dedicated niche in the local market, big volume sales eluded it. Some 1000 were sold here. Aside from the unfamiliar tech, buyers saw fuel consumption and relatively hefty pricing as issues. You could get a pretty good Torana for similar money, while a Charger was in reach if you could find an extra $200-or-so for the bigger car.
As they initially entered the used market the collector car scene was much smaller than it is now and these things weren’t even on the radar for the majority of classic enthusiasts. The words ‘classic’ and ‘rotary’ didn’t appear in the same sentence.
However RX-3s leant themselves to modification and the sometimes mad engine characteristics are addictive. As a result, we’re guessing that as much as 80 per cent of the surviving fleet ended up modified to varying degrees. Series I cars often ended up with later 12A engines, while both series commonly found themselves with the later and bigger 13B in the snout.
Add in the fact that, like just about any car of the era, these things fall victim to rust fairly easily, and you end up with a very small pool of local original survivors. We’ve come across two good ones in recent months – search news & reviews on our website tradeuniquecars – both of which were priced in the $80k-plus range.
So if you happen to trip over one hidden under a dust sheet in an ancient relative’s shed, grab it with both hands and enjoy!
RX-3s are cars that for much of their lives were worth very little, often subjected to considerable abuse and/or repaired with no thought to future value. With prices headed for $100,000 and above, poorly-repaired crash damage is going to eat massively at the money car might realise, making pre-sale renovation a justifiable cost. Kinked chassis rails and damaged strut mounts can create suspension problems. Leaks through the boot lid allow water into the luggage area and promote rust. Body filler or bubbling around wheel-arches, the windscreen and sills indicate a car still suffering rust issues. Some new parts are available but will often need to come from the USA so check freight costs first. A used grille at $200 from a local seller looked decent value.
Picking an RX-3 with tired mechanicals isn’t the financial disaster it would have been just 10 years ago. Exhaust smoke or water vapour exiting the exhaust indicate apex seal wear or internal coolant leaks. Either will likely result in a $4000-6000 engine rebuild. Check coolant hoses for deterioration and leaks because a sudden loss of coolant can destroy an engine. Rotary engines are designed to use oil so check the level regularly and change lubricant every 5000 kilometres. Transmissions are compatible with other Mazdas so noise and difficult gear selection aren’t serious or costly issues.
NUMBER MADE: 270,000 (approx)
BODY STYLES: steel integrated body/chassis four-door sedan, wagon or two-door coupe
ENGINE: 982cc (10A) or 1146cc (12A/B) twin rotor with single downdraft carburettor
POWER & TORQUE: 78kW @ 7000rpm, 135Nm @ 4000rpm (10A). 97kW claimed for the 12A.
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h 9.1 seconds, 0-400 metres 17.1 seconds (10A)
TRANSMISSION: four-speed manual
SUSPENSION: Independent with Macpherson struts, coil springs, control arms & anti-roll bar (f) Live axle with semi-elliptic springs, locating links & telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) drum (r) with power assistance
TYRES: 155SR13 radial
Springs that haven’t been changed in decades and crumbling rubber bushings ruin the handling of the RX-3. Stiffened front springs and Nolathane bushings can sharpen steering response but can affect the ride and make the car a chore to drive. In common with other 1970s Japanese models, the RX3 was saddled with sloppy recirculating ball steering and not much can be done to improve that. 40mm of free movement at the wheel-rim means the steering box needs a rebuild. Brake rotor and caliper upgrades are available and recommended if the car is running a higheroutput engine.
Old interior plastics will have suffered sun damage so check under dash-mats for cracks and deteriorating door trims, a loose or damaged console and sloppy column stalks. Complete reproduction consoles, door trims and other interior plastics are being made and while the cost including seat trims of a refurbished RX-3 interior is going to exceed $2000, look at the climbing values of excellent cars. An authentic steering wheel was seen at $1700 but a pair of used but decent rear light clusters sold for a very affordable $140.
The late-80s to the dawn of the millennium was the Japanese auto industry’s halcyon period. We’ll likely never see anything like it again.
Manufacturers were flush with cash thanks to Japan’s booming economy, compounded by the era’s techno-futurism; Nissan in particular was not hesitant at all to throw ludicrous amounts of development dollars at its catalogue offerings, with years of over-engineering landing the manufacturer in financial hot water by the end of the 90s.
It couldn’t last, and Nissan ultimately had to find sanctuary in a part-buyout by Renault which – given recent headlines – plagues them to this day.
I may be digressing but it pays to understand the context into which the Yokohama brand’s greatest road-going cars were born.
Chief amongst these, with arguably none more pivotal, was the heroic Skyline R32 GT-R.
SKYLINE R32 GT-R
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
The GT-R badge hadn’t been seen for 16 years, after the second-generation KPGC110 GT-R was axed after the 1973 Oil Crisis.
While Nissan never lost its motorsport intentions, its lacklustre R-30s and R-31s never held a candle to the original Hakosuka’s 49-win streak in Japanese touring cars.
With the coffers full of cash – Nissan needed a fresh start.
Project leader Naganori Ito took on all of Nissan’s sports car projects in 1985, and began development of Project GT-X.
Ito-san observed that all supercars and prototypes of the era were turning to four-wheel drive, all-wheel steering, turbochargers and composite materials; he drew inspiration in part from Nissan’s own MID-4 prototype, as well as Porsche’s world-class 959.
The MID-4 prototype of 1985 looked like a mix of equal parts Honda NSX, Ferrari Testarossa… and whale – but featured a complex Ferguson viscous centre diff system that sent 33 per cent
IF THE automotive world was a logical place, the 100 Nissan R32 GT-Rs shipped here in 1991 would have been sold before they left the dock and now be challenging Porsche Turbos in the collector-car market. Instead they haven’t managed to recoup the heavily discounted money – list price was $110,000 and nobody paid that – outlaid by original owners. Worse still, this ground-breaking, recordshattering car spent years as a pariah of the performance vehicle world. Fortunately, the people who scorned the GT-R have achieved maturity or just disappeared and the R32 ‘Godzilla’ is being celebrated. Performance from a car that in some jurisdictions qualifies for ‘vintage’ registration is still prodigious. The only issue the GT-R can’t control and which does impact on its market appeal is bland styling. Maybe a loud exhaust can help. Cars arriving from Japan during the past 20 years have varied in quality but that doesn’t entirely account for the depressingly low values that were in place 10-15 years ago. Japanese Value Guides published before and during the Global Financial Crisis show average prices for import GT-Rs at $25,000 in 2006 and drifting slightly lower by 2009. The market during the past ten years has changed and values are now climbing quickly. People who back then spent $25-30,000 on excellent Japanese-spec car should be happy and those with a local one will be doing cartwheels. Local cars carry a Nissan Australia compliance plate and the Vehicle Code 40ZKBNR32RX. Those imported under the RAW Scheme or earlier as Special Interest Vehicles need other certifications and must come with of their all original documentation. of torque to the front wheels and 67 per cent to the back, as well as a newfangled four-wheel steering system dubbed ‘HICAS’.
As a proof of concept, Nissan engineers developed three test mules – one in standard rear-drive layout, another with an Audi-style fixed-torque-split, and one with the MID-4’s Ferguson diff.
It’s said that the rear-drive mule exhibited far too much oversteer, while the two others both understeered. The viscous system was deemed best, but wasn’t up to scratch.
Engineers were tasked with developing a multi-plate clutch system, within a year’s deadline. If they couldn’t achieve a practical solution, Project GT-X would storm on as a rear-drive car.
The result was Nissan’s ground-breaking ATTESA dynamic torque-split system, developed following a tear-down of a Porsche 959’s wet multiplate clutch and variable electronic torque-split system.
The R32’s other party trick was aforementioned HICAS four-wheel steering system that utilised a hydraulic actuator to steer the rear wheels up to one per cent in either counter or the same pitch depending on speed. It might sound marginal but had a tangible effect on predictable handling and yaw – and speaks to Nissan’s engineering endeavours to incremental development at a time when Porsche was still scratching its head over the 964, and BMW’s ubiquitous M3 was still powered by a four-pot.
The heart of the R32 GT-R, and all of the succeeding R-chassis GT-Rs, was the fearsome RB26DETT 2.6lt inline-six engine. Comprised of a cast-iron block and aluminium head with four-valves per cylinder, the engine was a powerhouse developed and destined for Group A racing, right from its inception. While the RB engine appeared years earlier, the GT-R’s engine had two Garrett T25 ceramic turbos strapped to the side with six individual throttle-bodies yielding a package equally as complex as the chassis underpinnings. Nissan initially quoted the power output at a sensible 206kW, but then again, so was every Japanese sports car of the era – thanks to a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between manufacturers about advertised power outputs. In reality, it’s widely accepted that the RB26’s true output was somewhere closer to 243kW.
Project GT-X came to a close in May 1989, when the mainstream R32 Skylines (GTS, GTS-T and GTS-4) arrived in Japanese dealerships. August 1990 saw the arrival of the GT-R, and the rest – as they say – is history.
You all know the story – back-to-back wins at Bathurst in 1991 and 1992, 29 of 29 wins in global Group A races, 29 of 30 wins in FIA Group N, and – inclusive of succeeding R33 and R34 generations – 92 wins of 98 races in Japan’s Super Taikyu series.
As celebrated in car culture as the R32 GT-R is today, you’d be forgiven for missing that it was a sales flop for Nissan in Australia.
Nissan famously brought in just 100 cars, with $110,000 price tags. With inflation, that’d be nudging $250,000 today – ludicrously expensive, with many buyers turned away.
These ADM cars remain the most collectible, with a number of cars coming to market recently attempting to cash in on headline-grabbing sales of upwards of $70,000.
They’re still fetching nowhere near their as-new price tags however, and most ADM owners will only drive them sparingly for fear of ruining the value. If this is a car you want to drive and enjoy (and we insist you do!), you’d be smarter for looking to one of the countless grey-imports brought into the country over the decades.
Like this one. It’s owned by… well, me…
It’s a 1994 Series 3 car finished in Crystal White, which was the second most prolific colour (18.33 per cent), behind the hero Gun Grey Metallic colour (44.90 per cent), out of a total of 43,937 cars produced.
It had its engine rebuilt by the previous owner, which was a requisite of mine when buying, as many on their original blocks will be up for rebuilds soon thanks to years of being treated as bargain-performance cars.
Long gone are the days when these cars could be picked up for between $15,000 and $20,000.
$25,000 will get you a rolling shell these days, with $35,000 affording you entry into the market.
We’d recommend spending more than that, with more acceptable and closer to original cars fetching $45,000-$50,000.
These cars saw a price surge back in 2014, largely thanks to the USA’s rolling 25-year rule for import eligibility. The previously Skylinestarved nation sent the Japanese auction houses into a frenzy, with Australian sellers jacking up their prices accordingly.
Thankfully, that flurry seems to have eased up, and enough time has passed that those who were keen to enter the market now have their cars. Having said that, 2020 will see the R33 GT-R legal on US roads for the first time. If you’re after one of those, we’d suggest looking to buy sooner rather than later…
Rust isn’t a major issue with Australian-delivered GT-Rs but imports in particular need to be looked at underneath, around body seams, lower doors and wheel-arch extremities. Crash damage is a more significant issue and much more costly to rectify than a bit of peripheral rust. Look for kinks to the chassis rails, poor door fit, partial repaints and mismatched lenses. The extra weight of that hefty rear wing can weaken boot-lid supports and water may leak through mounting holes. Colour is a matter of buyer choice, however a GT-R that has been refinished in a glaringly non-factory shade is a candidate for repainting or having a significant amount shaved off its selling price.
There is a lot that can go wrong beneath a GT-R bonnet and the best way to avoid massive repair bills and unreliability is to find a car that has been serviced at least every 5000 kilometres. Even then make sure it is checked by a turbo specialist to identify faults or any shonky mods done by a previous owner. Check under-bonnet hoses and plastic components for perishing and heat damage and around the cylinder head for oil leaks. The clutch is the most vulnerable of transmission components and will cost more than $1500 to replace. Listen for clunks from rear drive-shafts or the differential – both can also suffer from driver abuse.
NUMBER BUILT: 100 (Australian-delivered) 43,837 (all other inc. V Spec)
BODY: all-steel integrated body/ chassis two-door coupe
ENGINE: 2568cc in-line six-cylinder with twin overhead camshafts, fuel injection and twin turbochargers
POWER & TORQUE: 206kW @ 6800rpm, 355Nm @ 4400rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h: 5.4 seconds 0-400 metres: 13.7 seconds
TRANSMISSION: five speed manual
SUSPENSION: independent with struts and coil springs, lower control arms and anti-roll bar (f) independent with multi-link location, struts and coil springs (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) power assisted with ABS TYRES: 225/50R16 radial
HICAS four-wheel steering is not the kind of assistance most drivers want in a car like the GT-R and it may have been disabled. Also check on an empty section of road that aged ABS sensors still work. Standard dampers can last less than 30,000 kilometres and suspension rubber bushes deteriorate at the same rate. When new these cars sat high and level with plenty of free-space visible between the wheel-arches and tyres. A car that sits noticeably nose-down may be suffering sagging suspension or have had its springs shortened. Either will affect ride quality and steering response. Brake rotors can warp due to excessive heat.
With pretty basic materials and specification, there’s not a lot in the GT-R interior or electrical system to go awry but a check of every switch and gauge is recommended. The air-conditioning should activate with an audible click and send a strong stream of cold air through all the vents within 20 seconds. Interior plastics in regularlyused cars will suffer heat stress and the leather steering wheel could be starting to peel or have been replaced. Seat bolsters in low kilometre cars should show only minimal wear. Be cautious if they are seriously damaged.