No contest as to which model gets pole position in this trio. The 1600 will live in motoring history as the car that changed everything people thought they knew about Japanese designs. At some point in their lives, most of the enthusiasts in this country seem to have owned a Datto, with more than a few tales to tell. Off the stick the 1600 was not a fast car but dominated its category in Production Car racing and could be made to go incredibly quickly. Add to that immense strength and you understand why 1600s rallied at the highest levels could and did outlast the best in the world to win major events and innumerable Championships. Sad thing today is that many of the surviving cars have been modified and so few convey the original character of an exceptional design.
Out in the forests they called the Subaru RX Turbo 4WD ‘The Whispering Death’ – and less friendly things as well. This was the car that changed rallying in this country; sneaking up on long-held traditions in the way it might an errant spectator who didn’t hear it coming and meandered across a live section of rally road. I managed Subaru’s competition programme back in those amazing days when Australian rallying changed from loud and sideways to silent and sophisticated, when the Turbo won two National and several State rally titles. For some years afterwards I owned the silver RX I had used as an ARC ‘chaser’ before letting it go off and become a real-life rally car. Despite the wall full of trophies won by RXs around the world, very few of these significant cars survive and even the very good ones don’t generate much money.
Bit of a pattern here isn’t there? Yes, my final choice is yet another Japanese car that wrote its name into any number of record books that dotted the arena of world rallying, It is also a hugely impressive road car and achieved unprecedented notoriety by getting Toyota banned from international rallying for cheating. Unlike other top-level rally cars of its era the Group A Celica is stunning to look at with a nose so elongated it will block out the sun on sharp crests. Only a problem of course for those without the benefit of pace notes. Australia’s share of the 2500 Group As built was just 77 cars plus a few private imports, but given their scarcity and competence the money asked when one does appear isn’t ridiculous.
Okay, so an MX-5 is a walk-up start here, but I’m sick of writing about them, so let’s put the wee roadster to one side for the sake of the argument. Which makes my first choice a weird one – the MX32 Cressida. I can remember when these arrived Down Under and owning one meant you had made it. I wouldn’t mess too much with mine, either – leave the stock engine and trans and just cruise it. Got to be either off-white or metallic brown, though. As much as I love old Crowns, the Cressida with its unitary construction should be a more modern drive. Lowered springs, groovy JDM alloys, velour trim…you know it makes sense.
I like RA40 Celicas for the way they shine a goofy Japanese light on an American inspiration. And the 121-based RX-5 is more of the same from where I sit. The big, toothy grille and weirdburger B-pillar window stamp it as, er, individual, to put it mildly. The interior was a triumph of fake wood over actual taste and there are a thousand little J-market touches that are special in 2019. Then there’s the allure of that rotary engine. Yeah, I know a rotary can be trouble, but any still getting around will have been rebuilt, presumably with improvements like modern apex seals and stuff. And if you want to get back to your childhood real fast, you could always slip a turbo-rotor into it. The best news is that the ugly-duckling RX-5 hasn’t suffered the price spiral of pretty much every other rotary-powered Mazda in the last few years. Make of that what you will.
Until the first WRX arrived in the mid-90s, the idea of going quickly involved eight cylinders and rear-drive. But the little Suby pitched that right on its head. Marketed as a refugee from a WRC forest stage, the combination of a perky turbo-motor and all-wheel-drive rewrote the book. Even now, an early WRX can feel great provided it’s been serviced and driven sanely for the past two-and-a-half decades. Speaking of which, early examples of this thing are now old enough to qualify for the club-permit scheme in some States, so values are only going to go one way from here on in. I’ll have the conventional sedan over the odd looking liftback variant, and make mine Subaru rally blue with gold alloys. The trick now, of course, is finding one that hasn’t been thrashed and crashed or, perhaps even worse, modified for a LOT more grunt via a dose of boost-botox.
Okay, I’m a sucker for a good coupe and I reckon the Nissan 300ZX will one day be regarded as an iconic piece of design.
The hoardes of grey imports that got shipped over here has confused the market somewhat, but at least it’s helped to keep supply and prices to reasonable levels.
While the idea of a turbo appeals, I reckon I’d be just as happy with a normally-aspirated version so long as it was a manual.
Nissan knew it was on to something years ago when it advertised this car on billboards with a side profile and the caption “sell the kids”. I’m not sure that you’d get away with that these days, but you have to admire the sentiment.
Prices seem to be all over the place at the moment, but high teens should put a really good one in the shed.
Yeah, I know, this suggests muggins needs to change his medication. But there’s something about the whole weirdness of an SVX that’s irresistible. I know they’re an orphan.
The whole aircraft-style turret gets my attention and there is something appealing about the optimistic uber-tech approach from the nineties. Plus that boxer six engine has a beat all its own.
They were never a seller – way too expensive when new, if I recall right, and just too out-there for most tastes.
These days you occasionally see them abandoned off the side of someone’s driveway or, rarely, actually for sale. As I write this, there’s a one on the market in Queensland at $3k, which would be a ‘courageous’ purchase, given the amount of havoc it could wreak on the wallet. A good one will be more like six-plus. Tempting…
I’m cheating a little here, as I already have one – bought cheap as a result of working on this very buyer guide last year.
The obsessive in me would like to have the manual turbo six in addition to the V8 auto that’s already in the shed, though you might now have to pay proper money for one of them as they’re very much in demand.
For a while in the late 1990s, there was a huge business in importing these things, sometimes (in the case of the V8s) badged as a Lexus SC400.
They are fun to drive and I reckon they look okay, and we’re even starting to see them pop up at car shows.
Anything from about five grand up to around 10 will get you something workable and the V8s in particular are capable of coping with huge mileages.
Why wouldn’t you want to own the pinnacle of Japanese tech in performance cars? The R32 GT-R was the original and still the best in my humble opinion. The R32 GT-R was a revelation on and off the track when it lobbed here in 1990. Only 100 official factory cars were imported and with a sticker price of $110,000, it was a whopping price for a Nissan. But what a brilliant driver’s car. Devastatingly fast, agile and with a high-tech all-wheel-drive system that let you have a massive go even when it was hosing down. They are not cheap or easy to find, but a few sold last year at auction for around $75 grand. For a performance icon, that’s cheap.
Datsun’s answer to the MGB – only better. No Lucas ‘Prince of Darkness’ electrics to start with. The two-litre engine was no slouch and its handling and braking didn’t frighten you. I like the look of the Fairlady, especially the three vertical tail-lights, slight bulge in the bonnet and the flat dash, with full instrumentation. I only drove one once and came away loving every moment. It also felt more substantial than the flimsy -by-comparison MGB.
At the turn of the 21st century sporty didn’t exist in the Honda range, only bowling club specials – in beige. But the Integra Type R changed all that and put Honda front and centre in the performance car game. With its screaming DOHC VTEC engine putting out 141kilowatts, an 8500rpm redline, a flick-of-the-wrist manual gearbox and go kart handling the Type R was easy and entertaining to drive fast on twisting blacktop and equally civilised around town. Top build quality, cheap to own and run, and a smart coupe body with the quad headlights turned heads. You can pick one up for under $10 grand but a good clean one is closer to $15-$20 grand. One hell of a car for the money.
Have you ever looked at a first-generation MX-5 and thought: “It’s just too big”? Well then try this adorably named Suzuki Cappucino on for size! The Cappucino was born of Japan’s famous Kei car movement. It’s almost the exact same dimensions as a Frogeye Sprite, with power drawn from a 660cc turbo three-cylinder. It also tips the scales at just 700kg. They’re quite rare, only being brought into Australia as grey imports, though they are out there and often found for a touch over $10,000.
Toyota’s first-generation Celica is a far cry from the bargain shed-find it once was.
But they’re a muscular little coupe with pint-sized US-influenced design. They were somewhat prohibitively expensive when new ($650 more than a Torana GTR) but are now sought-after items for those after a 70s chrome-bumper Japanese toy.
If you can find a manual, it’s a joy to drive with its throaty 1.6lt single-cam unit. It won’t be fast but stringing it out with those carbies on song is an absolute pleasure that won’t land you in the back of a divvy van.
Examples needing work can be had for around $10,000, but $20,000 should land you a useable turn-key package – with restored examples pushing the higher extremities and closing in on $30,000.
It was marketed here as the Datsun 240K, but was known more famously in Japan as the C110 Skyline. Prices vary wildly but are quite affordable – the hardest part will be finding one!
In Australia, 240Ks arrived with a 2.4lt single-cam L-series engine. The Japanese market debuted the second-generation GT-R based on the same chassis with a DOHC 2.0lt; flexing their competition intent with a race-prepped concept car at the 1972 Tokyo Motor Show.
Unfortunately the Oil Crisis reared its head the following year, and the program was binned after just 197 C110 GT-R road cars escaped the factory.
It’d be hard not to rivet on some over-fenders and build a GT-R clone with this one…
I have a soft spot for KE Laser TX3 turbos and, over the years, have grown quite fond of its Mazda 323 4WD Familia twin. I kept tabs on a parked Familia for years but it has since vanished, much to my disappointment. These turbo terrors are a rare find as most units suffered a harsh life in rally circuits or were modified during the ’90s and they have simply vanished.
The GTAE model is my choice and has a distinct front mesh bumper, some sources claim that 30 1988 Mazda Familia GTXs were sold by Mazda Australia. These cars were equipped with the GTAE mesh bumper, white paint with a complementing grey pinstripe indicating its 4WD turbo power plant. Regardless whether your chasing the local ‘unicorn’ car or a grey import, look for a complete Familia with an original patterned interior, as replacing some of the unique parts on these ageing Mazdas would surely be difficult.
When Japanese grey imports where everywhere in Oz, the one car that stood out to me was the 180SX. I instantly loved the coupe shape but as the years went by I struggled to see one on the road that was not “enhanced” with a terrible body kit that was guaranteed to fall apart. Years later they went through the ‘Sileighty’ phase where crashed cars were fitted with Silvia front ends to complete the drift look.
I would happily park a manual 180SX in my garage and slowly restore it back to its former glory. A great looking performance Japanese sports car that won’t break the bank!
The Liberty from 2003-2008 was, in my opinion, one of the best looking Subarus. I have personally clocked up a few kms in a manual 2.5 MY06 and the car was and still is a great drive. These are well-built cars and, even though most have clocked up over 200,000kms, low-kilometre cars can still be found in the market. I would love a wagon for the practicality and would hunt down a low-kilometre 2007-2008 2.5 turbocharged GT, with the revised grille and 18-inch wheels. But I would happily live with a 3.0 spec B which can be spotted by its unique front bumper bar. Just remember to always monitor the oil as they know how to make it vanish. They even offered an STi version of the GT but they can be $5-10K more.