The progression of Asian brands in the U.S. auto market

Asian cars get little love from most hot rod aficionados, as it took a long time for any carmaker that originated in the Far East to successfully break into the North American auto market. While American drivers were enjoying the muscle cars and speed machines of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Asian automakers were creating cars that appealed to the tastes of their home countries: Small, relatively fuel-efficient rides that were generally more cute than they were aggressive.

For a long time it seemed like the mentalities of the everyday driver stateside, who enjoyed massive Lincoln Continentals and gas-guzzling V8 Big Blocks, and the designers behind the comparably miniscule offerings coming out of Asia would never align. However, as drivers during the late ’70s learned when emissions standards essentially killed the hot rod for a period and a gas crisis made even the Corvette a shadow of its former self, the cars built by the biggest Asian brands actually had a thing or two over their American counterparts.

Before Japanese companies like Toyota, Nissan and Honda essentially took the market hostage stateside in the ’80s and ’90s, while at the same time putting domestic competition to shame in terms of quality, these companies actually tried copying the American formula for decades. Instead of introducing models that had worked on their native roadways, many Asian brands tried to essentially make cars that looked and acted as much like an American car as possible. This rarely paid off for the automakers, and they didn’t see real sales success until the average domestic consumer realized the value of smaller vehicles.

Before analyzing how these companies have performed stateside, it’s good to take a look at the start of the passenger car in the Asian market. In terms of Japanese automakers, Mitsubishi was the first one to produce a car for the general public in 1917.


Mitsubishi Model A

1917 Mitsubishi Model A

This car was based on the Fiat Tipo 3 and was designed to showcase the best in Japanese craftsmanship. The target demographic for this seven-seater was the upper echelons of society who were looking for a smooth, reliable ride with the finest amenities. To accomplish this, Mitsubishi put together every one of these models in their shipbuilding headquarters by hand until 1921 using the finest materials to accent the interior, including premium-stained cypress and other hardwoods.

Under the hood was a 2.8 liter straight-4 engine that produced roughly 35 mph, which wasn’t too shabby for the time. According to Forbes magazine, the car handled pretty well on Japan’s often rudimentary roads.

Since these rides were marketed toward Japan’s elite, a massive asking price didn’t seem outrageous to the head brass at Mitsubishi – after all, building a car by hand wasn’t cheap, and actually owning a motorized vehicle was extremely rare in the country at the time. However, even Japan’s richest citizens weren’t lining up for their own passenger car, at least one that cost this much. Competition from American and European marquees were cheaper and more attractive options for this demographic, and once production ceased on the Model A, the company wouldn’t return to the passenger car market until the 1960s.

While the competition ultimately did-in the original Japanese-made passenger car, automakers would eventually flourish in that country and even gain a foothold stateside. One of the great success stories was Datsun, known today as Nissan, which was one of the first Japanese automakers to enter the U.S. market.


Datsun 1200 Pickup

1958-66 Datsun 1200 Pickup

One foothold that American automakers have been able to maintain is the large truck and sport utility market. The best selling models on the market for the better part of the last century have been full-sized trucks like the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado. However, in recent years, attempts by Toyota and Nissan to enter the full-size truck arena have marginally chipped away at some of the sales lead, although those strides were largely lost in the past decade when tastes again began to shift toward smaller models.

Datsun introduced the 1200 Pickup back in 1958 to a very small reception stateside. This was one instance where it seems something got lost in translation. While this truck, which is downright adorable from a looks standpoint, might actually take off in the current automotive marketplace, it was way off the mark for the time.

The average American who was driving a pickup truck was interested in this design for a solely utilitarian purpose. While trucks today can be fashionable or downright luxurious, the models that were flying off the shelves during the ’50s and ’60s were actually towing trailers, unloading gardening gear or driving off-road. This car had a top speed of 50 mph, which isn’t an outright sin considering the fact that trucks of the era sacrificed speed in favor of torque, and it even had cargo capacity for one-quarter and half-ton payloads in its bed. In the ’80s and ’90s, smaller trucks like these actually helped companies like Toyota and Nissan carve out a share of the market, but 30 years earlier, driving around in such a non-threatening pickup was downright embarrassing.

One segment that Asian automakers have always retained some street credibility in is with performance vehicles. During the ’70s, no automaker from overseas could build cars that appealed to the tastes of hot-rod lovers quite like the Big Three in Detroit. However, Datsun was able to make its mark in the muscle car segment when they introduced the 240Z back in 1969. This was one of the bestselling Asian performance cars of the era, though it still lagged far behind the popularity of Camaros and Mustangs of the era.

It was during the 1990s, when American carmakers started experiencing major quality deficiencies, that a Japanese automaker was actually able to produce a street machine that would put any pony-car to shame.


1991 Mitsubishi 3000GT

1990’s Mitsubishi 3000GT

While this car was more of an assault on the European sports car scene, it was the dawn of a new era for boys and girls across the United States who were just getting a need for speed. Instead of worshipping the lackluster Camaro or the comparatively tame Mustang, a new generation of speed demons were showing adoration for models like the 3000GT.

Unlike many previous Asian sports cars, this model wasn’t hard to maintain and actually was built to very high standards of quality. Best of all, it topped out at well above 300 MPH and would eventually feature not only four-wheel drive, but even four-wheel drive steering.

Cars sold under Asian nameplates today are among the most popular on the market and far from the niche vehicles that they once were. If you told the average driver from 1965 that the best selling car in the United States in 2013 would be a Toyota, they would likely laugh in your face.

Do you have a favorite Asian model, or is there a car that was made by one of these marquees that may not have been a major hit in terms of sales but still holds a place in your heart? If so, leave your thoughts below: