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Us classic car enthusiasts tend to romanticize about the car industry as a whole – or at least about the car industry of yesteryear. Sales failures become coveted rarities and deceased companies become heroes of what could have been. Reality is of course that the industry is and always has been a harsh environment, where survival of the fittest is always the flavour of the month. The victims which fall short are often lost in history.

Sometimes we find inspiration for our hobby from places we did not expect it. Last week I spent a few days in London with my family, and we took our two daughters to the London Science Museum for a suitable cocktail of entertainment and education. While the museum visit was planned for the kids, I’ll be the first to admit that I too actually usually find science museums quite interesting. That said, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of classic cars.

London Science Museum.

Imagine then my delight when I walked from one big room filled to the brim with rockets and all sorts of other aeronautical goodies, and into another displaying a lovely selection of beautiful old aircraft, where I then spotted a tower of classic cars in the far corner. Much as I enjoy classic aircraft too, they were hastily discarded for later as I made my way through the crowd to better inspect these six classics. I was immediately mildly amused with these six classics representing the exact same six countries as we have represented here on ViaRETRO in our ongoing comparison of Grand Touring Coupés in our Prime Find of the Week. However this sextuplet represented modest transport for the people rather than executive luxury icons. As such, one could argue that the displayed Fiat 600, Citroën 2CV, Morris Minor, VW Bettle, Saab 93 and Hino Contessa are really of much bigger automotive historical significance, than any of those relatively low-production coupés.

A stylish three-box Michelotti design.

I was especially pleased that it was the Hino Contessa that was parked at the bottom of the tower, as it made it easier to appreciate all the detail. Mind you, I have a lot of respect for all six, but the Contessa is certainly the one that tickles my fancy the most. Maybe because it’s the rarest of the six, or maybe just because I have a weakness for Nippon classics. Also perhaps because Hino is precisely one of those manufacturers which could have been. They were quite a well established company having been formed in 1942, as a spin off from a natural gas company from 1910 which produced its first truck in Japan as early as 1917. Hino started off producing diesel engines and commercial trucks, but also manufactured armoured personnel carriers for the Japanese Army during World War II. After the war ended, Japanese manufacturers were encouraged to engage with foreign companies in order to build up the local car industry again. This lead to Hino becoming a private car manufacturer in 1953 when they started assembling Renault 4CV’s under license.

While Hino still continued to produce commercial trucks and pickups, they also upped the game as a car manufacturer in 1961 when they introduced their own Hino Contessa 900, known as the PC-series. It was still a rear-engined saloon, but it was a slightly bigger car and the design was more up-to-date for the sixties. Hino was really gathering momentum now, and even contracted none other than Michelotti to design their updated Contessa called the PD-series. This second Contessa was more than just a redesign, as it again grew both in size and weight. The longitudinally mounted engine was also upgraded from the 900cc Renault engine to a 1300 OHV engine with 55hp in the saloon introduced late in 1964, and through twin carburettors and a slightly higher compression a sportier 65hp in the 1300S. About half a year after the saloon was introduced, Hino even added a very stylish Contessa 1300 Coupé to the line-up, with very handsome rakish lines. All the PD-series cars had either a 3-speed column-shift or an optional 4-speed manual gearbox. The rear-engined drivetrain was complimented by independent front suspension and swing-axles on the rear.

Looks are of course always a matter of opinion, but I personally think the Contessa PD cars are highly stylish three-box designs, with several similarities not only with the second generation Chevrolet Corvair, but also with some of Michelotti’s other designs of that era, such as the BMW 700 and the Triumph 1300. Needless to say, the Coupé is clearly the one to have, but the saloons are charming little machines too, and somehow manage to pitch themselves above the poverty-spec of the Fiat 600, Citroën 2CV, Morris Minor and VW Beetle which were stacked above the Contessa at the Science Museum. Only the obvious aviation influence on the Saab 93 manages to elevate it up to the level of the Contessa. These two may very well have been cars for the people, but they somehow seem to have an aura of refinement nonetheless.

The very cool Hino Contessa 1300 Coupé. Only 3,868 examples were built.

With the PD-series, Hino had their sight on export as well. The Contessa 1300 was sold throughout South East Asia and on several markets around the world such as the Australian, Swiss, French, Dutch and Finnish market, not to mention South Africa and even Central America. Furthermore, assembly plants were set up in both New Zealand and Israel too. Next up they started preparing to take on the American market – before Toyota and Nissan had managed to make any real impact there. To enhance brand-awareness in the USA, they sent a couple of Contessa Coupés over to Pete Brock of Shelby Cobra fame, for his BRE Racing team to compete on the West Coast. To everyone’s huge surprise, they managed an impressive 1 – 2 finish at Riverside Raceway in 1966, which was quite an accomplishment. And then, sadly, it all came to an end! Toyota and Hino entered an agreement in late 1966, in which it was established that Toyota would take responsibility for private car production, while Hino would focus on what they had been doing from the word go – producing commercial vehicles both small and large. So having produced approximately 55,000 Contessa 1300’s in only two and a half years, production officially ceased in April 1967. To clear stock, a slow trickle of Contessa’s continued to be assembled up through 1968 and 1969, by which time it was all over.

Of course, Hino are far from the only promising car manufacturer to suffer such a fate. There have been several others – even just within Japan. The story behind Isuzu and their merger with GM is almost a perfect copy-paste of Hino’s history – only it happened much later. And then there’s the very accomplished Prince Motor Company who arguably produced some of the most executive automobiles to come out of Japan at the time, yet they sadly also came to a total demise around the same time as Hino stopped their car production. But that’s a story for another day…



8 Responses

  1. Dave Leadbetter

    Interesting stuff. I didn’t know about the Renault licencing connection and now it makes sense that the Contessa has always reminded me very much of the Renault 8, though there seems to be have been no direct relationship between the two cars. The Science Museum really need to sort out the chassis blocks as the rear is set a fraction too high giving it a very gawky swing axle look when it fact it’s a really stylish car and looks almost purposeful when sitting properly. I wonder if theirs might be the only one in the UK?

  2. Anders Bilidt

    Dave, you of course never know with these things, but I could easily imagine this one being the only one in the UK – at least until I manage to save up enough cash to import “my” Contessa 1300S Coupé… ;-)

  3. Maurice Davin

    Hallo Anders, A good article and a brave attempt to write about very obscure subject. I hope you don’t mind if I correct a few things. Not that I am an expert – far from it! I don’t think there is any such thing as a Hino Contessa expert. I’m in Australia and have been involved with Hino Contessa 1300 cars for almost twenty years and have worked on them extensively. I currently own three examples – two four door sedans and a coupe. These are the facts as I understand them: Firstly the Contessa 1300 sedans sold in Japan had a three-speed column change gearbox as standard and a four speed floor change as an option. Most of the surviving sedans in Japan seem to have the three speed box fitted. All of the 621 Contessa 1300 sedans assembled in New Zealand had the four speed floor change transmission fitted. Not sure about the Israeli assembled cars.
    The Contessa 1300S was a sedan – not a coupe. The coupe was simply known as the Hino Contessa 1300 Coupe. There was talk at the time of a 1300S Coupe and prototypes were made but it did not enter production. As well as the markets you mentioned, the Contessa 1300 sedan was also sold throughout South East Asia, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), South Africa, Finland, France and Central America. Apart from in Japan and the single known UK example, there are known survivors in Angola, Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia and of course, Israel and New Zealand. Three coupes were delivered new (fully imported) to New Zealand. Two survive, but all are accounted for. One Coupe was exported from Japan to the US (via Canada) in around 2016.
    Hino and Toyota did not actually merge in 1966 although in fairness to you this is a much circulated myth. The two companies remained independent but came to a business agreement which saw Hino concentrate on trucks and buses and Toyota concentrate on passenger vehicles and light commercials. That did cause the demise of the Contessa but it was not until 2001 that Toyota purchased a 50.1% controlling interest in Hino.
    Incidentally, the lovely red Contessa 1300 Deluxe you saw at the London Science Museum was donated by Takashi Suzuki – the “father” of the Contessa. It was Suzuki-san’s personal car.
    I can confirm that these are delightful cars to own and to drive. They are extremely robust and very well engineered. Should you need any further information – please let me know.

  4. Anders Bilidt

    Maurice, thank you for your reply. I most certainly do not mind at all – quite the contrary! I appreciate your input as an attempt to get all the details right. You say that you are no expert on the Hino Contessa, but you’re definitely a lot closer than I am. ;-)
    I have now edited the article in an attempt to incorporate your information into my article. I haven’t got all your excellent detail in there, but at least now the article should be without actual mis-information. Once again, thanks!

    I’m also well impressed – and maybe even ever so slightly jealous (in the best of ways of course) – that you own three Contessa’s. If I could ever manage to just own one, I would see that as quite an accomplishment. You’re of course right that they are quite obscure, but that’s part of what makes them oh-so-cool.
    Thank you Maurice for sharing your passion and knowledge with us…

  5. Myron Vernis

    Anders, great to see your name in print! Very impressed with ViaRETRO. Maurice, thanks for you informative post. I’m the guilty party you referred to who brought the Coupe to the States a couple years ago. Now if I could only land a 1300L or the Samurai…

  6. Anders Bilidt

    Myron, I’m really glad you’ve found your way onto ViaRETRO. And even happier of course that you’re impressed with it too – that means a lot coming from en enthusiast of your calibre.
    One day I’ll have to make my way to the US, and perhaps write a report on your stunning collection of Nippon classics… ;-)

  7. JTCT

    Great article and inspiring comments! It takes me back in time to my teenage years were I was proudly driving one. I purchased a Hino Contessa 1300 when I was 16, moved to the USA 5 years later, and brought it along with me. It is a four door sedan with a three-speed column gearbox. It was in perfect condition than and with only 60,000 original miles. Because of a hole in the muffler and a fear of angry neighbors I left it aside until I to get around and fix the muffler. The car was parked on my driveway for years, and I never got around to doing this simple repair. Now, after being exposed to the elements the car is no longer the beauty it used to be. I still wish however, that one day I would be able to afford a restoration job as I love this car. Any suggestions are welcome.

  8. Anders Bilidt

    @jtct, welcome to ViaRETRO! :-)
    I’m glad that another Hino Contessa owner has found this article…

    As for getting your beloved Contessa back on the road, in my humble opinion (for whatever it’s worth…), you may need to level your expectations a little in order to achieve something good. I can all too easily understand if you dream of bringing your Contessa back to as-new condition. You would be so proud wouldn’t you? But if that goal is the culprit of your classic sitting unrestored and abandoned on your drive, then you need a different approach. How about simply aiming at making it safe and road-legal? If there’s any structural rust, then start by sorting that out. Should the wheel arches and door bottoms be a little crusty along the edges, then simply accept it and file it under ‘patina’. Next step is to sort brakes, suspension and steering to ensure the car is safe on the road. Then the final step is fresh fluids all around, new ignition parts, new belts for the engine, and perhaps a few new rubber hoses. This should all be quite achievable for most people. I don’t know how mechanically capable you are, but you could probably do most of this yourself. And while your Hino Contessa obviously wouldn’t look concours, you would at least be able to drive your classic again. I’m confident it would put a smile on your face… ;-)


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