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.
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.
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.
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…