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New exhibit at the Petersen examines Japanese manufacturing and car culture

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1967 Toyota 2000GT. Images courtesy Petersen Museum.

From humble beginnings, Japanese automotive brands have experienced remarkable growth in the United States over the past six decades. Opening May 26, a new exhibit at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles looks at two factors behind this increased market share: The Roots of Monozukuri – Creative Spirit in Japanese Automaking and Fine Tuning – Japanese-American Customs.

Monozukuri is defined as the “art, science and craft of making things,” and the Petersen exhibit will examine key elements of the Japanese design philosophy in the years leading up to the explosive growth of brands like Nissan (then Datsun), Toyota, Mazda and Honda in the 1970s. While initial offerings to American buyers (such as the 1958 Datsun 1000 sedan, 1958 Datsun pickup, and the 1958 Toyota Toyopet Crown sedan) fell short of consumer expectations, it was the spirit of monozukuri that drove Japanese brands to improve products for export markets.

1937 Nissan 70

1937 Nissan 70.

One of the cars to be featured in the exhibit is a 1937 Nissan 70, the brand’s first full-size automobile. Launched in Japan in March 1937 (though never exported), the Nissan 70 was a rebadged Graham Crusader, a model which had disappeared from the United States market at the end of 1936. As Dan Strohl wrote in a 2014 piece on Graham-Paige for Hemmings Classic Car, Nissan purchased the rights and the tooling needed to build the car for a sum of $390,000, and it remained in production in Japan into 1943.

Other vehicles to be displayed in the Monozukuri exhibit include a replica of a 1936 Toyoda AA, which sported a body influenced by the De Soto Airflow and was powered by a copy of Chevrolet’s “Stovebolt Six” engine; a 1966 Nissan Silvia, which wore a hand-built body styled in part by Count Albrecht Goertz; a 1967 Toyota 2000GT, a range-topping grand-tourer that demonstrated Japan’s ability to build more than practical cars; a 1968 Honda N600, the first Honda automobile model officially imported into the United States; and a 1969 Mazda Cosmo, the brand’s rotary-powered halo car.

1991 Toyota Cresta

1991 Toyota Cresta Kaido racer.

The increasing popularity of Japanese cars in Southern California led to a unique culture of customization, often influenced by trends in Japan; conversely, trends in Southern California also influenced car culture in Japan. Fine Tuning: Japanese-American Customs, the second half of the Petersen exhibit, takes an in-depth look at this, featuring cars like a 1991 Toyota Cresta, modified in a Kaido (highway) racer style. Though Japanese tuning trends can be difficult to define, the Kaido scene typically involves cars modified with exaggerated chin spoilers, externally mounted oil coolers, flared fenders and stretched hoods with modified grilles. Kaido cars are less extreme than those built in the “Zokusha” style, and may or may not wear race car inspired liveries.

Other cars to be displayed in the Fine Tuning exhibit include a 1973 Nissan Skyline 2000 GTX “Kenmeri,” great-grandfather to today’s Nissan GT-R; a 1998 Honda Civic hatchback drag racer; and a 1974 Mada RX-3.

Of the exhibit, Terry Karges, the museum’s executive director, said:

The impact of the Japanese automotive industry on American life is so powerful that the story has to be represented in two parts to truly capture the spirit of Japanese innovation. The exhibit is intended to bridge the public’s interest in the evolution of Japanese manufacturing since arriving in the U.S. with Southern California’s place as a hotbed of Japanese car customization that drove a nationwide boom in import car tuning, motorsports and more over the past two decades.”

The Roots of Monozukuri – Creative Spirit in Japanese Automaking and Fine Tuning – Japanese-American Customs will be located in the museum’s Bruce Meyer Family Gallery, and both exhibits are slated to run through April 14, 2019. For additional details, visit