It’s the estimated auction price that popped out at me: $1 million. For a Japanese car? Indeed, if the car is the Toyota 2000GT, a very limited edition (just 337 were built, and only 84 left-hand-drive) sports model that found fame and fortune in a James Bond movie circa 1967.
Japanese cars make few ripples in the collector car market today. The 2000GT is a lonely entry in the Gooding & Company’s August 16 auction at Pebble Beach. The Honda S2000, early Datsun Z cars, the Toyota MR-2, they’re all collectible but not making the big numbers and not yet ready for Pebble Beach.
But expect all that to change. David Gooding tells me, "Over the last three to four years the market place has seen a huge upswing in demand for Japanese collectibles. Specifically, Toyota's venerable 2000GT and FJ40 Land Cruiser have been highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts, resulting in these vehicles drawing three to four times the price versus just a few years ago."
The 2000 GT was a big step up for Toyota, which had only a toe in the American market with economy cars. I know, because around the same time I had a high school job at a Dodge dealer. Toyota Corollas were a sideline—everyone thought they were cute, but nobody took them seriously. I picked them up at the docks, and was impressed by the build quality (and the cheap price).
In ’67, Toyota teamed up with Yamaha (yes, the guitar and motorcycle maker) on a car that was first shown at the 1967 Tokyo Motor Show, with Twiggy draped over it. Maybe it was the supermodel connection, but movie producer Albert Broccoli heard about it and asked for some cars for You Only Live Twice. The catch was they had to be convertibles, but with Bond breaking box-office records, Toyota was only too happy to chop the tops on a pair of the prototypes.
Sean Connery’s chase scene from the movie is below, with the bad guys in a black sedan (a 1966 Toyota Toyopet Crown). A big mystery is what happened to the movie cars, which were probably seriously destabilized by having their roofs removed.
With it's two-liter Yamaha engine, the 2,400-pound 2000GT made 150 horsepower and was reportedly good for 135 mph. The car up for auction is left-hand drive, and led a relatively quiet life mostly in Switzerland. It was frame-off restored in 1993 and then again in 2014. A yellow one was sold by RM Auction for $1.2 million in 2013 and Gooding sold one for $1.1 million last year, so the value of that one is in the ballpark. It’s officially a million-dollar car.
The 2000 GT I saw at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year belongs to Toyota Heritage, and is a fine example. I found the interior amusing for its acres of cheap vinyl—the company hadn’t dreamed up Lexus just yet.
What other Japanese cars will be collectible? Here are my candidates:
Toyota MR-2 (first generation). Built from 1984 to 1989, the early two-seaters have classic, quirky styling that was gradually de-quirked as the cars got bigger, heavier and more powerful. The interiors are wild, too.
Mazda Miata. Modeled on the Lotus Elan, the MX-5 Miata is a “British sports car” you can actually use every day. They’re bulletproof. I’m biased because I just bought a 1999 example, with only 31,000 miles on the clock. It will undoubtedly outlive me. The first-generation cars are 1990 to 1998, with a power boost to 1.8 liters in 1994. Mazda nicely refreshed the car for 2016, which may heighten interest in the early ones.
Honda S2000 Roadster. Redlined at 8,800 rpm, the S2000 is the answer to the oft-heard complaint that all Japanese cars are appliances. These cars, highly collectible, demanded attentive drivers. I found this out dramatically on a Japanese race track when the driver did a 360-degree spin with me as a passenger. The suspension was actually softened in 2004 for this reason. If you want the real deal, go for the first generation of 1999 to 2003. Be warned, they were never numerous and they’re not cheap now.
Nissan/Datsun 240Z. These beautiful cars, designed by the German count also responsible for BMW’s exquisite 507, were an instant hit in the U.S. and have never gone out of fashion. But they were determined rusters, which kept their value down forever. Today, many have been restored and they’re climbing up. A poor man’s 2000 GT, if you will. The first Z was sold in the U.S. from 1969 to 1973, superseded by the more luxurious, less-fun 260Z.
1997 Toyota Supra Limited Edition. These cars celebrated the Supra’s 15th anniversary, and came loaded. I came across one in a “secret” auto warehouse loaded with Ferraris, Porsches and other collectibles recently. Twin-turbo versions were good for 320 horsepower and are the most collectible.
Subaru SVX. This may be the only collectible Subaru, unless you’re partial to the very early 360 (I spotted one in that James Bond video, by the way) or the Brat pickup. I went to the launch of the SVX, and remember driving it around the Northern Kingdom of Vermont. Very exotic, like a Citroen Maserati, and quite unusual for a company that made its fortune with Outback wagons. The styling was by famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign and incorporated very novel windows-within-windows. They drive like dreams, if you can find a nicely sorted example. Prices are still low.
Some believe that the first-generation Mazda RX-7 (1978 to 1980) will become collectible, but I think the Wankel rotary engine will probably scare away a lot of potential buyers. It’s a classic, clean design, though. The early Fairlady Roadster, sold in the U.S. as the 1600 and (with more power) the 2000 will also have plenty of fans. And the insane, high-revving 1967 vintage Honda S800 will always be a landmark in the company’s history. Most of the examples you find today are in pieces.
Here's that James Bond chase sequence. It's a right-hand-drive car; the femme fatale is behind the wheel: