Saturday, September 13, 2014

Designed on One Island, Built on Another

When most modern Americans think of "imported cars", the brands that they are likely to name are Asian. Whether actually imported or built in factories in the US, Asian manufacturers (particularly Japanese firms) retain a significant share of the American automotive market. The post World War II era in the US was a completely different market with most small, economical cars coming from England. With the directive of "export or die" hanging over their corporate heads British firms knew that the North American market was their key to survival. But with the arrival of a number of Japanese brands in the US, the days British mass-market car sales in America were numbered. The roots of this demise run deep into many different areas, but one deserves a close look by enthusiasts of classic British cars - Britain's assistance in creating the Japanese automotive juggernaut.

The beginning of automobile production in Japan dates back to the dawn of the twentieth century with various home-built cars, some of which were steam powered. The earliest series produced car was built by the Shokai firm with a production run of 10 cars.

Japanese engineers were keen to learn about automobile production and many went to either find employment with, or observe, car makers world wide. Several of these missions ended with successful negotiations to build those maker's cars on Japanese soil.

In 1918 the British Wolseley firm licensed the production of their A9 and E3 cars and their CP truck to a consortium operated by the Japanese shipbuilding firm of Ishikawajima and Tokyo Gas and Electric Industrial Company.  For the sum of £80,000 paid over ten years - regardless of production numbers, profit or loss - Wolseley would assist in training, equipping and managing the factory in Japan.

Wolseley Type CP by Ishikawajima (

The first purely-Japanese built Wolseley did not appear until 1922 and it was more labor intensive to build than planned for. The resulting high cost meant that the selling price was much higher than the market would accept. Soon, financial problems meant that the payments to Wolseley were reduced. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed the automobile assembly line and the small finished stock of cars.

The CP truck line was another story in that the Japanese military paid a subsidy to truck builders provided that they met certain criteria. The Japanese-built Wolseley qualified and went into full production.

The post World War II period saw the same devastation visited on Japan as central Europe. In addition to rebuilding their nation, the Japanese were ruled by the Allied military. Everything from the production of food, clothing and industrial output was tightly regulated. The first transportation need in post war Japan was trucks. Demilitarized trucks were used for rebuilding, shipping goods and personnel transportation. The demand for private cars was filled somewhat by sales of American cars owned by departing US military brass. Car production for civilian use did not begin until 1947 when 300 cars were allowed to be built.

Nissan/Austin A40 (
As the economy improved and military rule ended, Japan's automakers were looking for opportunities to produce larger, more desirable cars than the three-wheeled vehicles that made up most of the light car offering at the time. Once again, England steps in.      
In 1952 an agreement between Nissan and Austin resulted in the Japanese production of the Austin A40. The agreement called for Nissan to purchase "completely knocked down" A40 Somerset kits for assembly in Japan. Everything needed to assemble the car was contained in a large crate and Nissan workers unpacked the components and put everything together on a short assembly line.

The terms of the agreement allowed Nissan to sell the finished cars only in Japan. No royalties were paid to Austin for the first year but the second year, the greater of 2% of the retail value of the cars or £10,000 would be due. The royalty would gradually increase over five years to the greater of 5% or £30,000.
Nissan/Austin A50 (

In 1954 Nissan signed an additional agreement with Austin to build the larger A50 Cambridge. The agreement also allowed Nissan to source locally produced components and delete them from the CKD kits. Parts built by Nissan were sent to the UK for validation. At the end of A50 production, the car was 100% Japanese, including the engines. Nissan went on to produce a slightly modified BMC B-series engine line until 1980.

The Rootes Group was not to be left out of the running and in 1953 they signed a licensing agreement with Isuzu (the successor firm to the Ishikawajima consortium) to build the Hillman Minx, Commer vans as well as being the sole importer of British built Rootes vehicles. Isuzu paid Rootes a one-time fee of £50,000 and a royalty of £25 per car after the first 2,000 units.
Isuzu/Hillman Minx (Flicker User Vic Hughes)

Initially, Isuzu assembled Minxes from CKD kits, but the Japanese Ministry of  International Trade and Industry required that the Japanese partner in these so-called technology sharing agreements produce vehicles completely made of Japanese components within five years. This requirement opened the door for many well-known UK parts manufacturers to set up shop in Japan in a similar arrangement.

That the Japanese auto industry grew into a world-beating production powerhouse is well-known. The irony being that as Japanese producer's world market share grew, Britain's declined. Eventually firms such as Nissan and Toyota opened assembly plants in the UK and Honda for a time allowed their Civic to be built by the remnants of British Leyland where it was badged a Triumph. Even into the early years of the 21st century, the majority of models produced by MG-Rover in England were Honda based. 


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