The period immediately after WWII was, I think, one of the most interesting for cars, at least in the countries that didn’t come out of the war in such great shape. The lack of almost everything—money, materials, fuel, everything—forced some genuinely creative solutions to the very tricky problem of how to make cars from nothing and sell them to people who have even less. It’s one of these cars, a car called the Flying Feather, that I want to talk about today.
I’ve always liked the Flying Feather because even though it’s an incredibly minimal and austere car designed for Japanese everypeople in the very difficult years after the war, it somehow manages to look like a quick, engaging little sports car.
This thing doesn’t feel like a bare-bones desperation car, it feels more like a Bugeye Sprite or an MG or a similar little fun roadster. The wheels are from motorcycles, but they’re tall, and the proportion of the large (if very skinny) wheels to the body gives the little car an athletic, eager stance that I just love.
Really, the strangely sporting character of the Flying Feather starts to make more sense when you know who was the mind behind it: Yutaka Katayama, who is also known as the father of the Datsun Z car.
After the war, Datsun got back into the business of building passenger cars around 1947, picking back up with their pre-war Austin 7-based model. Datsun had more licensing plans with Austin to build and sell the larger A40 and A50 cars in Japan. Katayama didn’t think moving upscale made much sense when so many people were still just barely recovering from the war, and wanted to see Datsun focus on a truly affordable vehicle.
Datsun’s management didn’t want to focus on such cheap, low-margin cars, so Katayama and a Datsun designer named Ryuichi Tomiya set off on their own to design and build a prototype very cheap car in their spare time. They built it, somewhat short-sightedly, in a room on the second story of a house, and had to take it out a window when it was finally finished.
The car was a two-seater of novel design: it used a single-cylinder Nissan engine at the rear, sat two, and this prototype used bicycle wheels. Katayama called it the Flying Feather because he’d been inspired by the lightweight design of seagulls he’d watched flying over the port of Yokohama.
Initially, it looked like Datsun would build the car, but Katayama ended up pissing off his bosses when he brought striking Datsun factory workers food, a move that cost him his job.
Katayama and Tomiya decided to finish the job on their own. In 1953, they had a second, more refined prototype, with a rear-mounted air-cooled 350cc (some sources say 360) V-twin engine making a Godzillia-like 12.5 horsepower. The car only weighed about 935 pounds, so the performance was better than its modest numbers would suggest. The Feather also had all-independent suspension, and must have been quite nimble.
Suminoe Engineering Works agreed to build the car, which was introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1954. Even though the car was an engineering triumph, being cheap and very capable, nothing seemed to go well for the Feather at this point. Expected support from Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry evaporated, and Suminoe lost their body work contract from Datsun/Nissan, forcing them into bankruptcy.
All of this meant only 200 Flying Feathers were built. Even if they could have made more, sales may not have been as strong as expected, as Japanese consumers were already seeking less austere vehicles.
I think the Flying Feather never really got the chance it deserved. I think a version re-tooled to emphasize its inherent sporting nature could have filled a role as Japan’s even smaller answer to the classic British roadster.
As it is, the Feather is really just a footnote in Japanese motoring history, but as far as footnotes go, it looks like a hell of a lot of fun to me.