Thanks to America’s arbitrary, dealer-imposed car import laws and a lack of political will to change them, the enthusiasts of our nation—despite being the “most free” and “best” one in the world—are barred from bringing in cars younger than 25 years of age. This is a shame, but as we edge closer to 2018, an interesting overlap between the 25-year ban and our collective Japanese car nostalgia seems to be taking place.
In short, as we Americans prepare to be able to import cars from 1993, we are entering the end of the very best era of Japanese cars. And it’s right at the pinnacle of our anime/manga/Gran Turismo/Best Motoring-driven love of these machines.
I’d like to let you know, dear reader, that at this point in time you can get on your local Craigslist, favorite forum or specialty shop near you and pick up anything from a Toyota Soarer to a Honda Beat to an Autozam AZ-1 to a Suzuki Cappuccino, to say nothing of crazy variants of cars we already got in America, like possibly not-ruined CRXs and third-generation Supras with 2.0-liter twin-turbo inline-sixes. Ours is a time of infinite wonder, of Pajeros, of Presidents, of Seras and Paos and Cefiros and more.
It is a good time to be alive.
And yet plenty of people know this. It’s wonderful. At our hurricane relief charity car show over the weekend, it felt like every 10th car was a Japanese import. These days, right-hand drive Skylines and MR2s and Silvias are a common sight at Cars and Coffee and other events. They’re still cool and great to see, but they don’t feel truly rare like they used to.
This wasn’t as much the case five years ago, when I really got into writing about cars in earnest. And it sure wasn’t the case when I was a teenager really getting into cars for the first time 15 years ago, back when if you saw a Nissan Skyline at a car meet it was probably because someone was breaking some law. (It’s a MotoRex car? Yeah, they’re all MotoRex cars. Sure.)
I am not saying we have hit “peak JDM car.” I don’t want to call it that, because that implies a decline will happen, and I love this trend of committed American enthusiasts giving these cars a second life on new shores. It’s the kind of fervor for human driving we need as the robots start to take over. But we’re getting toward the end of the really good stuff.
We still have a few mid- and late-1990s cars we can look forward to importing one day—and, this nearly goes without saying, cars to import from earlier years that haven’t been brought in yet—but it’s kind of all downhill from here. The Japanese sports car market faded in the 1990s with a brutal recession. If we measure cars in 25-year increments, a lot of the best stuff is already behind us.
I’ll explain why. You see, cars aren’t just cars; they’re products born not just of consumer demand, but of the unique economic, political and social conditions of their time. They’re among the most conspicuous ways of gauging what people want and how they live.
So many of these bizarre, powerful and unusual dream machines come from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, a time when Japan’s economy was booming and when automakers plastered their domestic dealerships with models and options designed to cater to a newly empowered class of professional with cash to burn. In Japan, people had money and they wanted power, style, comfort and performance; they wanted to show off, and car companies were happy to oblige. The Japanese domestic market was what mattered, as the export market wasn’t nearly as extensive as it is today.
Instead, this weirdness and exuberance reached the U.S. (and other markets) through cartoons and video games and drifting videos and magazines. And the generation that admired them as kids is now old enough to have some money to afford them. And the cars are eligible to live here in the U.S.
We call this time the Bubble Era. And like all bubbles, it burst eventually, in the early 1990s when overvalued real estate and stock prices plummeted. That era of over-the-top Japanese craziness didn’t last much longer. The point of all of this is to say that the dream cars that filled up the various classes in Gran Turismo have kind of a cutoff date. All the good stuff happened in the ‘80s and early ‘90s; after that, it’s a ton of meh.
Nissan barely survived that crash. Take a look at what you can buy from Nissan now: it’s mostly boring hybrids and crossovers. Mazda keeps the enthusiast flame alive, but not with horsepower or rotary engines. Mitsubishi is a non-starter. The new Toyota Supra still isn’t here yet. Honda’s getting its mojo back, at least. (It should also be noted that the auto industry as a whole is getting more electrified, more autonomous, less driver-centric and less interesting; these conditions are always a part of a greater whole.)
In short, our import laws are catching up to the point where the bubble bursts. Importing will continue; make no mistake about that. We will have our cars from the late 1990s when they are eligible, of this I am sure; but those cars will be more R33 and R34 Skylines and Supras and RX-7s, not gull-winged kei-cars and tri-rotor luxury coupes.
Things like right-hand drive 2005 Toyota Altezza Gita wagons and Suzuki Hustlers may always be in demand. It’s just that the truly weird shit is from the Bubble Era—the era the current generation of car enthusiasts longed for—and that is coming to a close.
I don’t take this as a bad thing, because again, I don’t see car importing (or just owning a JDM car) slowing down anytime soon. Indeed, we have more opportunities than ever to do it, opportunities we only dreamed about when I was a high school kid poring through Sport Compact Car.
We just need to remember that right now, we’re in the sweet spot for Japanese cars. And we should all enjoy that as long as we can.