A rear-engine Japanese car that looks like a Corvair, styled by Michelotti of Italy, and raced by Cobra designer Peter Brock?
This is the strange and wonderful story of the Hino Contessa 1300, a compact Japanese car that preceded the Toyotas and Datsuns that came to our shores in the early 1970s. Have you ever wondered why the Japanese did not make a modern rear-engine car and sell it in America? Well, they almost did.
Hino has roots that stem back to 1910, when it emerged as a parts supplier for a Tokyo utility company selling natural gas for lighting. Before World War II, it morphed into a manufacturer of heavy-duty diesel engines for marine applications.
By the end of World War II, the Japanese homeland was in ruins and their industrial base had been destroyed. To get the economy going, the Japanese government and American administrators encouraged local companies to engage in partnerships with foreigners to establish a local automotive industry. And so, between 1952 and 1953, Nissan entered into a partnership with Austin, Isuzu with Rootes, Mitsubishi with Willys, and Hino with Renault. The close cooperation in these arrangements resulted in Japanese designs that closely resembled their foreign counterparts.
Hino began to build knock-offs of the most popular Renault in production at that time, the rear-engine water-cooled Renault 4CV. Production of these WWII vintage mini cars continued until 1961, when Hino updated the body design with home-grown styling that looked vaguely Russian. But that unattractive situation was not to last very long.
In April 1961, Hino commissioned the Michelotti styling studio in Italy to redesign an upgraded version of their rear engine car, which was to become the Contessa 1300.
Like many styling studios in Europe, Michelotti drew inspiration from the first generation Corvair, with its clean lines, generous greenhouse, quad headlights, and flying-wing roofline. The evidence is shown in several Michelotti designs, including the BMW 700, Triumph 2000 sedan, and others, including of course, the Hino Contessa 1300.
The four-door Contessa was introduced in September 1964 and was followed up with a coupe version in April 1965, just a few months after the second generation Corvair. Mechanically, the Contessa is quite like a Renault R8, with a 1300 cc inline four cylinder engine mounted longitudinally behind the rear axle. The engine was a five main bearing slant-four overhead valve water-cooled unit. Unlike Renault rear-engine cars, which had the radiator positioned alongside the engine, the radiator in the Contessa was mounted behind the engine, right next to the rear grille of the car, which probably enhanced engine cooling somewhat.
Suspension was conventional for a rear-engine car; upper and lower A-frames in the front and a swing axle in the back. The coupe was equipped with an upgraded engine with twin carburetors and slightly higher compression, which raised the output to about 65 horsepower, which was quite fine for touring in Japan at that time.
Hino thought it had a winner, and exported the Contessa to Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In addition, Hino assembled Contessas in New Zealand and Israel. But Hino also had plans to introduce the Contessa to the US market. To establish brand recognition, Hino hired Pete Brock and his BRE Racing team prepare two Contessa sedans for competition on the West Coast. Pete had just left Shelby-American where he had designed the Shelby Daytona Cobra coupe, which won the FIA World GT Champion in 1965.
Pete Brock’s first success at the wheel of the 1300cc Japanese Hino Coupe was at the Mission Bell 100 held before the 1966 Times-Mirror event in front of 100,000 spectators at Riverside Raceway. Pete and Bob Dunham placed the BRE Hinos 1st and 2nd, which was certainly unexpected for an unknown Japanese car. This was well before Nissan or Toyota ever thought about entering racing in the USA.
Sadly, Hino’s plan to export Contessa’s to the United States were put aside when Toyota began merger talks with the company in February, 1966. It quickly became evident that Toyota, not Hino, would be the car-manufacturing branch of the business. Hino was to concentrate on trucks and buses.
Mass production of the Contessa 1300 ended in April 1967, just two years and seven months after it began in the summer of 1964. Assembly of existing body shells and parts continued at a slow pace into the summer of 1968. A further 175 Contessas were built in October 1969 as part of a final disposal of stock.
Although the Japanese Corvair was never imported to the American shores, Hino did eventually establish a foothold here in the USA. Hino Motors, Ltd. is now the fastest growing truck manufacturer in the U.S., with local manufacturing, a centrally located service parts operation in Mississippi, and a dealership/service network with over 175 locations.
“Japan: The Government-Business Relationship A Guide For The American Businessman.” by Eugene J. Kaplan, Director, Far East Division, Bureau of International Commerce. February 1972. pp. 113-114.
Hi Paul Niedermeyer, Thank you so much for posting my article about the Hino Contessa 1300. Also, thank you for complementing the article with the colorful photos. This is my first submittal to Curbside Classics and I’m happy to be among the authors whose work appears on this great website! Allan Lacki
From 73-76 I had a 1968 Contessa while stationed in South Korea with the US Army it really was a good car except it loved to blow its head gasket at the wrong time and wrong place and only when I was in a hurry to get someplace
Sweet looking car. I’ve heard of the Hino Contessa, and I’ve seen pictures of the car, but because the car was never sold here in North America, I’ve never seen one in person. What a shame. While heavy trucks are nice, it would’ve been nice to see, and perhaps drive, a Hino car, or a compact truck.
Persistent rumor has it that the first-generation Toyota Hilux had been developed by Hino, being that Toyota had previously only offered car-based pickups in that class.
Oh perhaps the ‘ Stout ‘ ? .
That being the 1960’s Toyota Pick Up that (I think) pre dates the HiLux .
The Stout predated the merger and was considered, in Japan at least, an altogether bigger and heavier truck. The Hilux came out in ’68 or ’69 and replaced the Corona and Crown pickups.
I first saw the Contessa in a pocket sized car spotters guide in the early ’70s. A mashup of Corvair, Renault R8 and Triumph Toledo/Dolomite. Like Pininfarina, Michelotti had a talent for foisting the same design on multiple clients.
The Contessa preceded the Toledo and Dolomite by five years or so, but it does smack a bit of the Mk1 Triumph 2000, which was also a Michelotti design (and presumably inspired the later Toledo/Dolomite).
It’s reminiscent in look and size to the Triumph 1300, which debuted in 1965, and was later used as the basis for Toledo and Dolomite (despite the 1300 being FWD and the Toledo / Dolomite being RWD).
Also ever so slightly like a Skoda 110R, which was also rear-engined of course.
Eiji Toyoda said in his memoir that Hino was actually keen to get out of the car business. Getting into passenger cars in the first place had been their previous president’s idea, but after he either retired or died (I forget which), his successor decided that it was throwing good money after bad and the Toyota alliance provided a graceful exit.
I didn’t even know Hino made cars at one time. I first became aware of the brand in the early 1980s, because the majority of the privately owned minibus fleet on this island are Hinos imported from Japan or built locally using Hino chassis. Many of them have been on the road for close to 30 years as well.
Nice-looking car; pity we didn’t have it here! Though I suppose Toyota was protecting their interests, and the Corona of the time was a decent enough car as well. And despite the Michelotti “family resemblance” I still think it’s unique enough to stand out.
Who said that Japanese cars of the early to mid 60s had no style? The coupe is a beauty. If not for the traditional front fender mounting of the rear view mirrors, this looks like something that would come from Italy or Germany.
The two door coupe reminds me of the Renault Caravelle
I’ve always looked back in wonderment what it would have been like had some of the more interesting Japanese vehicle manufacturers had made it onto these shores, rather then just the usual boring Toyota and Nissan. Cars like Hino and Dihatsu, motorcycles like Lilac and Marushin – or even had Bridgestone continued.
Why is it in America the boring manufacturer always wins out? And Honda’s about as close to an exception to that rule as we got.
Sweet looking little car ~
Too bad Toyota didn’t slap a badge on it and let us decide if we liked it or not…
I wonder if royalties were still owed to Renault?
I like it.
The nose reminds me of a VW type 34.
The drive train reminds me of an Alpine A110
The name is horrible though…stupid in fact.
Allan, great write-up. I love rear-engined cars, and I’ll have to admit this is one I’ve never heard of before. I hope to see more posts from you in the near future!
The whole rear-engine detour of the 1930s-60s is so fascinating. Had these come over, it would have been interesting to see how they held up in American conditions. None of the rear engined Renaults (or any other kind?) developed a very good quality/durability rep here.
This car sort of falls victim to the styling failure of almost every rear engine car – nobody quite knew what to do with the front. The VW treatment was perhaps the most original, but the rest couldn’t really figure out how to make a grille-less front that was really attractive. The 1965-69 Corvair may be as good as anyone ever came up with.
If you use Google translator, it’s possible to get a grasp of the Contessa’s history in Israel, here:
According to the above source (who is very reliable I believe), Kaiser Illin assembled more than a total of 8000 of all models, which included the 900 (the model between the 4CV version and the 1300) and the Briska pick ups (already featured here). Paradoxically, only two Hino trucks were ever imported to Israel…
Indeed. Here are two Contessas in from a meeting in Israel:
Yohai, in 1969, my family spent the summer in Israel. My parents, who drove a series of huge Oldmobile 98’s in the US, rented a Contessa.
Of course, the Contessa had a 4-speed manual transmission. After it stalled out several times in climbing the hills from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, my mother brought the car in to the rental agency.
I was 16 years old, and had the explanation, but she would only accept a response from the mechanic: Although she was correctly shifting up through the gears to accelerate, she didn’t know that one must down-shift, in order to drive uphill.
To come full circle: She is now in her 80’s, piloting a Camry (after the demise of Olds). This Japanese car has standard luxuries that Hino never imagined, including automatic transmission…….. She claims not to remember the Contessa at all, but I still shudder when I recall lugging that little 1200 cc. engine in the rear.
And two Hino pickups from Israel, too:
(this in the one that was featured here, as T says:
I always thought it looked like what a 60’s Skoda should’ve looked like, in a parallel universe where the Czechs could afford an Italian redesign, and do it properly. It’s not an improbable proposition, Tatra hired Vignale to design the 613 in the 60’s. And Michelotti did a better job at doing that Hino than Skoda did with its (to my mind) quite awkward lookin Skoda 100.
I posted to an earlier comment before reading yours, but yes, I see the Skoda vibe about it.
Sort of like R10 plus some Nash genes! (5 main bearings, squeezy doorhandles)
What happened to Hino is the same that happened to Isuzu some 25 years later. Hino and Isuzu abandoned the passenger car and light truck market to concentrate on medium duty trucks only to this day.
Both Hino and Isuzu build all sizes of trucks I was driving 500hp Isuzus last season and one company I worked for has all Hino 3axle cement mixer trucks.
Isuzu still sells pickups and SUVs in other parts of the world.
The light duty trucks and SUVs are shared-platform vehicles which are sold as Chevrolet and/or GMC in North America and other countries.
The coupe version kind of looks like an Amphicar to me. Another car I had no idea about. Nice writeup Allan, welcome to the club.
Michelotti did the Amphicar as well. And with Triumph mechanicals. The world can be a pretty small place sometimes…
Or, I take that back. I can’t find anything to back that up, but I had a definite feeling Michelotti was involved in designing the Amphicar. It’s very much his lines all over it.
It did use Herald mechanicals.
This is what I love about this site,discovering cars I’d never heard of.Thanks for a great read Allan
Agreed, one I was not aware of. Furthermore, I like it.
I havent seen a Hino Contessa in a very long time a workmate at a powerstation had one a 4 door with planed head twin carbs and headers it went ok for what it was but began burning oil at not very high miles and was sold in favour of a 125 Fiat which went even better and responded to tuning better, I dont think the two door ever sold here at least Ive never seen one.
An enjoyable article on a never-seen car. Just think, if they’d been imported to the US, I’ll bet the Hawaiian Big Island dealership would have been named Hilo Hino.
I remember seeing a few 4 doors around oz, but never the coupe. Fantastic article Allan! Keep them coming.
I learned some new things from this post, but the question I have (and tried to find the answer elsewhere), did these later Hinos continue to use Renault technology. Specifically, this larger 1300 cc engine; is it related to the Renault R8/10 engine, or a Hino development?
Great article, thanks! Those headlight bezels look like they were borrowed from a Bullet Bird, wonder if they were FoMoCo surplus?
Nice article, Allan!
Gosh there are so many styling cues that were all over the globe at that time. There’s even a bit of Karmann Ghia 1600, which is one car that solved the no front grill, rear engine dilemma beautifully.
Got to wonder if the similarity to Corvairs would have hindered the car if it made it into the U.S. marketplace.
The roof in the rear of the 4 door looks like those Datsuns we saw here in the states during the late 60s.,. What did they call it, the 410, which preceded the 510 ? I also see BMW in the rear door. Yes, that 2 door is a nice looking car, like the second generation Corvair.
Michelotti appears to have made a business of selling the same sausage in different sizes. The coupe has a very strong BMW 700 vibe and the side view of the sedan is very Triumph like. Interestingly the Renault heritage comes through in the front styling the looks very much like an R8. It’s too bad Hino shifted to trucks, if they had stayed in cars and linked to Renault they would have probably come up with a Japanese R16 by 1970 or so.
Fascinating. I never knew these existed. I knew about Hino trucks though, as I lived in Japan for close to a decade starting around 1978. I have a very vivid memory of seeing the name Hino filling the rear view mirror of my Kei car. I never checked but I am pretty sure that, no matter how small their cars, Japanese trucks are pretty damn near as big as American trucks; but maybe it just seems that way when you’re driving a Kei car.
US trucks are the same size generally as Japanese British Swedish or any other, configured worldwide to legally transport shipping containers they are all 2.5 metres wide and axle spacings to meet local loading regulations
This is pretty much the view of a Hino truck as I saw them
Neat little car I never knew existed. Ill admit though….seeing the feature car sitting on Ansen slot mags…..how could I not love it?
Attractive little cars, especially the coupe. Never seen one, but then my only experience with Hino was being press-ganged into driving one of their moving-van-sized Cab-Over-Engine trucks when doing transport/production-assistant type work on a movie or TV crew in the late ’80s. It might’ve been carrying pieces of the set, or maybe all the lamps and rigging for the Lighting Dept. To this day it’s still the largest hunk of metal I’ve ever made move around.
I remember that Hino drove pretty well, despite my always being slightly freaked-out by being in a COE. (I don’t know if they’re statistically any more dangerous than trucks with hoods, but they certainly feel like they are: when the traffic in front of you is just a windshield away, I find it hard not to visualize being pitched through that windshield headfirst. I gather the cabover configuration bothers a lot of people this way.)
But mostly what I remember is that, legally I shouldn’t have been driving it, as it was one size category above what my general Driver’s License allowed. I should have had a truck-driving license for that Hino, but I handled the vehicle’s hugeness well enough not to arouse any police attention, and so never get nabbed. It was neither the first nor the last time someone was asked to break the law for the movies 🙂
Would have looked something like this…
Very nice article Allan. Living here in Tokyo, I can tell you that these cars are fondly remembered. As with most Japanese cars of this era, there are few left behind. Until the law was changed about 15 years ago, keeping a car older than ten years old was very expensive; to both insure and pay tax on.
Pictures don’t quite capture how low and sleek the car is – it was a very attractive design, especially when compared with its Japanese contemporaries.
In addition to sedans and coupes, Hino offered a “Sprint” version of the Contessa with a lower, sleeker body, also designed by Michelotti. You can see one in action on YouTube at the address below.
All new to me too.
I saw the opening photo and thought “Renault 8?”.
And scrolled down to the 4CV. It’s always fun to find about something like this from an absolute cold start
What would have happened had Hino remained part of or merged with Isuzu instead of being acquired by Toyota?
Also is it known whether the 1300cc and prototype 1500cc engines for the Contessa were related to the Renault Billancourt or Cléon-Fonte engines?
Why is it that certain Japanese carmakers never produced their own Kei Cars such as Hino, Isuzu, Nissan and Toyota when all were theoretically capable of developing and building them?
Managed to find out a bit more on the Hino 1500cc engine (apart from which Renault engine the Contessa unit was based on), apparently its displacement was to be 1471cc via a bore and stroke of 77mm and 79mm with the Contessa saloon planned to put out 70 hp, the Contessa coupe planned to put 80 hp and a twin cam version of the Contessa coupe planned to put out 90 hp.
It seems the Contessa engine was envisioned to grow up to as much as 1600cc and put out 100+ hp though it never progressed beyond a paper project. – http://www.hinosamurai.org/Contessa_Story/Story_08/Story_08_03.html
(Japanese link: Appears HinoSamurai.org can be contacted for English language inquiries)
Curiously it seems a motorsport focused Contessa prepared by DEL Racing featured a 115 hp 2.6 V8 sourced from the Toyota Crown Eight. – http://www.automobiles-japonaises.com/DEL_Racing/DEL_Racing1.php (French link)
The Hino Contessa , especially in the coupe bodywork , is unmistakably another beauty designed by Michelotti . For me it isn’t the Japanese Corvair but has a stunning resemblance to the latest Panhard-Levassor . Even the front lights seems a transplant from Volkswagen 411 LE .
Even with all these weird blends, the Contessa still looks delightful .
I have a Contessa 1300. Purchased the car when I was 16, moved to the USA 5 years later, and brought it along with me. It was in perfect condition beside a damaged muffler. I left it on my driveway for years and now it is no longer the beauty it used to be. The car has only 60,00 miles on it. I wish I could afford a restoration job as I love this car