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.