Curbside Classic: 1968 Hino Contessa (PD) 1300 Coupé – Deadly Sin In The Rising Sun

It took a few years, but I finally found one! Ever since moving to Japan back in 2019, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for a number of must-find JDM rarities, mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Mazda Cosmo was one, as was the Prince Skyline GT, the Honda Z360 and the Autozam AZ-1. Still waiting on a curbside Toyota 2000GT, but I’ve seen a couple in the wild. It’ll happen someday. Hinos were also on this bucket list, but until late last year, I had not seen a single one.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I did manage a single photo of a Hino-Renault 4CV, but those are not the genuine article. I like me a 4CV just as much as the next man, but coming from France, they’re definitely not as exotic as a Contessa 1300.

The problem with Hino cars is that they really did not exist for very long – and that was quite a long time ago. And unlike Prince, whose technology, dealer network and nameplates continued to exist long after it merged with Nissan, Hino’s automobile side was meticulously and expeditiously eradicated by Toyota when they took over, leaving only the truck side of the business active. But let’s do things chronologically.

Originally part of Tokyo Gas & Electric Co., Hino Heavy Industry was spun off as a manufacturer of Diesel engines, military hardware and tanks in 1942. Reorganized as Hino Motors after 1945, the firm focused on heavy-duty buses and trucks with great success.

Joining the rush to get into the passenger car game came a few years later, when Hino started assembling the aforementioned Renault design in 1953. Within five years, Japanese-built 4CVs were 100% locally-sourced. Production continued until 1963, but Hino felt they could muster their own designs well before that.

The Contessa 900 (PC) was launched in 1961 as a Hino’s first in-house effort. It was like a parallel universe Renault Dauphine – albeit without anything proprietary from the French firm, of course. The licensing days were coming to an end.

In 1964, Hino launched the completely reskinned Contessa PD saloon, featuring styling courtesy of Giovanni Michelotti and a new 55hp 1251cc engine, still located aft of the rear wheels. This was followed by a sporty-looking coupé in April 1965. Before the end of the year, a twin-carb 65hp engine became standard on the coupé and optional on the saloon.

Base model saloons came with a column-mounted 3-speed, but most cars (and all coupés) left the factory with a four-on-the-floor. Aside from this, the 1300 Coupé’s sole exclusive technical improvement over the saloon was its front disc brakes.

The main selling point of the Contessa coupé was its racy looks and bespoke dash, both of which were bang up-to-date for the mid-‘60s. The steering wheel on this car is not the original item (though the wheel hub is), but not too far from it. Sportiness was the name of the game.

The quad headlights in those big chrome bezels, along with the lack of a front grille, do give the Hino a Corvair vibe. But the Contessa’s shape is not as influenced by the little Chevy as, say, contemporary rear-engined NSUs. The Michelotti family resemblance with the Triumph 1300 is far more perceptible in the overall shape, particularly from the B-pillar back.

But even the great Michelotti could not perform miracles. In real life (and to a greater extent in photos), the Contessa coupé’s proportions are a little odd, with that short wheelbase and long tail. In profile, there are some definite similarities with the BMW 700 Coupé authored by the same designer.

But compared to the BMW, the NSU or the Triumph, the Hino was destined to have a rather short and lacklustre production run. Part of that was beyond Hino’s scope, but plenty of it was down to the company’s own decisions, like any good Deadly Sin story.

The issue with Hino’s car range was its limited (i.e. single platform) nature, which did not make for many opportunities for economies of scale. The 1.3 litre engine was also used in the Briska pickup, but those shared little else with the Contessa. The overwhelming majority of the company’s business was and remained big trucks, which were a completely different kettle of fish.

Hino still tried to compete with the likes of Prince and Honda on the track, as evidenced by the stunning (but stillborn) 1967 Samurai racer. It was the brainchild of American racing driver Peter Brock, who raced Contessas in the mid-‘60s with some success. The Samurai featured the Contessa’s 1.3 (in race spec, pushed to 105hp), but everything else was tailor-made in the USA. Alas, it came too late.

The Japanese government, in its infinite wisdom, decided that there were a few too many carmakers in Japan. The fragmentation of such an emergent and strategic sector (Japan was already the world’s fourth car producing country by 1965) was cause for bureaucratic concern, as a dozen separate domestic businesses – as well as an increasing number of foreign ones – competed for slices of the same pie, growing though it might be.

So the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in conjunction with some of the larger Japanese banks, tried to arrange a number of mergers. Prince Motors and Aichi Machine Industry (makers of the Cony kei trucks) ended up with Nissan. Toyota got a controlling stake in Daihatsu and took over Hino. There were a lot of other plans involving Subaru, Suzuki, Isuzu, Mitsubishi and Mazda, but these failed to gain traction – foreign tie-ups ended up being the solution for some of these firms.

Merger talks between Hino and Toyota got under way in January 1965 and were finalized by October 1966. Part of the deal was for Hino to ditch the Contessa altogether and switch their small vehicle line to produce Toyota Publica vans instead, which was done by the spring of 1967. Contessa production officially stopped around this time, though a trickle of cars were still put together (our feature car included) past that date. The very last batch of Contessa 1300s was sold in early 1969.

Why did Toyota nix the Contessa range as soon as they could? There were a couple of good reasons, the first of which was that it was the only domestic rear-engined car in its class. The future of the platform was bleak from that point of view. The legacy Renault rear swing axle setup was antiquated and the 1251cc engine, good though it was, was surplus to requirements from Toyota’s point of view.

The other big issue was that Hino just couldn’t sell that many Contessas. They could barely muster 10,000 units per annum on the home market for the 1300 saloon – the coupé, for its part, was nothing more (and nothing less) than a halo car, garnering yearly sales in the hundreds. The market had spoken, and the word was “Meh.”

And it wasn’t as if the world outside of the Asia-Pacific region was clamouring for Hino cars, either. Some were exported, sure. I even found a French test from 1966, so Hino were bravely trying to sell their cars in some very tough places. The problem was that the Contessa, which had little to recommend it save for its exoticism and looks, ended up costing 15-20% more than a Simca 1300, a Renault 10 or a Peugeot 204. Some Contessas were also sold in Benelux, where they seemed to have fared little better.

Hino even sent a few cars in kit form to be assembled in New Zealand and Israel. Work was undertaken by the local Kaiser plant in the latter country. The car had a relative moment in the Levantine sun and Israel became the Contessa’s top export market. But with only 4300 units made locally from 1965 to 1968, volumes remained modest.

Just over 55,000 Contessa PD saloons and only 3868 coupés were made – a clear bomb for a car in this class. Toyota refocused Hino towards trucks and buses and never looked back. Hino’s venture into the car market was undercapitalized and based on technology that, though it still seemed promising in the ‘50s, was actually a dead end.

Stuck with a platform that made it isolated at home and uncompetitive abroad, Hino played the styling card as well as they could, but it was not enough to overcome the Contessa’s shortcomings. Deadly Sin though it may have been, the Contessa 1300 was still a valiant effort. And what a looker, especially in coupé form.


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Automotive History: 1964-1967 Hino Contessa 1300 – The Japanese Corvair?, by Allan Lacki