Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Where did all the cool cars go?

September 8, 2009

It was like a dream come true. I’d always wanted a Ford Mustang and there I was, cruising around Tokyo in the latest version of the iconic sports car with the 4.0 litre, V6 engine producing a powerful roar every time I accelerated.

I was able to adjust pretty quickly to the left-side steering wheel — Japanese steering wheels are always on the right — though I had a few embarrassing mix-ups between the directionals and the windshield wipers.


The last time I’d driven such a car was about 20 years ago, when I had a ’78 Chevy Camaro in my senior year of high school in Massachusetts.

Back then most kids in school wanted a car, and saved up from part-time jobs and went to driving school so they could get their license as soon as they were eligible – in my case the day I turned 16 and a half.

These days, however, a lot of young people seem to be more into electronics than cars, with vehicles just a tool to get them from point A to point B. It’s tough competing with all the PCs, cellphones and iPods out there. And money, of course, is a big factor as people cut spending in these low-octane economic times.

But I also wonder if cars nowadays are missing a bit of the cool factor.


Think Steve McQueen’s Mustang in the 1968 movie “Bullitt”, chasing the bad guys around San Francisco in their Dodge Charger. Or Josh Duhamel’s ’69 Camaro SS convertible in TV’s “Las Vegas”. Those cars had audacity and style.

Car sales in Japan hit a 34-year low last year, as the economic slump exacerbated already declining sales due to aging demographics. Maybe it’s just me but the car lineup out there – take a look at all the boxy minivans, and 660 cc minivehicles which make up over a third of the market - is hardly inspiring, and I wonder if this could be part of the problem.

A survey earlier this year by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association showed that autos ranked a paltry 17th among products and services university students are interested in buying – coming in one slot below cosmetics and beauty salons. Computers, fashion and portable music players made up the top three.

It makes sense that carmakers are focusing on cleaner emissions and better mileage as consumers increasingly demand leaner and greener. But in doing so, I hope they don’t sacrifice fun and style.

Unfortunately the Mustang wasn’t mine to keep — it was only a test-drive — and less than 10 minutes after I set out I returned to reality as I rolled back into the dealership. Maybe someday when the kids are grown up, I thought looking at the Mustang emblem on the front grill. If muscle cars are still around then.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Fred Prouser


Raw world, I think we are finally getting the idea that a car is only a vehicle, I think the author is a dying breed, that give automoviles more importance then they deserve. I’m glad we, the younger generations, embrace efficient & functional cars that do not necesarily mean poor design.

Posted by Guido | Report as abusive

I agree with Mr. Gallagher that something’s missing in the “Iconic” sense. But for the same reasons I think the American car companies are failing, I would imagine his imagery of what should fit the skin of an iconic car have become somewhat anachronous. When cars grew up, specifically combustion engine, the timeline is somewhat like a person’s life, complete with good times, bad times, emotions and personalities. This is how I see it, and comment as you see fit.

1900-1920: Infancy – cars didn’t yet know their place as they replaced horses and steam, and like any infant, they were clad in what their parent’s generation thought was fit and proper. They served a purpose and moved from hobby to necesity.
1920-1940: Early Youth – Couldn’t walk or talk without a hand being held, but held their own and began to breed new interests and uses as quality and performance became more useful.
1940-1960: Adolesence – Starting to explore and get creative. Cars began to get personalities and diversify. Everyone wanted one, so cars were styled now to fit individual personalities.
1960-1980: College – They’re on their own now, and some want their own slice of pie, whether it’s performance, class, economy, utilitarian, etc. They are plagued by their own ambitions, and succomb to the real world by outside factors like oil crisis, the digital age, freedom movements, economy. What burned bright and fierce were quickly subdued into mainstream monotony.
1980-2000: First Job – Struggle to make a difference in society despite the restrictions, and a little experience blended with technology goes a long way. Technology and dependence has bred a categorical car that everyone has to have, but has been overshadowed by a world overwhelmed by its own innovations – Both domestic and international. The struggle to conform and obey the rules has changed what people need and want.
2000-NOW: Survival of the fittest. The overwhelming pressure to deliver, but gaining experience has forced the individual automobile to cater to world demand rather than family and friends. Global economy has increased pressure to deliver the stereotypes that were developed in its younger developing years, but it’s learning that it’s all for show. It’s time for a middle age crisis, and that’s what the American automakers are having, a crisis. While some have embraced their years and show they still remember the fun parts of their youth, such as global manufacturers in Europe and Asia, they know they can’t return and make the best of their situation. Detroit has yet to embrace this and still seems set to live out their dying years clinging to a memory of the past. The big three might as well work on a joint project to deliver the biggest American do all hybrid truck/car/minivan/SUV/twin turbo V8 hemi sports with quad engine vents, oversized rims, a battering ram, quad exhaust, in-dash Starbucks dispenser, steering wheel mounted web browser/Nav/DVD player, CVT with gear shift noises and a get out of my way bumper sticker placed just above the optional brass balls/spinners/soccer ball hitch mount cover. And call it the Supernova.


The coolest car I ever saw (circa 1980) was the Matra Simca Bagheera Courreges that my sister in law owned…. which just happened to use the power train from a Renault Alpine and was both nippy and economical.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

AndyO, really? I was entertained by your comment up until ’2000-Now’. Europe and Asia are making small city cars for people taking short trips. Now, the basics of marketing ‘needs’ for US scream this does not work. You fit the mold of all that are disillusioned by your own little world.

Asia is a prime example for car appliances. No heart no soul. A to B cars. Period. Toyota has met its goal of being the biggest and it is failing at it. Quality has gone down and they are losing money. Honda had not moved forward past VTEC engines. BMW/ Benz/VW have terrible reliability and high cost of ownership- with a few exceptions. I am under no illusion the BIG 3 are any better, but to apply a generic comment that Europe and Asia are any better is foolish. BTW, the BIG 3 are global too, but I am sure you knew that as your wisdom precedes you.

The reason cars have lost cool points is because of Asia car company culture, gas prices, and the chronic ADD that has infected the world. We all must have some in-hand toy that flashes and beeps. Cars are so refined that you need not pay any attention to the road, others, or the weather. Just turn on the stereo, hit cruise, talk on the cell, and drink your latte..

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

When the cars are no longer made that are attractive, the people will hang onto the attractive and fun cars.
My neighbor has totally garage kept his 1978 Lincoln with port hole windows , candy apple red , (vibrant colors have even been phased out!???) and when I see him in that car WOW!! That is the neatest thing to see toolin’ down the road!
His wife is so proud of the way he has taken care of that beauty. People honk and wave at him everywhere, it’s like he’s the mayor!
Everyone stops to talk to him and see that gorgeous example of the way american automakers USED to be.
It truly is a crying shame that there isn’t even enough imagination left in the auto business after all these years to return to an ideal worthy of reproduction.
If I see another gray or silver car I am going to be ill.
What ever happened to mint green, vibrant hues of blue, canary yellow,hunter green and gold?
What about pink! Or even a light moon beam yellow?
There is also a light blue that you rarely see these days, aqua.
What happened to the interiors complete with a WING WINDOW!!!?
I miss my wing windows so much that I am now considering following the same path as my neighbor, and I am not alone.
That is.. buy the cars that had all the amenities we are looking for even if they are dated.
I am currently looking at a few, and will probably do this and forego buying another car for a very very long time.
I also recall one of the most beautiful aspects of the car pre-1970, that is, the outstanding round gauges in the dashboard interior, each dial and gauge had it’s own little port on that dash.
Quite beautiful.
When the specifications were sent to automakers by means of politics, there was nolonger a true American car.
I will buy another TRUE American car, but it won’t be by the new establishment.
Nor will I trash the parts and engine of a perfectly good running vehicle to fill my hand with a few dollars in the form of a discount on another cookie-cutter car.

Posted by G | Report as abusive

Are you kidding me? Shelby Mustangs. SS camaros. Hemi-powered Challengers – they’re all out there! All new! These icons of American iron are still being actively marketed to kids today. The kids are just a little older …

Posted by Dave G. | Report as abusive

I agree with the the idea that cars in this day and age are essentially a means to an end. Yes I think cars have lost that distinguishing factor that they used to have that characterized them and had them fit with various personalities and lifestyles, but there has been an evolution of sorts where cars need to be and are focused on fuel efficiency and environment. It’s like back when it was cool to be dumb in school and you would pick on the smart kids. But after awhile kids caught on, through teachings at school and home, that it’s in fact counterproductive to not make an effort. In that thinking I think fuel efficiency and practicality have become the new “cool” over style.

Posted by Vic De Zen | Report as abusive

As we are all convinced that being a man is bad. Anything with raw power, personal responsibility or self reliance is frowned upon and soon the only accepted positon will be in a dress as one of the flock, guarded by more enlighted ones.

Posted by Lemony | Report as abusive

As I’ve written previously, cars are simply a means to an end. Just a necessary evil that we have to endure a little longer. Just like horses were in the old west, trains, planes, houses, jobs, money, etc. – nothing more. Our lives are just a means to end as well.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

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