The Japanese have had a long-standing love affair with British cars, often seeing them as offering the ultimate in style and prestige. In the late-1980s, this sparked off a craze for locally-produced modern interpretations of certain British classics, with the new versions usually being based on popular Japanese hatchbacks.
Here we take a look at some of the so-called kawaii – or cute – cars that owe their inspiration to BMC>Rover products.
So good they had to copy ’em
Suzuki Suzulight 360 TL
In 1962, long before the kawaii car concept was even dreamed of, Suzuki set the ball rolling with this virtual clone of the Issigonis masterpiece. It even had turn-signal indicators mounted high on its B-pillars, echoing a feature of the XC9003 Mini prototype. The TL’s front-mounted, two-stroke engine drove the front wheels but, unlike the monocoque Mini, it retained a separate backbone chassis.
Daihatsu Mira Gino
Daihatsu capitalised on the Mini’s extraordinary following in Japan with this effectively-styled homage, based on the third-generation, 659-cc Mira hatchback. Like the Mini itself, the Gino gained some sort of cult status, with both Daihatsu and aftermarket suppliers offering a boutique-load of accessories for those who want to further customise their cars. Needless to say, the Cooper look was a popular choice.
Autech March Rumba
The Nissan March-based Rumba bore more than a passing resemblance to the Mini, with its round, white-lensed indicators below the headlamps and similarly-shaped grille. However, it was actually conceived with the original Renault 4 in mind, and follows that car’s frontal styling quite faithfully.
Thanks to Richard Watchorn for pointing out the Renault 4 connection.
This Mazda Carol-based concoction was intended to evoke the spirit of the Wolseley Hornet, although it could be argued that, without any attempt to replicate the original car’s prominent boot, it is more akin to the South African Wolseley 1000. Mitsuoka clearly took greater care when mimicking the front-end styling, attempting to recreate the curvature of the bonnet and its shutline against the front panel. A larger version of the Ray sought to ape the Wolseley 1100 (see below).
Autech Rafeet (written by Asopèe Simeli)
It seems that the new Mini mania has eclipsed Japan’s love for the retro Vanden Plas Princess look on their small cars. The previous generation Nissan March (Micra) had a profusion of retro models solely for the Japanese market. The new March with its cute ‘modtro’ looks provides the perfect base for retro cars. The large front lights and curvy body shell ape the new MINI, Nissan offshoot Autech has introduced the Rafeet a MINI look-alike on this basis. The plastic Nissan interior is ditched and wood trim is the order of the day. It will be interesting to see if other boutique manufacturers follow suit.
Hindustan Ambassador Classic (proposal)
This smooth-fronted styling proposal for the legendary Hindustan Ambassador popped up in 2001, when the hype surrounding the new Mini was at its height. It has to be said that the marriage of old and new works rather well, but unfortunately little more was ever heard of this new version, and the Ambassador still looks much the same as the 1950s Series III Morris Oxford on which it is based.
The resemblance between the front styling of the Sirion and that of the new Mini is striking. However, Daihatsu can hardly be accused of faking it here, as its car was launched around three years ahead of BMW’s. So, could the Sirion have provided inspiration for the Rover design team which worked on the Mini? Well, probably not directly, but car design is all about trends and shared currency and, in some respects, the Sirion certainly seems to have caught the same wave as the new Mini…
No car has been more copied in Japan than the good old ADO16. The 1990s craze for the Vanden Plas versions led to a number of Nissan Micra-based copy-cats being produced, while Daihatsu’s 659cc Mira was chosen as the basis for a Wolseley 1100 tribute model. Visit the site’s ADO16 in Japan page for further reading, including more detailed coverage of the models featured below.
Lotas Princess March
This was the first of the Japanese Vanden Plas lookalikes and, like the others that would follow, it was based on the second-generation Nissan March. Launched in 1995, it was available in both three- and five-door form, and was later joined by a two-door convertible version. The view seen here probably shows the car to its best advantage, with the rear and – particularly – the profile views inevitably being somewhat less convincing.
Copel Ministar and Bonito
This pair of models arrived in 1996. The Ministar (pictured) retained the Micra’s standard rear bodywork, but the Bonito’s rear end was restyled to approximate to that of the original Pininfarina design. Copel also offered a convertible version of the Bonito called the Fresco, although this was actually a badge-engineered Lotas Princess (see above).
In addtion to the Wolseley Hornet-inspired version of the Mitsuoka Ray (see above), there was also this larger, Daihatsu Mira-based version whose front-end styling was more closely aligned with the Wolseley 1100, with the bonnet shut-line straightened out to resemble that of the original. As with the Copel Ministar, the rear-end was left fairly standard, save for modified light clusters and a chrome bumper with overriders.
Perhaps the best-known of Mitsuoka’s pastiche models, the oddly-named Viewt was a latterday interpretation of the 1960s Jaguar Mk2, as driven by Inspector Morse. Despite the size and market-sector of the original car, Mitsuoka still opted to base its copy on the supermini-sized Nissan Micra, giving the resulting car proportions every bit as odd as its name…
Clearly not content with Jaguar’s own late-1990s reinterpretation of the classic ’60s S-Type, Mitsuoka set about creating its own version. Key styling cues include the oval grille and browed headlamps, while the rear wings and lights tried hard to remain faithful to those of the original car. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the incongruous centre section…
Copel came up with this curious amalgamation of a startlingly faithful Series 1 XJ6-style front end grafted onto the bodywork of the humble mid-1990s Toyota Corolla estate. The revised rear-end styling gave an air of bijou Stateside station wagon which was even more at odds with the car’s sublime nose job.
In 1998, around a year after the long-serving FX4 London Taxi had been replaced by the LTI TX1, Mitsuoka came up with this extraordinary pastiche (call it a tribute if you must). Based on the home-market only Nissan Cube (itself a development of the March, or Micra), the Yúga did at least have one feature the standard FX4 could never boast – a hatchback. Mitsuoka later acquired the Japanese distribution rights to the LTI taxi, the TXII, which it sold instead of the Yúga.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.