I was there : Recollections from Japan

Thank you, Declan, for an excellent account of the ADO16 in Japan. I was the BL Export Sales Manager for Japan based in London from 1972 until 1977, when I joined Leyland Japan [LJ] in Tokyo. This was a joint venture with Mitsui Bussan holding the majority share. LJ changed its identity to BL Japan and then became Austin Rover Japan when ARG bought out Mitsui’s shareholding in 1983.

I had the privilege of being appointed President (CEO) of this company. By this time, we had escaped from the nightmare of trying to sell US-specification Triumph TR7s and Rover 3500s and our only reasonably successful ‘volume’ models – MGB and Midget – had gone out of production. As there were no suitable ARG models homologated for the US market, we were in the odd position of having only Jaguar and Daimler to sell.

The Mini was in demand and was being grey imported in quite big numbers, so we worked hard to get it officially homologated. It’s another story, but in the end we succeeded and I was very happy to secure an initial order for 1000 Minis, which I believe was at the time the biggest single order ever taken for a foreign car. Subsequently, we took over Nichiei Jidosha, thereby doubling the size of our operation, and finally signed up Peugeot as well because the ARG-Honda models were still years away!

Mini Cooper RSP

Going back to the ADO16 story, there were originally two BMC importers: Capital Enterprises with Austin and Nichiei Jidosha (meaning Japan-British Motors) with Morris and MG. The emission standards introduced around 1973 were so severe that only models which already met the Californian standards could be easily homologated in Japan.

Everything else had to be fitted with exhaust catalysts locally and the cars were approved one by one at local MoT test stations, at significant unit cost. The numbers of ADO16s imported at that time were tiny and these were sold at surprisingly high prices to a limited clientele of British car enthusiasts.

As you say the ADO16 did far better as a classic than as a new car. The craze for the Vanden Plas Princess really got going at the time of the ‘bubble economy’ which peaked around 1990 with property and classic car prices going crazy.

Vanden Plas Princess

At that time, the cars were relatively new and many low mileage examples found their way into the market, again with local emissions modifications and usually with local air-con fitted too. Cars with the AP auto transmission were especially sought after.

The extraordinary thing is that here we are 30 years later and some of those very same cars are still being sold at retail. In that time, the pound sterling has dropped from around Y350 to Y160, which is why these cars now appear outrageously expensive from a UK perspective.

Finally, I wouldn’t say the Mini was looking passé by the 1990s at all – it went from strength to strength as a Rover Japan model with numerous special editions including Coopers, Mayfairs and the like and ultimately sold around 12,000 per year.

If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!

Cedric Talbot
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  1. Reading stuff like this, from people who actually know rather than what their dad told them or they learned from media myth – is so good. More please – from those who were there!

  2. If there was big demand for the Mini in Japan to the point it was being grey imported in quite big numbers, was there any consideration or feasibility studies done into possibly developing a post-1976 550cc (or later 660cc) Kei Car spec Mini to further capitalize on the car’s popularity in the country? Especially as engine aside it was otherwise compliant in terms of dimensions after 1976 or were there other factors that made the idea a non-starter?

    Understandably given BL’s situation, they would have likely had to source an outside engine suitable for the Kei class. The link between BL and Honda potentially opens up the use of the 545cc Honda EH twin that appeared in the Acty and Today from 1977-1988, whereas Innocenti later made use of a 617cc Daihatsu AB twin for the Mini 650 (1984-1987) that originally appeared from 1976 in 547cc form powering the Hijet and Cuore / Mira.

  3. Trying to tack down anyone who was involved in Austin Rover Japan. Can anyone help?

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