Car collectors fuel rapidly rising value of Japanese classics

Eight years ago, Terry Yamaguchi paid $5,000 for a bright orange 1973 Datsun 240Z. A couple of years later, she sold the car for a little more than she paid for it.

If only she had kept it.

"Now, that car is worth $20,000," the vintage car collector said.

It's not just the 240Zs. The value of Japanese classic cars has skyrocketed in recent years. A pristine Toyota Celica from the early 1970s can cost up to $20,000. A well-maintained Datsun 510 might go for as much as $25,000.

And a Toyota 2000GT? Don't ask.

A pristine 1967 version of the sports car sold at auction for almost $1.2 million in May 2013 — a record for a Japanese classic. A 1968 model sold this month at an auction in Monaco for just over $1 million.

The shapely coupe was Japan's first supercar, targeting America's Chevrolet Corvette and Britain's Jaguar XKE. Only 350 were made — in part because, at $7,000, they cost thousands more than the competition. Only 54 of the cars were imported to the U.S. with left-hand drive, meaning the steering wheel is on the left.

The $1.2-million sale is hardly top dollar at a classic car auction. Ferrari Testarossas have sold for more than $16 million. Last summer, a 1967 Ferrari 275 N.A.R.T. Spider fetched $27 million.

But the market for Japanese classics has only recently started to catch fire, as a new generation of car collectors — growing up surrounded by Japanese imports — has come of age and started spending.

"Collecting cars is a relatively modern phenomenon," said Don Rose, who handled the 2000GT Monaco sale for RM Auctions and has a 2000GT in his private collection. "For the early collectors, 'Made in Japan' didn't really resonate."

Younger collectors are attracted to Japanese cars in part because they're cheaper.

"It's a way to enter the collector hobby for relatively little money," said Mike Malamut, a retired car dealer who's been collecting for 35 years and has an impressive private collection of American, European and Japanese classics.

But it's not as easy, or as cheap, as it used to be. And that's hard on the collector who's just starting out.

"These vehicles have become very expensive, which is kind of a bummer," said Pasadena chiropractor and car collector George Shapiro, who owns a rare early 1960s Nissan Patrol. "It blows the average grease-monkey hot-rodder out of the market."

Yamaguchi and her husband, Koji, have seen the market explode and encouraged it. This September they will host their 10th annual Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach. More than 7,000 enthusiasts attended last year's show, which featured 420 cars and a few dozen vintage Japanese motorcycles.

While car collectors attending the massive Barrett-Jackson or Bonhams auctions may go ga-ga over Aston Martins or Alfa Romeos, younger enthusiasts come to Long Beach to drool over preserved or restored Datsun 240Zs or Toyota FJ-40 Land Cruisers.

For them, Rose and others said, cars like the 2000GT or Nissan Skyline are as iconic as a Shelby Mustang or a Porsche Speedster were to an earlier generation. Especially the Skyline.

"That's the Japanese 'hero car,'" said Eric Bizek, co-founder of the Utah car importing firm JDM Legends. "The Skyline was highly regarded for its success in racing and being a car that could be competitive globally."

Also, Bizek said, the collectors who are new to the hobby began their driving careers with Japanese cars.

"For a lot of these younger collectors, a Datsun 210 might have been the first cars they owned," he said.