Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


“AMERICANS,” TOM PROBST WROTE in Road & Track, January 1955, “are often surprised to learn that Japan has a thriving auto industry and that the narrow streets of Tokyo are choked with cars of every description.” 

Probst reported, “The notion persists that rickshas run up and down quaint avenues lined with clipped trees and ricefields, but the comparatively few remaining rickshas are used mostly for show or by some older people—a little like the few families that still use electric cars in the U.S.” 

Indeed, how times change—everywhere.

Background. Ford had built cars in Japan from 1925 to 1939. GM was there 1927-1939 as well. Before World War II, Probst noted, “Japan had a small domestic auto industry limping along, but the styles looked like 1928 Chevrolets on a minute scale.”

A Fallacy of “Cheap” Labor. “Japanese auto-makers,” Probst said, “are limited by inferior metals and low budgets. ‘Cheap’ labor, however, permits many parts to be hand made. The fallacy of cheap labor is readily revealed in view of the fact that a Japanese-built car sells for as much in Tokyo as a Ford made in America, transported across the Pacific and taxed in Japan with staggering import levies.” 

What Are Japanese Cars Like? “They are small,” Probst said, “ranging from Crosley-size to Austin-size. Most have four cylinders, although some makes in limited production have two or even one, and nearly all are four-door sedans. There are four major manufacturing companies whose products—by increasing size—are the Datsun, the Ohta, the Toyopet and the Prince.” 

Probst then shares brief technical details of these and other Japanese products (as quoted in the following). A bit of Internet sleuthing adds to the information. 

Datsun. “Four cylinder, 860 cc.” Wikipedia notes, “In 1931, Dat Motorcar Co. chose to name its new small car ‘Datson,’ a name which indicated the new car’s smaller size when compared to the DAT’s larger vehicle already in production. When Nissan took control of DAT in 1934, the name ‘Datson’ was changed to ‘Datsun,’ because “son” also means “loss” ( son) in Japanese and also to honour the sun depicted in the national flag – thus the name Datsun.”

1955 Datsun 110. Image from

Ohta. “Four cylinder, 903 cc. Sharing 85-in. wheelbase and 150-in. overall length with Datsun.”

“The small, austere Ohta,” R&T reported, “has good window area.” Image from R&T, January 1955.

Ohta Jidosha (Ohta Automobile), founded in 1922, was one of the largest Japanese automakers in the 1930s. It continued producing cars until 1957. 

Tomorrow in Part 2, we encounter a Japanese automaker still very much in business (Toyota), and others. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022  

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