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.
That creates sentimental value for well-preserved or lovingly restored models.
"They feel closer to these cars," Terry Yamaguchi said. "They are not supercars, but people love them. These are like Mustangs or Camaros to them."
Celebrity car collector Jay Leno has also helped fuel the growing demand.
The former longtime host of "The Tonight Show," who has one of the world's largest private collections of classic cars, featured a 1966 Mazda Cosmo 110S on a November 2012 episode of his "Jay Leno's Garage" online video series. That rare sports car was the world's first to feature a rotary engine, and was made for the Japanese domestic market only — and hence is a right-hand-drive car. Mazda later popularized the engine with its RX-7, a sleek, two-seat hatchback launched for the 1979 model year.
Examples of the Cosmo in good condition, Bizek said, go for $50,000 to $80,000. The price started going up, Bizek said, after the Leno Cosmo story aired.
"Anything Jay has, everybody wants," said Bizek, whose company does a brisk business importing and restoring Nissan Skylines and Bluebirds, as well as 1960s and '70s classics made by Toyota, Isuzu and other marques.
The Skylines are particularly hot. An "as-new" condition C10 Skyline two-door coupe could be worth as much as $145,000, Bizek said — about double what they were worth when his company began importing cars six years ago.
The experts don't see the market topping out any time soon, even if the collectors are sometimes accused of overpaying for certain classics.
Former car dealer Malamut said a car expert at a well-known auctioneer called him an "idiot" when he paid $650,000 two years ago, setting a world record, for his Toyota 2000GT.
A year later, a similar car sold for almost twice as much.
The heartbreaker? Twenty years ago, Malamut had a chance to buy a 2000GT in good condition for only $65,000 — and passed it up.
"And that was just what the guy was asking," he said wistfully. "I probably could have had it for $50,000."
Charles Fleming writes for the Los Angeles Times.
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