Last weekend, one of you dear readers infected me with a virus. This bug is telling me that I must give some unknown seller in Japan my money in exchange for some hooptie that’s over 25 years old. After a reader brought a glorious Honda Life to my first-ever Milwaukee area Autopian meetup, I’m now bidding my money on old cars in Japanese auctions. My target? I want to reel in the best car Toyota sold in 1997 (the last full year that is legal to import to the U.S. due to the 25 year import law), the Century. It was once a vehicle for CEOs or heads of state, and I’m going to try to bring the V12 equivalent of Rolls-Royce to America for pocket change. But there are other cars that I want too, so check these out!
Last Saturday, I hosted what will be the first of many Illinois and Wisconsin meetups. It was cold, it was wet, the parking lot was snowed in, and the day was just aggressively Midwestern. Yet, at least 10 of you showed up to American Family Field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for our little car meetup. The cars that came to the meetup were great and ranged from a new Ford Maverick to a pair of clean Jeeps. One of you came from Ohio, which still blows my mind! A few of you even joined me in exploring the Milwaukee International Autoshow, which, bizarrely, had more brands than Chicago despite a far smaller size. Thank you so much for a great time, and I promise there will be another meeting when the weather gets a bit warmer!
One of the cars that came to the meet was this adorable 1997 Honda Life kei car. Now, I’ve known about the Life and have even featured one in an entry of my weekly car find column. However, I’ve never seen one in person and admittedly, I sort of dismissed them because they weren’t the Honda Beat. Then I saw this car and I was instantly reeled in.
The Life is one of several vehicles throughout Honda’s history to bear the name. The first Life was launched in 1971 as a city car available as a two-door and four-door hatch, wagon, and panel van. Then it morphed into a step van and a pickup truck before dying in 1974. Honda brought it back in 1997 as a kei car MPV with a design that sort of nods back to the Life Step Van. The new Life was designed to be roomy and practical while being fun to look at and drive.
Sure, that’s what it says on the press release, but driving it was another story. I got to take the reader’s Life for a spin around the parking lot and it reignited a passion within me. This little car was so fun to scoot around the parking lot with its 658cc 47 HP triple singing. This particular car sported a three-speed automatic, which I’m told still gets the job done. The car will do 80 mph, too. I mean, the reader drove in from Madison, a 75-mile jaunt down the interstate.
As luck would have it, I suddenly have a free parking space for another vehicle. My wife has decided to sell her 2010 Toyota Prius to a friend in need. This friend is a new parent and needs an efficient, reliable, and safe car. I offered them one of my diesel wagons, but our friends are smart. They know that I deal almost exclusively in bottom-of-the-barrel cars with questionable track records. Picking the Prius will almost certainly be best.
To replace the Prius, my partner Sheryl will now drive my 2012 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. This works out great because it’s the car that I’ve been struggling to sell for over a year. I haven’t driven it much since I bought the same car, but with a manual transmission. Now, it’ll be her car, technically removing it from my fleet, which means I have room for one more car!
On my July 21, 2022 edition of Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness, I featured two cars that I’ve been dreaming about lately. The cars that I feature in that column are cars that I genuinely want. Thankfully, I usually don’t have piles of cash like that. One of the cars was a 1997 MGF that was listed for $9,100 and the other was a 1997 Toyota Century for $19,500. I thought that both of these cars were outside of my budget until I checked Japanese auctions, where I found some surprises.
The Century is a seemingly ageless limo that has gone through just a few generations in its over half of a century on this planet. Toyota’s first-generation Century was in production from 1967 to 1997, its design only receiving small updates along the way.
Toyota says that the Century was launched in 1967 as a replacement for the Crown Eight. And while other Japanese luxury cars copied flashy American style, Toyota intentionally built the Century to be restrained. The name isn’t random, either. It’s a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda.
A Century is so conservative that you might blend in with traffic. Yet, it’s a vehicle with such presence that it commands attention wherever it goes without yelling at you as other luxury cars might. The second-generation Century launched in 1997 and I’ll let Toyota explain why you should care:
1) The distinctive front-end design centers around the unique Phoenix mark, made with a hand-carved mold, which perches on a refined, grid-shaped front grille and classic headlamp units with built-in fog lamps.
2) The bumpers consist of superb, hand-finished steel components and shock-absorbing resin parts.
3) The body emphasizes horizontal flows, while the cabin is balanced with the front and the rear, creating a firm and distinguished profile. As with the previous model, the new Century utilizes aluminum door frames.
4) The serene and refined rear view consists of combination lamps arranged along a horizontal line, set with an aluminum center ornament.
5) The full, rich paint tone is achieved by polishing the entirety of the exterior sheet metal and applying up to seven coats of paint.
1) Several pieces of wood paneling are fashioned from the same piece of wood to maintain a continuous grain pattern.
2) Only the highest quality materials, such as crystal glass for the dashboard clock, are used for the Century.
3) Refined Jacquard woolen fabric and the finest leather are used for the seat covers.
This is just a snippet of the incredible amount of work Toyota put into the Century. I highly recommend finishing the press release because it’s just that amazing. These cars have dual-zone climate control, C-pillar pillows for you to lay your head on, soft-close doors, power curtains, and countless other features I’m sure to be missing. Even the engine is there for your comfort. The 5.0-liter V12 under the hood isn’t there to win races, after all, it’s making 276 HP and 340 lb-ft torque and pushing a 4,520-pound car. This V12 is designed to produce the buttery smooth performance that you’d expect in your opulent ride. Check out this lovely review from Throttle House:
The best part is that these are cheap in Japanese auctions. Sure, if you go for a pristine one like in the video above you’ll be paying some decent cash. However, if you don’t mind high mileage–it’s a Toyota, it can handle it–and aren’t afraid of an auction grade that suggests past damage, you can find them for well under $5,000. Just a few days ago, I missed out on one with 100,000 miles that sold for about $2,000.
A British Sports Car, From Japan
The other car that’s captivating me is the prospect of getting an MGF. Now, you may ask why I’m trying to import a British sports car from Japan when I can just get one from the UK. The answer to that one is a bit silly. For this import, I am working with Japan Car Direct, the firm of auction agents who helped me buy a Suzuki Every in 2021. They make the process easy. I just choose the car I want and they handle everything else in Japan. There’s getting transportation for the car to the port, booking a spot on a ship, handling the vehicle’s exportation from the country, third-party inspections, working with the auction houses, and more. Japan Car Direct, like other auction agents and importers, handles all of that so I don’t have to.
I’ve yet to find an equivalent in Europe. If you know of one, please drop it down in the comments or an email. Anyway, onto the car.
The MGF was initially developed starting in 1991 by Rover Group under its final years of ownership by British Aerospace. When introduced in 1995 it was touted as the first all-new MG since 1962. The fresh MGF had some tricks up its sleeve. The 1.8-liter four making 120 HP was moved back to a mid-rear arrangement, the car rode on a Hydragas suspension and it even featured electric power steering.
What is a Hydragas suspension? Instead of separate springs and dampers, you get space-saving displacers filled with an inert gas. It’s a successor to the Hydrolastic suspension designed by British engineer Alex Moulton. In this system, conventional springs and shock absorbers are replaced with a liquid-based suspension system meant to reduce pitch and keep a vehicle level on bumps.
Each unit consists of a damper unit and a Hydragas displacer, an integral spring that uses compressed nitrogen as the springing medium. As a reader once explained, the main difference between the Hydrolastic system and Hydragas is that the Hydrolastic system used displacers featuring a rubber spring.
In other words, this system attempts to fix far simpler springs and dampers and can fail catastrophically, which means it’s perfect for me.
While I’ve seen these for as much as $15,000 here in America, I’m finding them for around $5,000 in auctions for examples with decent grades.
It Pays To Get An Inspection
Of course, I’m not limiting myself to these two. I’m also looking at Honda Lifes as well and I’m just blown away by how cheap they are. Even low-mileage examples with high condition grades sell for like $700. That’s not a typo, you’ll pay more for shipping than you did for the car!
As I’ve advised in the past at the old site, if you’re looking to bid in Japanese auctions, you can learn how to read auction inspection sheets. Even if the sheet fits your fancy, it pays to get a third-party inspection to look things over. Many importers and auction agents can read the sheets for you and arrange inspections, so it can be super easy on your end.
Sometimes you’ll find that a car gets a low grade like “R” (repaired accident damage) for imperfections that are easy to fix, if you even care to fix them. For example, my Honda Beat was given a grade of “RA,” which generally means minor accident damage that has been repaired. According to the notes written by the inspector, what earned my Beat the RA grade was a “dented core support,” but the pictures showed no such thing. When I received the car and saw it with my own eyes, the core support was perfect with no signs of damage. It was later that I found that one of the car’s recovery hooks, which appears to attach to the structure with the core support, was bent.
What I’m getting at here is that if you have a dream JDM car, contact an importer or an auction agent and start prowling the auctions. I’ve used Japan Car Direct and The Import Guys to great success. Your dream car may be cheaper than you think!
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As a fellow Beat owner, and soon to be (new child induced) car buyer, I feel like the auctions are taunting me to by something. Darn you Mercedes for keeping my appetite for JDM imports whetted!
A bit late, but from what I understand, MGF’s are a bit rust-prone, which is probably the best reason to find a Japanese market one. A friend of mine imported one from the UK, and certainly ended up taking a bit of freshening up at the body shop before it got put on the road (although at least he’s got connections that made it pretty reasonable). Still, sounds like it’s a lot of fun now that it’s sorted.
I also live close enough to James from Throttle House that I’ve seen his Century on the road several times. It probably helps that his still has the fender flag mounts, but it has enough presence that normal people get that it’s *something*. Still on my bucket list of cars (that, or swapping the V12 into an SC400 assuming unlimited dollars and mechanical ability).