Japanese vehicles are still too “young” to have a presence at the recently concluded Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, but Infiniti Motor Co. wanted to recognize that the segment still has considerable appeal, particularly for millennials.
Indeed, 22- to 37-year-olds (as the group is defined by Pew Research Center) grew up alongside these vehicles. Their worldview doesn’t include a time before the Asian influx in the ‘80s.
The luxury automaker partnered with Motor Trend Group to present the First Annual Japanese Automotive Invitational. As the brainchild of Motor Trend Editor in Chief Ed Loh, 44 cars were curated to represent the prowess that Japan brings to the industry.
The display was alongside what has become known in Concours circles as the Infiniti corner, which drivers pass by on their way to the Pebble Beach golf course and lodge.
For five years, the brand has set up a pavilion where it shows off its latest models and technology and offers test drives. The exhibit is so well-articulated that it looks permanent, as if it is a longstanding fixture in the Del Monte Forest, the area of mansions surrounding the Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Hundreds of car enthusiasts flocked to the two-day display to gape at the diverse mix of vehicles. While there were a few Infiniti vehicles—a 1994 Infiniti J30 and a Prototype 9—the automaker generously shared the limelight with brands that are essentially competitors in the present-day marketplace.
Vehicles like the 1964 Datsun 1500 Roadster, 1966 Toyota 2000GT and 1970 Mazda Cosmo Sport exemplified the Japanese innovation, design and performance that originates from a rich and historically significant car culture. Japanese 4x4s are “vastly underrated,” Loh said. One of his favorite vehicles on display was the 1978 Subaru Brat that President Ronald Reagan once owned and kept at his California ranch. It was provided by Subaru.
“Younger people love Pebble Beach and love cars and everything that goes along with them,” Loh says. But the Sunday event is very “clubby” and exclusive. “Japanese classic cars are more accessible. Millennials can aspire to and get into this conversation. This is really a natural addition to the events of the week.”
Even though Japanese automakers are the new kids on the block, there’s still a rich and historically significant car culture to be celebrated, and the display also pays homage to the future of Japanese-inspired innovation and design, Loh adds.
Phil O’Connor, Infiniti’s director of marketing communications and media, says he hopes the automaker can build on the inaugural event at next year’s Concours when the brand will be celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“It’s everything we were hoping and more,” he says. "When you see the cars in person together and you realize, there is so much design that the Japanese brands have contributed to the automotive industry, you start to realize how important these designs really are.”
The event and the crowd “far exceeded” the automaker’s expectations, O’Connor says. “And the passion of the people that are here, they are overwhelmed,” he adds. “It all began with the idea of how do we celebrate our Japanese heritage. Even though the brand started in the U.S., it’s rooted in Japanese culture and design and we are a Japanese company.”
The organizers of Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance were supportive of the unique addition to the week’s events, he says. They recognized that the free event would draw a different demographic, who perhaps might then consider the $375 ticket to the gated Concours event.
Concours Chairman Sandra Button took time out of her busy schedule to check out the Japanese Automotive Invitational and says it was a “great selection of really edgy cars that were important in their moment.” A longtime car enthusiast, she previously owned a Datsun Fairlady, one of the cars on display.
Eric Bizek of JDM Legends loaned his Safari Gold 1972 Skyline GT-R "Hakosuka," one of only 1,197 first-generation 2-door GT-R cars ever produced. A first-time attendee at Pebble Beach, he says most of the cars on display at the Sunday Concours event are out of reach for the average person.
“I think that’s the whole reason this subculture of Japanese classic cars exists, because it’s always been accessible," he says. “That’s what got me into it. We all have these dreams of Lamborghinis and Ferraris, but when it came to actually getting something that was still fun to drive and affordable, that’s what got me into it.”
He says the demographics of the collector car market is changing.
“Some of the guys that are 35, 45 years old, they aren’t looking for your typical collectible cars, your muscles cars or even European cars,” he says. “They are looking to reconnect with what they grew up with. Their dad had a 240z. The crazy thing was, a lot of these cars were not intended to be collectible. They were popular because they were affordable, they were reliable and they were fun to drive.”
Those are qualities that every car enthusiast should be able to appreciate.