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No law says muscle cars must be confined to the United States. European car companies have demonstrated their ability to shove big engines into mid-size cars many times. Japanese car companies also made their own muscle cars, though they adhere to a more flexible definition. Japanese car companies weren’t exactly big on mid-size cars in the 1970s, nor were they particularly partial to oversized engines. However, they did make stylish sports cars that pumped out decent horsepower figures, in some cases bigger numbers than American six-cylinder-equipped muscle cars. Here are some of the best Japanese muscle cars of the 1970s.

1971 Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R Coupe: the birth of Godzilla

The Nissan Skyline GT-R has roots dating back to the late 1960s. Nissan introduced the Skyline GT-R in 1969 to the tune of a 160-hp 2-liter inline-six with dual overhead camshafts in a four-door body. Later in 1971, it got a two-door version, and right from the get-go, the Skyline made its mark in Japanese touring competitions, winning 52 races in three years. First-generation Nissan Skyline GT-Rs got independent suspension all around, a limited-slip differential, and front disc brakes. The new GT-R could classify as a modern Japanese muscle car as well.

1972 Mazda RX3: a Japanese brand with American sophistication

Mazda RX3 racing in New Zealand
Mazda RX3 racing in New Zealand | Ross Land/Getty Images

If classic American muscle cars spell crude performance, then Japan had its own version in the Mazda RX3. It was on the smaller end of body styles, fitted with a twin-rotor Wankel engine, leaf springs in the back, and a live rear axle. North American markets got a larger 1.1-liter engine producing 125 horsepower, front disc brakes, and a four-speed manual gearbox. Japan, however, got the same engine with lowered suspension and a five-speed manual transmission. It definitely had the look of a classic muscle car and was about as sophisticated.

1975 Toyota Celica GT: almost a Ford Mustang clone

1975 Toyota Celica grand prix pace car on display in Long Beach
1975 Toyota Celica grand prix pace car on display in Long Beach | Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

The 1975 Toyota Celica GT was a legitimate pony car, as Japan’s answer to the Ford Mustang. In fact, a first-generation Celica Liftback would cause a double-take, with vertical taillights and its louver-clad fastback-like rear windscreen. North American markets received the 1975 Celica GT with its 2.2-liter 20R engine, an inline-four with a single overhead camshaft on an aluminum head. It produced up to 96 horsepower with hemispherical heads. That might not sound like a lot, but the Celica GT weighed less than 2,000 pounds, so 100 horsepower, and 120 lb-ft of torque, was enough to have some fun. Its 95-inch wheelbase and power output are comparable to an early NA Mazda MX-5 Miata.

All three of these cars can compare to classic American muscle cars in their own ways. The Skyline had power, the RX3 had similar suspension, and the Celica GT was almost a smaller Ford Mustang clone. In the traditional sense, they aren’t muscle cars, but adapting the definition to fit small, efficient Japanese sports cars means these examples fit right in.


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