There have been a number of articles on ViaRETRO recently about obscure Japanese cars, and I’d bet there are not many people who could claim to simultaneously be an expert on the Hino Contessa, Subaru 360 or Toyota Crown. Failing actual knowledge or bothering to do any research there is another way, and I recently rediscovered a hidden reference library of some regard buried deep in my bookcase. This will allow any chancer to bluff their way through the golden age of Japanese motors like a pro, and best of all, it fits right into your pocket. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you not the internet, but Top Trumps Japanese Cars all the way from 1976.
The Top Trumps series offered pre-internet age children an alternative to popular pastimes of the era such as taking sweets from strangers and playing on railway lines. Being a bookish child I was glad of this when my time came round. My main exposure to high stakes gambling had been through Bond films, but here was an opportunity to become a card shark with limited chance of ending up strapped to a villain’s poorly designed death machine whilst he outlined his plan to take over the world. The main casinos didn’t actually use Top Trumps. I’m not even sure those Poker playing dogs did. Perhaps they weren’t car enthusiasts.
For anyone living on Mars, the objective of Top Trumps is to win all of the cards (or cash on the side to make it more interesting – note: this is not part of the official instructions). Each player takes a hand of equally dealt cards, all with an individual Japanese car detailed on the face. Each player holds their cards facing towards them (important to get that detail correct) and reviews the list of characteristics which in this case are top speed in mph, horsepower, engine capacity, number of cylinders and weight in lbs. The starting player calls out which of the characteristics he believes will have a higher value than his opponent’s card and lays it down. The opponent responds by laying down their card and the highest value wins. Complete until bankruptcy. You may have noticed the immediate flaw that assumes highest vehicle weight is somehow deemed to be “best”, which proves that game designers would make rubbish engineers. I assert that a deviation is therefore called for here. Best also to cap bets to perhaps £250 per card to keep it containable.
My various international super villain guests are arriving so let’s take a look inside. Noting that this pack was printed in Western Germany, we need to consider that some of our guests may be travelling from behind the Iron Curtain in their Trabants and Wartburgs so may never have seen many of these cars. This puts me at an advantage, until I note that some cards in the pack never made it to the UK market, or must have sold in such tiny numbers to be all but invisible. A Triumph Toledo lookalike Honda 1300 anyone? Nope, me neither. Just like normal boring cards have suits of diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades, we find them here too. An alphanumeric code accompanies each suit of manufacturer models from Toyota, Datsun, Honda and Mazda with Toyota and Datsun split into further groups. The game is on.
E4, Toyota 1, Toyota Carina ST. I have 100 mph, 86 bhp, 1,588 cc, 4 cylinders and 2,183 lbs. It also sports some fantastic wheel trims but I can’t call those. Damn. Ok, tactics, its 1976 and 86 bhp is quite healthy. We’re calling Hethel rules though where lightweight is a winner, but the problem is that weight is stated in lbs. I know that’s imperial and therefore good, but its three years since we joined the EEC and metric weight is one thing we have actually adopted. However I’m struggling to visualise whether the Carina ST is a racer or a lard mobile. The conversion to middle-ages standard Pennyweight doesn’t help at 636,708.3. Let’s temporarily embrace metric… 990kg. Not lightweight enough to bet the first £250 on I think. Truth be told, the Carina ST doesn’t seem to be a guaranteed winner on anything, so let’s take a deep breath and go for top speed. 100 mph. Card down. The room falls silent as my sinister opponent slaps the Mazda Chantez on the table. 68 mph. Thank the Lord I didn’t choose weight on this one, as 1,102 lbs makes the Chantez a mere housefly. Perhaps he assumed we hadn’t inverted the weight, or maybe he already knew he was onto a loser with a tiny 359cc and 26 bhp in any case. However, I must now pick up both the Carina ST and Chantez and put them at the back of the pack. The tiny Mazda may be back to trip me up.
Several scotch on the rocks and cigars later, I become distracted musing how cool many of these forgotten heroes would look today. With photographs taken minutes before terminal rot set in, they represent an exotic and colourful 1970s. There is a mix of studio shots, with pre-photoshop coloured backgrounds, purposeful looking test tracks shots and glamourous locations. The girl skipping down the steps towards her bright yellow Datsun Cherry 120 looks happy to be there, perhaps anticipating a 90mph dash on the way home. I bet that would be noisy. Being printed in West Germany there are some cards that feature what I can only assume must be importer press shots, unless the Top Trumps organisation employed a crack team of top photographers to stalk the continent and snap someone’s Datsun 180B Station Car whilst the owner spent the afternoon on their sailing boat. That’s the sort of lifestyle that owning a 180B Station Car makes possible. The whole gamut of automotive diversity is present here from the micro cars, through the workaday saloon to the classy coupes. I recall only seeing many of these treasures on frequent childhood trips to 1980s Dublin, where obscure Japanese imports were a way of life before the introduction of the MOT test in the year 2000 (yes you read that correctly). I don’t ever recall seeing a Datsun 240 K-GT in the UK, and never got to experience the 113 bhp pumping out from its 2,393 cc six cylinder. Some are more familiar and although the streets of Northern England weren’t exactly rammed with J-Tin, the Datsun 120Y Coupe, 180B saloon and Honda Civic 3 door were familiar models that introduced me to the concept of catastrophic rust at a formative age.
Hang on, I need to concentrate for a moment, Mazda RX-3 Limousine. There’s no cc measurement. “2 x 573 chambers”… it’s a rotary. What do I do now? I didn’t see this mentioned in the instructions? I can’t get the notes out now, mid game. My credibility would be shot. Either way you look at this, it doesn’t fill my confidence. 2 x 573 is not a large capacity and now is not the time to be debating the merits of rotary versus conventional with so much money at stake. To avoid an international incident, perhaps I should choose a safer option. 106 mph? Bang, Celica GT beats it with 112. Drat.
At least I got to see the Celica GT fleetingly and it’s maybe the coolest car in the pack, poised on the test track resplendent in canary yellow paint and go faster stripes. The Cologne area registration plate lends it an air of continental chic and it’s very purposeful. So would I be driving home in that? Maybe so, on the basis I know they handle well and have good tuning potential. But what about the Mazda RX-4 Hardtop? Placed in a brown room (the 1970s marketing equivalent of a white room?) it looks superb with its quad headlamps, deep dish wheels, wing marker lights and swept back mirrors. More powerful than the Celica GT too.
As the evening draws to a close and I count my losses (the Mazda Chantez scuppered me), I see there is still one last chance to be a winner. Simply by answering seven quite difficult questions about aircraft and doing the product development department’s job for them by outlining an idea for a new game, I can win a flight on Concorde. Collect four card sets and cut the tokens out and I can also get a FREE poster of Concorde. Well, sort of free as I need to enclose a postal order for 18 pence so Wiggins Teape Ltd can post one out from their offices in Chadwell Heath. Best get cracking though, the closing date is 31st January 1977. Hang on… as the room comes back into focus… its 2017, I’m surrounded by empty beer bottles and the competition closed 40 years ago. The world has progressed so far that supersonic passenger travel is now only found in science fiction or the history books. I bet the Mazda RX-4 is long since dust too. And they call this progress? Maybe it’s best that it was all a dream and I didn’t lose all that money. At least not until I head to the classifieds and filter under “Japanese”.