Japanese cars have never done well on the auction block. The record price for an Italian car is $48.4 million, for a German car $31.1 million, $22.5 million for a British car, $22.0 for an American car, and $10.4 for a French car ... while the Japanese record is just $1.75 million.
The reasons for that vast discrepancy are many. Elite Japanese supercars have been few, relatively recent, and they were invariably made in such numbers that scarcity, the other factor required to achieve a high price at auction, has rarely come into play.
The corollary to this is that there's an absolute cornucopia of eminently collectible Japanese classics that are an order of magnitude cheaper than Italian cars of roughly equal performance.
Subaru's WRX series, Nissan's 240+ Z series, the Nissan GT-R dynasty and Mazda's RX7 and MX5 were all rewarding cars, but they were built in such numbers that they'll never be rare enough to command similar prices.
Introduce rarity, and the laws of supply and demand come into play, with the Mazda Cosmo sports car being an example of demand outstripping supply. Three prototypes, 80 pre-production test units, 343 Series I and 833 Series II cars were produced and the Cosmo sold for around $4,100. The Series I cars had a 110 hp 982 cm3 two-rotor Wankel engine and the Series II cars were upgraded to 128 hp, which gave the 940 kg cars a top speed of 115 to 120 mph and a standing quarter mile in the low 15 second bracket.
The highest price paid for a Series I Cosmo is $264,000 (Gooding & Co | Pebble Beach, 2016) with the second highest price going to another white Cosmo Series I at €138,000 ($187,415 | Bonhams | Paris, 2016).
Nissan's Z dynasty sold in great numbers, with 520,000 of the original 240Z sold around the world, the first sportscar to sell in such numbers. The ultimate production variant of the Fairlady Z is the 432 which uses the drivetrain from the third generation Skyline 2000GT-R. The 160 hp 4-valve DOHC six is named "432" for its 4 valves, 3 carburetors, and 2 camshafts. Only 420 were built and they were all originally sold in Japan where they are closely held and hence rarely get to auction. The record for a Fairlady Z 432 is $253,000 (RM-Sothebys | Amelia Island, 2015) with another 1970 model selling for $170,500 (RM-Sothebys | Amelia Island, 2017). Original 240Z models are now topping $60,000, so while the 432 was twice the cost of a standard model when they were new, that ratio is now more like four-to-one.
Yet another collectible from the Nissan stable is the Nissan Skyline H/T 2000GT-R with fabled limited edition cars such as the 'Hakosuka' (1,115 produced from 1970 and 1972) that fetched $242,000 (RM-Sothbys | Monterey, 2016) and the 1973 'Kenmeri' (197 examples produced in 1973) that sold for $176,000 (RM-Sotheby's | Monterey, 2015).
The most expensive Japanese car so far is...
The current record for a Japanese car at auction is held by a Mazda 767B racing car which won its class at Le Mans in 1990, with the race car being sold by Gooding & Co at Amelia Island in 2017 for $1,750,000.
The Group C race car is one of just three built by Mazda, and was twice a factory entrant in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning its class in 1990. The desirability of the car is further enhanced by its competitiveness in vintage racing, where its potent 2.6 liter four-rotor Wankel (rotary) engine pushes out 630 hp. Being eligible for the most prestigious classic racing events around the world is very desirable, but this is competitive too.
The new car charity auction
The most expensive Japanese production car ever sold at auction is currently the first example of the second-generation Acura NSX. VIN #001 was sold brand new for $1.2 million at Barrett-Jackson's January Scottsdale auction in 2016. You could buy an identical fully optioned NSX off the showroom floor for $207,500 shortly thereafter.
Firstly, it must be said that this car is an "outlier", one of those data points which doesn't fit the overall trend. Auction theory posits that you always pay too much at auction, and the larger the universe of bidders at an auction, the greater the likelihood of "irrational behavior."
This car was sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction to the benefit of charity, which adds yet another glitch in the equation, because although Barrett-Jackson (which pioneered the new car charity auction) does not charge a buyer's premium for its charity auctions, the taxman offers a significant tax break based on the difference between the new car price and the winning bid.
The relatively recent practice of auctioning new cars for charity appears to be a non-zero-sum-game where significant gains can be made by all concerned, and the biggest winners are those who need it most. Everybody wins.
Our recent feature article "The spectacular rise of the new car charity auction", explains the forces at play in the charity auction market, and how cars that sell for $X on the showroom floor, can sell for 10X at a charity auction, and the recently recognized monetizable lure of having the very first of a species of car (that is, Vin #001). The top 40 cars sold for charity list is truly a site to behold.
Just the same, the most expensive Japanese production car ever sold at auction was designed and built in America, indicating that globalization is also beginning to blur the lines of marque nationality.
Toyota's 2000GT takes 14 of the top 20 places
The meat of the Japanese collector car for the last decade or two has been Toyota's 2000GT. There are 14 2000GTs in the top 20 most valuable Japanese cars ever sold, and if you take out the racing cars, and count just production cars, it's 17 of the top 20.
Just 351 Toyota 2000GTs were made in 1967 and 1968.
The 2000GT was powered by a two-liter, 148 hp DOHC six developed by Toyota in conjunction with Yamaha. The aim from the outset was to build a hero car and the development costs of the sleek, balanced 2000GT reflected in the price despite undoubted subsidies from the parent company.
Most 2000GTs still live in Japan and only around 60 cars were exported to America, where at $6,800, it was more expensive then a Porsche 911 or E-Type Jaguar.
Such low availability finally pushed pricing past the million dollar barrier in 2013, with three more million dollar sales in 2014 making a total of four 2000GTs that have sold for more than a million: $1,001,844 (€728.000) by RM-Sothebys (Monaco, 2014) and $1,045,000 RM-Sothebys (Monterey, 2014) plus the two that sold for $1,115,000 apiece.
Indeed, until this year, the Toyota 2000GT was the only $500,000+ collectible Japanese production car, comprising all but four of the top 20 most valuable Japanese cars ever sold.
Lexus LFA: Japan's most significant supercar
Only 500 Lexus LFA supercars were built, and only 50 of them were blessed with the Nurburgring package and a $465,000 price tag when they sold in 2012. Thanks to one of them setting a Nürburgring Nordschleife production lap record of 7:14.64 in 2011 (an unofficial record for a production car on non-competition tires), LFA Nurburgring models are now selling for a lot of money - one sold for $825,000 in January (2018), and another for $770,000 in April.
To say that the Lexus LFA has been under appreciated as a supercar is an understatement.
Auction prices have been suppressed because many remained "unsold" on American dealer books, who knew the $465,000 sell price had been significantly subsidized by Lexus in its quest to go over-the-top in building a real supercar. The full story of just how Lexus made this supercar is worth reading, and those dealers in particular have simply been waiting until the market came to its senses.
The next Nurburgring package LFA going to auction will be with Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale in January. I spoke to the vendor, who is a Japanese car enthusiast who had recognized the investment potential and added the car to significant stable, using it judiciously for a total of less than 700 miles.
The car comes with the complete set of every type of merchandise and extra available at the time, and the full imagery of the car's "extras" will be added to this story when the photography is completed. Sadly for the next custodian, the vendor has already had his car around Nurburgring in the complementary racetrack package that was included in the original price.
Nonetheless, our money on the next million dollar Japanese car is the LFA Nurburgring, and it might well be this one. The LFA Nurburgring stands a good chance of being one of the auction block stars of the next decade, and the LFA represents excellent value if you can get one at the going prices, because they too will appreciate.
Here's how the list of top-selling Japanese cars looks today.
20 | $660,000 | 1990 AAR/Toyota Eagle HF89
Gooding & Co | Amelia Island, 2015
19 | $665,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Scottsdale, 2018
18 | $683,200 | 1968 Toyota 2000GT
Keno Auctions | New York, 2015
17 | $750,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
Mecum | Indianapolis, 2017
16 | $770,000 | 2012 Lexus LFA Nürburgring Package
Barrett-Jackson | Palm Beach, 2018
15 | $797,500 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Amelia Island, 2016
14 | $803,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
Gooding & Co | Monterey, 2015
eq 12 | $825,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Monterey, 2015
eq 12 | $825,000 | 2012 Lexus LFA Nürburgring Package
Gooding & Co | Scottsdale, 2018
11 | $880,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Amelia Island, 2015
10 | $925,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
Mecum | Indianapolis, 2015
9 | $935,000 | 1968 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Monterey, 2013
8 | $968,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | New York, 2013
7 | $1,001,844 (€728,000) | 1968 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Monaco, 2014
eq 5 | $1,045,000 | 1992 AAR/Toyota Eagle Mk III GTP
Going to auction from the collection of Juan Manuel Fangio II, this car was the most dominant prototype in US motorsport history, winning 14 time from 23 starts and giving Fangio the 1992 and 1993 IMSA GTP Championship. It also won the 12 Hours of Sebring Race in 1992 and 1993. The car was built by Dan Gurney's All American Racers and when it was retired, it was gifted to Fangio by Toyota. It runs a turbocharged 2.1 liter DOHC four with fuel injection and produced 700 hp in 1992, and 750 hp in 1993.
eq 5 | $1,045,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Monterey, 2014
eq 3 | $1,155,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
RM-Sothebys | Fort Worth, 2013
eq 3 | $1,155,000 | 1967 Toyota 2000GT
2 | $1,200,000 | 2017 Acura NSX
Barrett-Jackson | Scottsdale, 2016
1 | $1,750,000 | 1989 Mazda 767B
Gooding & Co | Amelia Island, 2017