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Leadfoot Contessa: Hino’s Michelotti Masterpiece

Alex Kierstein November 5, 2010 Cars You Should Know 19 Comments

How do you say molto bello in Japanese?

While the much better known (and often misconstrued) relationship between Albrecht von Goertz, Nissan, and Toyota gets a lot of attention, some of the smaller fish in the JDM koi pond had their coachbuilt phase too. Isuzu went all Giugiaro with the gorgeous 117 coupe, and the even more obscure Hino turned to Michelotti when they wanted to inject some Italianate excitement into the staid Contessa range. Just in case your obscuro-meter wasn’t pegged enough with the DKW Monza last week, click through for a little tale from Japan.

Hino got its start actually as a spinoff from Isuzu, and mainly built trucks and buses until the early ’50s, when they began assembling Renault 4CVs under license. The little rear-engined cars coming out of the Hino plant became known for being markedly better-built than their French counterparts, and the buzz must have encouraged Hino to strike out on their own and introduce the similarly rear-engined Contessa range.

Early Contessa 900

Debuting with a 893cc motor, the original Contessa 900 looked almost exactly like the Michelotti-penned , and slightly less like other designs of his, such as the BMW 700. That is to say, it was dowdy. Luckily, even though Michelotti liked to reuse major design themes over several different companies’ models, he occasionally could really knock one out of the park. His Contessa Sprint coupe really captured the essence of slinky ’60s coupe styling language. It retained the Contessa 900 motor, at least until a redesign with input from , who also had significant rear-engine experience with their Renault-based vehicles. Eventually, Hino decided to enter some cars in various racing events, including sending Erik Carlsson to the Safari rally in a Contessa, and working with Peter Brock on developing the Samurai line of racing prototypes. (But that’s grist for another article!) Unfortunately, Hino was absorbed by Toyota in 1967 and quickly ceased producing passenger cars, instead becoming Toyota’s de facto truck division.

Would Hino have been viable as an independent automaker? Who knows, but add this to the list of Italian-designed obscurities made in Japan. Maybe it’ll help you out on a quiz night or something.

Sources: ; ; wikipedia

  • Number_Six

    Sugoi! is the answer to your question, "How do you say molto bello in Japanese?"

    Are the rear wheels of that pretty coupe attached to anything?

    • faster,Tobias!

      That is some scary looking positive camber. It looks like the wheel is about to buckle under.

    • Manic_King

      I'm quite sure that green beauty is missing an motor. That's how ass-engined cars look like when without one.

    • Smells_Homeless

      I think it's on jacks, so as to not require tire maintenance.

  • scroggzilla

    Speaking of Hino and Mr. Brock, here he's seen hooning a Contessa at the '66 Mission Bell 100 at Riverside
    ; width="588" height="378" alt="66 mission bell 100 @ riverside pete brock hino contessa" />

    • Mad_Hungarian

      That sure looks like a BMW 2002 from an alternate universe where the Bavarians put the engine in the back.

      • Stephan

        So you mean like a BMW 700? …

        • Han_Solex


  • tonyola

    Hino would have had to completely redesign its cars by the end of the '60s or early '70s since rear engines were rapidly falling out of favor. Even if they had remained independent, they might have chosen to give up cars altogether since trucks were their main line. But the second-generation Contessa was handsome in a boxy 510-ish way and the green coupe is very pretty.

  • Japanese Rear-Engined Renault knock-offs with Italian Coachwork. Hoonatica for one, please.

  • Mr_Biggles

    Funky grill on the rear. You could almost swap out the tail lights for head lights and drive it either way depending on your mood.

    • fisheater

      I adore the rear grille. A little un-conventional but I prefer it in place of the normal slats you see on other rear engine autos.

  • Yowza! I loves me some rear of that teal machine.

  • Alff

    I fully expect Junkman to show up at some point, to tell us about his Hino history.

  • AteUpWithMotor

    Damn, does the front end of that car look like a customized Karmann Ghia.

    • Ghia nose, BMW e9 greenhouse

      • AteUpWithMotor

        It does have that vibe, although it's not pillarless. It also reminded me of the second-generation Corvair two-door hardtop.

  • Mad_Hungarian

    Wow. That would have made a great design for a Corvair. It's better than the Pininfarina one-off 'Vair from 1961 or so.

  • Peter Brock appears in interesting places in motorsport history.

    Great article! I did not know of this unique car's story.