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Jesse Snyder is a former Advertising Age and Automotive News reporter.

[los angeles] In a town where half the cars on the freeways today wear Japanese name badges, the first shots in Japan's import invasion were duds. Toyota and Nissan introduced their first U.S. cars in 1955, but within two years were forced towithdraw them.

Engineers and historians can debate whether the early Japanese failure was due to lack of power, poor quality or inadequate size. There is a simpler argument: Baby boomers weren't old enough to drive in the '50s.

Cars produced in the former Axis countries of Japan and Germany (Volkswagen launched the Beetle in 1956) were a tough sell to World War II veterans. And the tiny cars weren't exactly designed for the bumper crop of kids that U.S. families produced in 1946-64. Powerful, roomy Detroit-built cars were kings of the U.S. road. U.S. sales for import pioneers Toyota, VW and Nissan limped along through the late 1950s and early 1960s.

About the time the first baby boomers started getting driver's licenses, import sales picked up. Still undersized and underpowered, the imports had something appealing to the youth market-they were affordable and nursed a gallon of gas a lot further.


Volkswagen took the import lead entering the '60s, hitting an unprecedented half-million units in 1965. It also took aim at the baby boom generation through a hip TV and magazine ad campaign from Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York, that turned VW's shortcomings into assets. The ads touted a dozen or more minor, invisible changes and praised VW's attention to "detail."

Later in the 1960s, Japanese imports began eclipsing Volkswagen and other European imports, but the import share of the U.S. new-car market still was a single-digit number until 1968.

From the Big 3 auto manufacturers' vantage point, it was logical to concentrate on the 90% of the market that was profitable.

When General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. belatedly recognized the import appeal in the entry-level segment in the late '60s and early '70s, they tried designing their own small cars. The Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega, hurriedly designed and introduced, did little to enhance Detroit's reputation with baby boomers.


The Vega, plagued by rust perforation and engine-durability problems, was rushed to market so quickly that drive-through car washes had to turn away 1971 models for fear the chain-drive would tear off the rear suspension.

Meanwhile, the export-oriented Japanese government was able to keep the yen relatively weak through the 1970s, helping Japanese cars remain inexpensive in the U.S. market.

The real breakthrough for Japanese imports in the U.S. was triggered by worldwide crisis. Imports had plateaued at about 15% of the U.S. car market for five years when the first energy crisis hit in late 1974. As the developed world reeled from an Arab-led embargo of oil shipments from a new cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Americans faced soaring gasoling prices and uncertain supply.

Suddenly, the appeal of fuel-efficient cars was much stronger.

By March 1975, the frenzy was so great, used Chevrolet Vegas were priced higher than used Chevrolet Impalas. Import car sales jumped to 18.2% of the U.S. market in 1975 before easing back to a more normal 15% a year later.

But when the second energy crisis hit in 1979, American motorists became fuel-economy believers, putting small, fuel-efficient import cars into the mainstream. Import cars soared more than 10 market-share points in two years, from 17.8% in 1978 to 28.2%, with nearly all by Japanese models.

However, the gain wasn't all crisis generated. Import brands did a better job of tapping into the baby boom generation. The first Japanese cars were aimed at the youth market and Japanese manufacturers have grown up with those early buyers, shifting segments as these customers age, adding larger cars, then luxury cars, and now luxury SUVs.


Japanese brands were faster to respond to changing consumer tastes than the Big 3. Imports were the first to key on more responsive steering and handling in the 1970s and 1980s, but imports also were the leaders in small touches such as adding FM radios.

In other words, says one researcher, "The Japanese were better listeners" to the generation that changed the auto market.

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