SOME designs are best as failures when new, so they can become a classic later. The Hino Contessa may be one of those designs.
Today, we talk about platform sharing and rebadging as if it is a dirty new trend that would dilute brand image and result in boring, homogenous cars devoid of character and excitement.
While there is some truth to the charge that rebadged cars can be boring, rebadging or repurposing older platforms and technology has had a positive impact in many parts of the world and was the initial catalyst for the Japanese auto industry.
The Hino Contessa is not a model that many of us are familiar with. In fact, in the course of writing this article, I spent the Internet equivalent of three years of research to find out everything I need to know about the car.
As an online expert on the Contessa, I can confidently tell you that its roots go way back to 1947, even though it was on the market from 1961 to 1967.
The Contessa was basically a Renault 4CV repurposed by Hino and at the heart of the car was Renault’s legendary Ventoux power unit, which is a four-cylinder engine that simply refused to die.
Developed in 1947 for use in the 4CV in rear engine-rear wheel drive format, it had neither the technical uniqueness of the air-cooled flat-four of the Beetle nor an exhaust note that was as interesting as an exhaust note.
This engine was developed and improved many times, and continued to serve various vehicles until 1985, when it last appeared in the Renault 6.
Back in 1961, Hino decided that it would be a great idea if it built cars under its own name. At the time, Hino had been building the 4CV for the Japanese market, which was unimaginatively called the Hino Renault.
They took the 4CV and a hammer and came up with a quirky little design called the Contessa PC-series. Michelotti also sold them the idea for a small coupe, which was called the Contessa 900 Sprint.
Later, Michelotti sold them the design for the Contessa PD 1300, which looks vaguely familiar because it rang the same bells as the Triumph 1300, which was, of course, a Michelotti design.
Pininfarina did the same thing with the Alfa Romeo 164 and the Peugeot 605 years later, so be careful when you go shopping for car design. Them flashy Italian designers, they can sell you the same design a few times over.
The Contessa PC was a strictly Japan-only model, but the PD had export ideas, specifically for the American market. Hino thought “race-and-win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was a good idea, so they engaged Peter Brock and his BRE Racing to campaign the Contessa sedan.
The team took a surprise win at the L.A. Times in 1966 and he later campaigned the coupe. Hino also made a lightweight version of the coupe with deleted equipment and thinner sheet metal.
The car was not pretty, it had some unfortunate design similarities with the ill-fated Chevrolet Corvair in terms of engine layout and front headlamp design, so that must have hurt any chances it may have had in the American market.
By 1966, Hino was already in the hands of Toyota, and because Toyota already had a similarly sized front engine-rear wheel drive car in the pipeline, they stopped production of the Contessa and used the factory to build their products, including the Publica pick-up truck and van.
I say that it’s a shame that the Contessa was not more popular, but only in the sense that it offered something different, but not necessarily better.
Some designs are best left unsuccessful so that they can become future classics and collectibles, because, let’s face it, you wouldn’t buy a Contessa if you lived in the 1960s, but you would think it’s a worthwhile investment if you saw one today.
By the way, I don’t really get Michelotti’s designs. I think I will come up with five ugly Michelotti designs in the near future.