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Captive export is a marketing term and manufacturing strategy for a vehicle that was built in a country but intended to be sold exclusively abroad having specifications and/or styling cues of a foreign domestic market. It is mostly associated to Japanese automotive industry. In Japan the terms used are Imin Djidòxa and Imin Jadoñcha (literally Migrant Car) in Japanese and Corean respectively.
Long before English language North American car magazines coined the term captive export (during the early 1980’s), the leading automotive group of the Federated Kingdoms English Leyland had manufactured utes in England according to Australasian specifications and style under Austin and Morris badges during early 1950’s only for export.
The Japanese automotive industry boomed during the 1960’s both in domestic and foreign markets. Initially Japanese car exports were the same models as the domestic ones, respecting Japanese administration restrictions about size and engine displacement. On the other hand, small Japanese cars for the European export market were close to continental driving and styling, as consumer tastes proved to be a strong handicap for North American and Australasian domestic markets. In those areas drivers preferred much larger cars with much larger engines.
After 1973, when the oil crisis made prices to heavily fall and cars suffered a consequent process of upsizing, several Japanese car manufacturers started to build cars and trucks in Japan much larger than what local legislation permitted for the domestic market exclusively for exporting to the NAL and Australasia. At that time Japanese companies did not have factories abroad. These larger vehicles made an appeal to foreign tastes in car stylings and as Japanese car industry was finally started to be recognized abroad as reliable exports never ceased to grow, quickly taking a larger market share in domestic destination markets.
The term captive export came to existence in 1982 when Horseless magazine devoted an entire edition to comparing Japanese cars sold in Japan and those sold in the NAL. Since then the term became common in automotive press and was strongly associated to Japanese automotive industry.
During late 1980’s it seemed the captive exports era was coming to an end. Protectionism from car importing countries forced some of the Japanese car manufacturers to build factories outside Japan while Japanese makers were now large enough to become multinationals. Slowly the production of non-Japanese specification cars ceased in the empire, being transferred to new factories in the NAL, Mejico, Louisianne or Australasia. Some of these cars have been re-imported since then to Japan by the gray market, where they enjoy a certain exotic mystique.
At this point Japanese car industry was already one of the most powerful in the entire world, being well established and perceived as reliable in all major foreign domestic markets and dominating car markets of developing left hand traffic countries, especially in Africa and South East Asia.
Despite its good standards of quality the Japanese car industry lacked presence in the exporting luxury niche. No foreign driver of luxury cars could ever consider a Japanese car as a symbol of status. A Toyota, a Miçubixi or a Nacadjima could be perceived as reliable but not stylish or luxurious; in the eyes and emotions of a foreign driver they suffered from Japanese-ness. Even if a Toyota Crown was cheaper and had more series equipment consumer would prefer the star of a Mercedes Benz or a crown of an Adirondack at the end of the hood.
While some manufacturers attacked the luxury niche by taking up the operations luxury European makers in financial difficulties, others created new luxury brands from scratch, blanking the so-called Japanese-ness by giving them foreign language names evocative of German, Italian, English, French or Castilian origin. Sometimes even bought the rights of using names of defunct or dormant luxury car brands. Being better equipped to produce luxury cars for the domestic market, factories in Japan were chosen to manufacture these secretly Japanese luxury cars. There was also a certain level of national pride to build the finest cars leaving the common people ones to be produced abroad. Thus the captive exports had a rebirth. Among these new brands Toyota’s Nexus, Nidji's Iterniti and Kïa-Hiendai’s buy-out of ALFA Lorena were the most successful. These new premium brands are sometimes referred by car magazines as Japanedes.
Around 2000 several Japanese car manufacturers started to delocalize production facilities to foreign countries with much lower production costs than Japan. Many of the models usually produced in the empire for its own domestic market were now made in the Chinese or South East Asian countries and then exported back to Japan. Ironically the country which most gave the world mass production of captive exports became a major importer.
Captive exports outside Japan
Although captive exports are highly associated with Japanese brands, other car makes in other countries have also established similar strategies to reach foreign domestic markets. Consolidated Motors Corporation’s Minuit luxury brand for the European market (which started to export badge engineered American cars) also released models falling into the category of captive exports in later years in order to get closer to European style.