Unlike many cars found internationally of this time period, using rear drive and rear engined powertrains, the Contessa was water-cooled rather than air-cooled. The name contessa is Italian for a female Count.
PC series (1961-1964)
47,299 of the PC-series Contessa were built, between April 1961 and fall 1964. With an 893 cc version of the Renault-based GP engine, max power is 35 PS (26 kW) which provides a top speed of 110 km/h (68 mph). The first Contessa originally received a three-speed column mounted shifter, later a four-speed manual became optional, utilizing an electromagnetic clutch apparatus called Shinko-Hinomatic. The gear change came in for a certain amount of criticism, a result of its long and cumbersome linkage from the steering column to the rear-mounted transmission.
As Hino had a business relationship with Renault at the time, and the powertrain was largely adapted from an existing Renault product, there are clear similarities to the Renault Dauphine. The drivetrain and suspension were carried over from the Hino Renault (PA). The main improvement over the 4CV was that the Contessa 900 was a full five-seater, making it a much stronger competitor. The engine was installed longitudinally, meaning the radiator was against the outer edge of the engine bay, whereas the Renault installed the radiator against the firewall, and the Hino engine sat in a north-south orientation with the transmission attached inside the engine bay next to the Contessa's firewall. The engine was slanted to the left, and utilized a crossflow cylinder head. The rear suspension used swing axles.
The first Contessa was never intended for export, although foreign language brochures were printed up for the Michelotti-designed Contessa 900 Sprint Coupé. Aside from the stylish bodywork, the 100 kg lighter Sprint (650 kg/1,400 lb) also benefitted from an Ufficine Nardi-tuned engine (and matching steering wheel) with Weber carburetors and 45 PS (33 kW). The Sprint was introduced at both the 10th Tokyo Auto Show, and the Turin Motor show in 1962, and followed at the New York Auto Show in 1963. Top speed was claimed to be 140 km/h (87 mph). So that there would be no doubts about its provenance, the scuff plates at the bottom of the door apertures read "Hino-Michelotti". The Sprint had a floor-mounted shifter.
PD series (1964-1967)
With design by Giovanni Michelotti (who had sold a very similar design to Triumph for their 1300), the second generation Contessa debuted in September 1964. While considerably longer and heavier, the PD Contessa also had a much more powerful 1,251 cc four-cylinder engine with five main bearings ("GR100", 55 PS/40 kW). With a four-speed manual transmission, top speed is 130 km/h (81 mph). A handsome coupé version was presented in April 1965; the coupé benefitted from an upgraded engine with twin carburetors and slightly higher compression and 65 PS (48 kW) from November of the same year. With chassis code PD300/400 (versus PD100/200 for the regular sedan), this sporting version was marketed as the "1300S". 100 and 300-series are right-hand drive, while 200 and 400-series are left-hand drive. The use of twin headlights does contribute to a mild similarity to the second generation Chevrolet Corvair, and the lack of a front grille because both the Contessa and the Corvair are both rear engined and rear cooled (air for the Corvair, water for the Contessa).
This generation of the Contessa was also exported, to Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands amongst others. As a part of this export drive, the Contessa also saw local assembly in New Zealand (by Campbell Motors, around 600 are thought to have been assembled there) and in Israel (by Autocars). 55,027 PD Contessas were built, of which 3,868 were Coupés. As of 2007, only 105 Contessas remained on the road in Japan, although many New Zealand-built cars are exported back to Japan. While series production ground to a halt in March 1967 following Toyota's purchase of Hino in late 1966, assembly of existing shells and parts continued at a slow pace into the summer of 1968, with ever higher Toyota parts content. A further 175 were built in October 1969, as part of a final disposal of stock. As production of the Contessa began to wind down towards discontinuation, the factory was repritorized to produce the Toyota Hilux pickup truck, and the Toyota Publica truck, then later was used to manufacture the Toyota Sprinter.
The earlier column-mounted three-speed manual continued to be available in the sedans, while a floor-mounted four-speed manual was standard in coupés and an option in the sedans. A 1.5 litre version of the GR100 engine was developed in 1966, but after the Toyota takeover the project was shelved. As Toyota began to assume operations of Hino assets and manufacturing resources, Toyota was also concentrating their efforts of introducing a Contessa sized coupe and sedan of their own, and in 1966 introduced the Toyota Corolla.
In an effort to prepare the US market in advance of a planned entry, Hino had Pete Brock and his BRE Racing team prepare two Contessa sedans for competition. One won a surprise victory at the 1966 LA Times Grand Prix. Later, Brock raced the lighter and faster Coupé version, called the "Samurai". The Contessas also saw a lot of local competition in Japan, and to aid this effort 20 of the lightened Hino Contessa 1300 L (for "Lightened") were built in 1966. These were built with thinner sheet metal and missing some equipment, such as hubcaps and sound deadening.
Hino Motors signed a 10-year assembly agreement with Kaiser-Illin Industries of Haifa, Israel, in 1963. Assembly of the Contessa 900 started in 1964. Later, Briska 900 and 1300 and the Contessa 1300 sedan were assembled in Haifa as well. During the years 1964-1965, Israel was Hino's second most important market for its Contessas. Israel exports amounted to ~10% of total Contessa production. After it was purchased by Toyota, the contract was terminated and the very last Israeli Contessas rolled off the assembly line in March 1968. In total, over 8,000 Hino Contessa and Briska were assembled in Israel.
A Contessa was entered by "Team Samurai" in a Trans Am Series race at Riverside International Raceway as an experiment at bringing Hino to the American market. The car suffered an accident and was withdrawn from the race. The Contessa was never marketed in the US.