When Robert Perez bought his first classic Japanese car a decade ago, he admired the styling of the Mazda's front end, which reminded him of classic American muscle cars.
Which was fine, except for the fact that his new $300 set of wheels was a 1975 Toyota Corolla SR5.
"That's how little I knew about these cars back then," said Perez, 29, of Rancho Cucamonga.
These days, not only can Perez distinguish a Mazda from a Toyota, his stable has expanded to include a 1972 Toyota Crown coupe and a 1971 Crown station wagon, his daily drive.
Once derided as econo-boxes, rice burners or worse, Japanese cars from the 1960s and '70s are drawing increasing attention from casual collectors and serious car hounds, including comedian Jay Leno.
"These are the cars I used to read about when I was a kid -- all the exciting new stuff from Japan," said Leno, who wheeled into the Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach last Saturday in a 1970 Mazda Cosmo, a rotary-engined, right-hand-drive car that was never sold commercially in the U.S.
The Datsun Z cars made by Nissan (240s, 260s and 280s -- originally known as the Fairlady Z in Japan) have long been popular among car buffs. And the 1968 Toyota 2000 GT has achieved uber-collector status, selling for more than $200,000 at auction.
But the popularity of once-prosaic Corollas, Celicas and Datsun 510s is a sign that Japanese cars are achieving broader acceptance among collectors.
"They're certainly a growing area of the hobby, and California is the headquarters for it," said Phil Skinner, collector-car market editor for Kelley Blue Book in Irvine.
That expanding interest was reflected in the turnout for the Long Beach show, which drew more than 350 Mazdas, Toyotas, Datsuns and other makes from across the Pacific and more than 5,000 spectators.
It was record attendance for an event that had such an uncertain birth that organizers didn't bother putting "first annual" on T-shirts for the inaugural 2005 show.
"The people who weren't interested in old, imported Japanese cars are now finding more interest and have started collecting more cars," said show organizer Terry Yamaguchi of Lakewood, who runs a website (katysnest.com) dedicated to classic Japanese cars.
"And I think there are more cars hidden away waiting for the chance to come out."
The reasons include nostalgia and camaraderie -- both standard lures for car buffs.
"Getting into the old school [Asian] cars kind of brought me back to my roots," said Roy De Guzman of Las Vegas, who is of Filipino heritage.
De Guzman, an Air Force staff sergeant, was in Long Beach with his 1972 Nissan Skyline coupe, a non-export model that he bought for $16,000 while stationed in Japan recently.
The car was in good shape mechanically, but De Guzman still did a considerable amount of finishing and detailing work, hunting down original parts such as a 1972 Hitachi radio to achieve the desired authenticity.
Although De Guzman said he sold his motorcycle and two cars to buy his Skyline, entry-level Japanese classics can be had for much less -- another key to their growing allure.
"That's where the real draw is," said Perez, a service manager at a Ford dealership. "You can still afford to buy these."
Skinner from Kelley Blue Book agreed.
"The Japanese cars from the 1960s and 1970s are probably one of the most economical ways to get into the collector-car hobby," he said. "They're quite affordable, and their potential to increase in value is very, very strong."
Indeed, it's already happening, according to Perez.
"When I started four years ago, you could get a decent car for $500," he said. "Now it would be more like $2,500."
Skinner cites a restored 1959 Toyota pickup that sold for $20,000 at auction a couple of years ago. Among others he thinks have potential to be valuable collectibles: Datsun 2000 convertibles from the late 1960s, Toyota FJ40 Land Cruisers from the mid-1960s and early '70s and early 240Zs.
Of course, a boom in prices like the one that swept the market for muscle cars a few years back wouldn't be a welcome prospect to all J-car enthusiasts.
Just ask Yamaguchi. Her lament: "I can't afford to buy a new Z anymore."