The Japanese – and we say this with the greatest respect and adoration – are an unusual bunch. They probably think the same about us of course, but potato-flavour Kit Kats and vending machines dispensing ladies’ underwear does single Japan out when it comes to weirdness.
But if any more proof were needed, just look at their cars; specifically Japan’s loopy ‘Kei’ cars. Designed to fit a tight set of size, power and engine capacity rules, Keis are Japan’s answer to congested roads and limited parking. Rather than slapping an arbitrary fee on congestion charging as they do in the UK, they simply make the cars less…congestive. Here are 10 of the craziest Japanese Keis:
1. Mazda AZ-1
One of the weirdest kei cars ever, but also one of the coolest, is the Mazda ‘Autozam’ AZ-1. It’s every inch a supercar in miniature. Gull-wing doors? Check. Composite body? Check. Hugely compromised cabin? Check. Mid-engined? Yup, that too.
Like all kei cars it has a 660cc engine, in this instance turbocharged for an official 63 horses. Not powerful, no, but it does only weigh 720 kilos and most of that is behind you on a very short, very narrow footprint…
2. Daihatsu Midget II
If you’ve ever played the Gran Turismo series of games, you’ll be quite familiar with the Midget II. Mostly as an object of ridicule, but familiar nevertheless.
If you can’t tell from the picture, it’s a retro-styled, single-seater pickup. Naturally. Like the AZ-1 above it’s also mid-engined, albeit mid-mounted under your arse. Pick the automatic version over the manual, and it comes with a half-seat where the gearstick would normally be, so you can take a (very, very) close friend along for the ride. Or a race…
3. Honda Vamos
The modern Honda Vamos isn’t that interesting – it’s just one of many boxy keis available in Japan, a means to the commuting end.
The original is much more worthy of this list. It shares a passing resemblance to the Midget, only because it’s built to earlier 1970s kei regulations it has a mere 354cc at its disposal, split between two buzzy cylinders. It’s also, inexplicably, an open-topped vehicle. Think of it as Japan’s equivalent of the early Willy’s Jeeps, only without any practicality whatsoever.
4. Daihatsu Naked
Back in the day, there was a brilliantly-named enthusiasts’ group for this particular car known as the Daihatsu Naked Owners Club. There might have been two in fact, but meetings for the Daihatsu Naked Owners Club were quite different from the Daihatsu: Naked Owners Club.
The former brought together fans of an unusual kei, so-named because it appeared to wear bare panels, with structural elements like hinges and trim screws clearly visible, a little like a Land Rover Defender. The former was just a bunch of Daihatsu owners with no clothes on.
5. Suzuki Lapin
‘Lapin’ is French for rabbit, which is why each car was adorned with a floppy-eared creature on the badge – possibly the least aggressive car emblem ever.
Conceptually it was nothing special, but its styling was at least a little quirky, with just a hint of Mini Clubman (the original, not the German pseudo-estate car) about it. Despite the Mini connotations, the Lapin was also the basis for one of Japan’s best homages to a classic car, with body kits allowing you to dress it up as an old Renault 4…
6. Subaru 360
Back to a classic Kei now. Imagine taking an original, chic, Fiat 500 and then making it ever so slightly uglier in every conceivable detail, and you’ll come up with the Subaru 360. Like the Turin-based 500 though it was surprisingly spacious inside, and almost perfectly matched for the tiny, crowded streets it would call home.
It emerged only a single year after the 500, so unless Subaru was very quick with its development process, this could reasonably be described as automotive convergent evolution – two similar but unrelated vehicles borne from environmentally similar conditions.
Perhaps not your natural sumo wrestler’s car of choice, but… well, would you argue with that bloke?
7. Daihatsu Mira Walk Through Van
We could, realistically, have filled this list entirely with Daihatsu kei cars. Between concepts and production models they have a monopoly on lunacy, yet the Walk Through Van you see here is still one of the weirdest vehicles we’ve ever seen. Looking like the results of a tragic car-parked-below-cable-car incident, you get the impression Daihatsu would have made it even taller were it not for kei car regulations specifying a maximum altitude of two metres.
We’re assuming such things were used by post deliveries, small businesses, ice-cream parlours and similar, but it wouldn’t surprise us if we learned it was also used as a ten-person stand-up taxi for those who needed slightly more space than getting on the Tokyo’s subway system.
8. Suzuki Twin
Looking like an early concept for the Smart Fortwo, it comes as something of a surprise to learn the Suzuki Twin actually debuted in 2003. That makes it look rather less innovative than you’re led to believe, until you learn again that there was also a hybrid version available – the first such system in a kei car.
Unlike the Smart Fortwo there was actually a manual transmission version available, which does sound a bit of a giggle given the car’s revvy petrol engine and tiny proportions. Well, if you had the spuds to be seen driving one, that is. Or maybe if you didn’t have the spuds.
9. Honda Today
Since the Honda Today debuted in 1985, it’s always been a little unusual – 545cc twin-cylinder engine, googly headlamps, close-shave-with-a-guillotine rear end – but it’s the 1993 two-door saloon we’re focusing on here.
Rather than fitting a tailgate, which presumably would have been expensive, the rear window was fixed. This meant access to the boot was through a small, bottom-hinged lid, a little like you get on a classic Mini. The interior was asymmetrical too, since Honda reasoned most of its (female) customers would travel alone, so gave them a bigger, comfier driver’s seat. Damned ugly, but quite clever.
10. Subaru Sambar
In standard form, the Sambar is yet another anonymous kei van. Loaf-of-bread styling, wheels not quite at each corner, a set of pokey-looking seats.
But you’ll probably never have seen a standard one – type “Subaru Sambar” into google and you’ll get images like the one above – an overwhelmingly popular to convert dull van into pint-sized replica of VW’s iconic Type 2 bus. Weirdly, it actually works quite well. Just don’t smoke the good stuff in it – no man, the walls aren’t closing in around you, it’s always been that small…