• The Autozam A-1 is the rarest of the sporting kei cars (a low road tax category with restrictions on displacement and size), and one is currently listed for sale on the auction site Bring a Trailer, with the auction to end on Wednesday, October 12.
• Autozam was Mazda's small-car brand, and this car also springs from Suzuki underpinnings.
• It's also a collectible fragment of the 1990s collapse of Japan's economic bubble.
As Derek Zoolander might say, "What is this, a Ferrari for ants?" Well, sort of. The pint-size Autozam AZ-1 combines elements of a Testarossa, an F40, and even a 512BB. The bodywork is wild, as are those gullwing doors, but tucked under the sheetmetal is a turbocharged three-cylinder engine that displaces barely more volume than a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.
What gives? Well, the AZ-1 is a kei car, one of Japan's shoebox-sized class of cars created under the country's tightly regulated road taxation rules. Kei cars, or properly keijidōsha ("light automobiles"), are still the most popular form of automobile on the streets of Tokyo today, but they are now mostly uniform boxes, maximizing space on a tiny footprint. Cute, but few of them are properly exciting.
Not so with this throwback to the high-water mark of the hubris of the Japanese bubble economy. The AZ-1 is about as exotic as kei cars ever go, a mid-engined, gullwinged, turbocharged hummingbird of a thing.
This 1992 example is currently up for auction at Bring a Trailer, part of the Hearst Autos group along with Car and Driver. With six days remaining, bidding sits at $18,250 and is bound to climb.
As Japan entered the 1980s, spirits were high and real estate prices were through the roof. The county's automakers were caught up in the enthusiasm, embarking on moonshot product developments from the likes of the V-12–powered Toyota Century to the twin-turbocharged rotary-powered Mazda RX-7, to the world-beating R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R.
But the interesting stuff wasn't all at the high end. Nissan broke out of its design slump with its limited run Pike Factory cars, and that sense of fun began spreading. Soon, Honda had the Beat, a convertible, mid-engined flyweight that was like a tiny droptop Acura NSX. Small-car specialist Suzuki, largely responsible for the Beat, launched the Cappuccino, a roadster light and nimble enough to make a first-generation Miata feel like Boss Hogg's Cadillac DeVille.
Speaking of Miatas, Mazda assigned none other than NA Miata lead engineer Toshihiko Hirai to head up development on its wild kei-car project. The idea was to inject a little excitement into Mazda's Autozam sub-brand, perhaps moving a few more regular keis out of the showroom.
Three cars were developed for the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show: Type A, a gullwing sportscar; Type B, a more stripped out version; and Type C, a tiny Group C car. The public was overwhelmingly in favor of the Type C, which really put the petite in Petit Le Mans. Mazda execs, however, took a more cautious view, and figured the company could actually sell a production version of the Type A.
Most of the development work was done in the U.K. by a small team of engineers. The move was probably a financial error on Mazda's part as, far from the home office, the development team went to town improving structural rigidity and tuning the 660cc engine right up to the edge of what the rules allowed. The engine would still produce the same claimed 63 hp as the Beat and Cappuccino—that being the maximum permissible—but was more responsive and had more mid-range torque.
As for the handling, the AZ-1 has the same slight rearward bias as an F40. And, while the power is a a little over a tenth of Maranello's turbocharged icon, the AZ-1 is also a tricky little devil to keep on the road. It may look cute, but with a tendency to snap oversteer it's not puppy-dog friendly like Hirai's Miata. This is a small but fairly serious little car.
In kei car world, it's also the one everybody wants. When it arrived to customers in 1992, Japan's economic bubble had already burst, and a toy like the AZ-1 was an extravagance few chose to purchase. Mazda sold just 4392 of them over a year (along with 531 cars branded as Suzuki Caras), as compares to the roughly 28,000 Cappuccinos and 33,000 Beats sold.
Failure makes for rarity, and rarity makes for collectability. Per pound, final bids on this AZ-1 will be up there with the likes of fresh-caught bluefin tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji market. However, it's still cheaper than a Ferrari, and just as exotic. Think of it as an F.04, a mid-engine micro-supercar from the land where the kei car is still king. And you've got until Wednesday, October 12, to place your bid.
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