Spirited Away

More curiosities from Japan.

Image: author’s collection

Japan is a country where traditional values are held in high regard, yet outright wackiness at times abounds, where the business-suited salaryman shares a seat on the subway with a flamboyantly made up cosplay girl dressed in a frilly maid costume and nobody bats an eyelid. Hence, it is an environment where even normally conservative manufacturers are not afraid to create something out of the ordinary when the mood strikes them.

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Modellista Caserta and VM180 Zagato: Named after the 18th century Reggia di Caserta castle in southern Italy, the Modellista Caserta certainly sounds very Italian and it is evident that a conscious effort was made to style the car in the fashion of those that hail from Maranello in particular. Whether this produced a succesful result is a matter of personal opinion, but Toyota, the ultimate owner of Modellista, should at least be commended for allowing its occasional exploration of new niches.

Introduced at the Tokyo Auto Salon in January 2000, the Caserta, whose styling is credited to a Japanese design company named MODI, was an almost totally rebodied MR2 (W30 generation). Only the windshield and its surround remained unchanged. That new body was made out of FRP (Fibre Reinforced Plastic) and was slightly lower and wider than the MR2. The interior remained virtually unchanged apart from a Momo steering wheel and an engraved plaque denoting which one of the 150 Casertas produced the particular car was. That limited production run would be offered on the Japanese market only, through Toyota’s Modellista and Netz outlets.

There were no changes to the engine and the underpinnings were also left untouched apart from slightly wider tyres. Different springs and shock absorbers were available as an option and, if ordered, made the car sit 20mm lower than standard.

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A decidedly more challenging looking MR2-based Modellista was presented a year later at the 2001 Tokyo Auto Salon. The car would also be put on display at that year’s Geneva Motor Show. The fact that this one was designed by Zagato was likely the reason for its public showing at this important European gathering.

The VM180 Zagato followed the same recipe as the Caserta: all bodypanels were new and only the windshield was carried over from the MR2. True to form, the Italian styling house produced a car that was certainly distinctive and had presence, but was not what most would call classically beautiful. The VM180 Zagato was powered by the same engine as the cooking MR2 but the powerplant had been slightly massaged and now delivered 155bhp (up from 140) at 6,400rpm.

Again sold exclusively on the Japanese domestic market through the Modellista and Vista dealer chains, reliable information on how many were made could not be found: the most often seen but unverified number is 200 cars.

Image: ripituc.blogspot.com

Carrozzeria Watanabe Griffon: An engineer by trade and highly skilled at setting up Formula 3 single-seater racing cars, Masao Watanabe also aimed for higher things. In 1970 he established Carrozzeria Watanabe, the chosen name a reflection of his admiration for the products of the famous Italian styling houses. His first commission was from Mobil Oil: the company needed a unique, sporty car to use in an advertising campaign. Using a Honda S600 as a base,  Watanabe designed and built the fibreglass-bodied ‘Flying Pegasus’.

Mobil Oil was satisfied with the result and duly used the car in several publicity events and print magazine advertisements. The Flying Pegasus also appeared in a popular Japanese television series. All this public exposure generated enquiries from enthusiasts as to whether Watanabe would be willing and able to build more specimens of the Flying Pegasus. Watanabe saw an opportunity to earn some money and embellish his design company’s reputation in the process.

The Japanese engineer reworked the body of the Flying Pegasus slightly, but the mechanical base of the car remained the same. Renamed ‘Griffon’, the small coupé was more aerodynamic than the Honda S600 on which it was based and thus was able to reach a maximum speed of 100mph, as opposed to 86mph for the S600.

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It is unknown how many Griffons left the Japanese carrozzeria’s workshop but today there are six surviving Griffons known to exist. Watanabe would build a few more cars of his own design, such as the retro-styled Basilic, and the Le Mans Ferrari-inspired Lycaon.

In 1980, Watanabe left Japan for California and founded DuoPower automotive design and manufacturing. DuoPower was commissioned to design and build a convertible version of the Isuzu Impulse in 1986. Subsequently, the small company continued periodically to present designs such as the convertible Pandora of 1992, based on a Mercedes-Benz W201. One of Watanabe’s last known efforts was the curvaceous Chevrolet Corvette-based Afghan, which was built in a small series. The creative Japanese engineer passed away in 2003.

Image: mobile01.com

YM Mobilemates AMI: It may sound like a smartphone retail chain, but YM Mobilemates is (or was, as little information can now be found about it) related to the Yamaha Motor Company. In the mid 1990s, YM Mobilemates presented its first and so far only vehicle, the AMI. There were no prizes for guessing which particular Italian supercar had been the inspiration for this kei-car sized rendition, based on the humble Daihatsu Opti.

Image: ben9166.com

Available with either a 42 or 55bhp three-cylinder engine, the AMI was not cheap: for its price, one could instead buy two standard Daihatsu Optis and still have money left over. This was probably one of the main reasons why, instead of the planned run of 600 AMIs, only three were reportedly ever ordered. The unusual way of selling the car, only through an event ticket supplier named PIA (and then only in the Tokyo area) likely being another. Then again, we should not rule out the possibility that the AMI was simply too weird even for Japanese tastes…

Image: Mazda Motor Corporation

Mazda Parkway Rotary 26: Mazda is known as the company that persisted longest with the Wankel rotary engine, and deservedly enjoyed the most success with it, the Hiroshima-based car maker even winning Le Mans in 1991 with the ear-splitting 787B. What is not widely known is that Mazda also used to make buses and one of these was, naturally, it is tempting to say, powered by a rotary engine.

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The Parkway 26 (the number 26 denoting the passenger-carrying capacity) was a medium-sized bus introduced in 1972.  Two years later, the Parkway Rotary 26 was presented. It was powered by the 13B AP (for Anti-Pollution) two-rotor Wankel engine. Its 135bhp power output enabled the vehicle to reach a top speed of 78mph.

It is questionable, however, whether or not the specific characteristics of this type of engine were suitable for application in commercial public transport, as it is sure to have been smooth, but also thirsty. Interestingly, the Parkway Rotary 26 also had another engine on board, a small conventional piston engine with a displacement of one litre which powered the air-conditioning. The vast majority of customers opted for the conventionally engined Parkway: after only 44 rotary buses had been sold, the model was discontinued in 1977.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

20 thoughts on “Spirited Away”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. An interesting collection of vehicles from the Land of the rising Sun. I was familiar with the MR2 based cars and Mazda’s rotary bus, but the other two are new to me.

    The rotary engined is a bus is a strange thing indeed. It doesn’t have much torque at low engine speeds, so not ideal for a heavy vehicle. As far as I know there is one on display in the Mazda museum in Augsburg, Germany.

  2. Good morning Bruno. What a collection of goodies you have brought us today. I have a craving for a YM Mobilemates AMI, just for the fun of seeing the expression on people’s faces as I drive by in it. 😁

    The Griffon looks like a pint-sized version of this, the Toyota Celica Supra:

    1. It´s really interesting to see these alternative forms. If the European manufacturers could show a little more imagination and produce some short-series cars it would be a relief. I suppose the basic architecture of the 5 door hatchback´s not that amenable to revision. Saloons were more flexible, yielding a coupé, shooting-brake or fastback or even a convertible. Given we´re supposed to be richer than ever before, it´s odd there aren´t even 25,000 customers for expensive, entertaining trinkets.

    2. Low volume production is possible, as companies like Morgan demonstrate. However, that’s not the business that large manufacturers are in. They are restricted by their large size to building quickly, with automation, in high volumes. The demand for estates, coupés, saloons, etc, is often too small to justify production. It would be possible to produce lower volume vehicles as the Nissan Pike factory did, but a decision would have to be made to accept the financial impact – treat it like an advertising campaign.

      There were more body styles produced the the past, but companies were smaller and did more things themselves; and the things they did were simpler, to the extent that coach-builders could make a living. Someone noted recently that Italian manufacturers were late in adopting air vents. Imagine having that level of simplicity to work with.

      Whether a car is based on a hatchback or saloon makes little difference; the hard points are the floorpan and the bulkhead – the main crash structures, which are the expensive parts to engineer. In the past, there were more saloons around in the times when there were more body styles; there weren’t more body styles because of the existence of saloons. That said, a hatchback is more flexible than a saloon, so one could say that the need for alternatives is lessened – a hatchback is sort of sporty, while also having good load capacity. I, too, would dearly like more diversity, though.

    3. Mass made cars never were available in more body styles than now. Most of them were unknown even a couple of years ago because nobody needed or missed them but car makers detected a real or putative niche.
      We got tip toe estates (Audi Allroad), four door coupés, soft top SUVs, high roof saloons (Golf Plus), panel vans with metallic paint (VW Caddy), shooting brakes and many more silly things nobody really knew they needed until it appeared on the price lists.

    4. Does a crossover ‘coupé’, for example, really offer worthwhile additional choice for buyers? I’ve yet to see one that is significantly more attractive than the crossover on which it is based, which used to be the whole point of a coupé, and the payback for having less space for more money. Crossover convertibles are just embarrassingly stupid.

    5. The concept of a worthwile additional choice surely is a philosophical question.
      I for my part for example never could make sense of MPVs but lots of other people seemingly could.
      I also can’t see much sense in coupés with a bootlid at the same height as the roof of my A4 estate but they seemingly are attractive enough for others to pick them from the corporate car menu instead of something sensible.
      I’m still waiting for a floatable, SUV soft top with integral campmobile.

  3. There was another Rotary powered oddity from Mazda, the Roadpacer.

    Since this was a few years before the Ford ‘takeover’, Mazda found a partner with GM Holden in Australia who supplied partially assembled HJ and later HX Holden Premiers, (complete apart from the lack of engine and transmission) Instead of Holden’s sixes and V8s, Mazda fitted their own 13B rotary engine coupled to a Jatco three speed auto. This was to produce a car that seemed designed to demonstrate in an almost wilful manner the disadvantages of the rotary engine. These being, largely, the lack of torque, and the thirst for petrol. So Mazda ended up with a car that was slower than the Holden six cylinder versions and thirstier than the V8 versions, (9 mpg)- though it was very smooth running.

    How successful was it? Produced between 1975 and 1977, of the 800 made, the last one was sold new in 1979.

    I got to drive one once, and they really are awful, I didn’t have to put any fuel in it but it was as slow as a near 1600kg car with 100ish lb/ft of torque running through a three speed auto sounds like it would be.The car I drove is now in a museum, preserved as a reminder of what not to do.

    1. If you´ve driven a Roadpacer, you can consider yourself a “privileged”, not many people have driven one.
      I read somewhere that at the end Mazda practically had to give them away and the Japanese government took the cars.
      Given the petrol prices, 9 mpg would be handy for my urban conmute to work. After all, it does better milleage than the 6000 SUX

    2. That’s a strange new definition of ‘priviliged’ that I haven’t encountered before. 🙂

    3. The Roadpacer is reasonably infamous, as looks entirely sensible compared to the bus!

      I’d only seen the Parkway before, so this was great and the YM Mobilemates AMI is hilarious; an expensive joke though!

      I assume Watanabe also made the wheels?

    4. They should look alike, they were designed by the same man.
      Leo Pruneau, originally from Missouri, worked for GM in the US, where he designed the ’65 Impala Hardtop, he was sent to Vauxhall by Bill Mitchell, and designed the HB Vauxhall Viva. He was at Vauxhall for a few years so he had a hand in the FD and FE Victors and the VXR show car.. Mitchell then moved him to Holden, in Australia, where they sold the HA Viva, (with round headlamps), as the Holden Torana. Pruneau was in time to clean up the then new HQ Holden, and he added the SS sporty version, and designed all the subsequent facelifts, including the HJ/HX used for the Roadpacer. He also had a hand in the subsequent long bonnet six cylinder versions of the ToranaAfter he finished as GM Head Of Worldwide Design, Mr Pruneau retired to Australia where he now lives, aged 90.








  4. Thanks for that added information, David.
    By the way, that is a lovely 1965 Impala (although personally I would stick to period wheels) in what looks like my favorite Chevrolet hue of the period: evening orchid.

    1. +1 for the ‘65 Impala. I’m always happy to see one of those. I agree about the color too.

  5. John H: thanks for your comment; I am not an expert on wheels so I am afraid I can not answer your question (my info did not contain anything on the wheels used for the Griffon)….

    1. Thanks Bruno – a quick search tells me Toshiyuki Watanabe founded the wheel company in 1968. Not sure if they were related.

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