More curiosities from Japan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.