Why is Japan so good at thinking inside the box?
First published on April 27, 2016, this fine piece by the now-retired DTW co-founder, Sean Patrick formed part of the Japan Theme.
An obvious introduction for an obvious concept. If you want to fit people shaped people into a car, the architecture that allows them the most room to sit in comfort is a box. An empty volume bounded by a series of flat rectangles. In the early days lots of cars were like this, now they are not. A common criticism of car design, used in the UK at least, is that a car is ‘boxy’.
This comment needs no expansion – the fact that the car resembles a box condemns it. Yet, of course, a box is the best shape if you want to maximise on internal volume. Various European manufacturers have experimented with boxiness but, except for the Quasar Unipower, whose designer, incidentally, was from Vietnam, they have generally lacked conviction.
We’ve looked at various aspects of Japanese design this month, trying to identify where it had developed its own style, rather than attempting to meet the supposed expectations of an international client base. I think that the box is one area where the Japanese excel. They are comfortable with it since it suggests an efficient use of space that appeals. I’m not sure that saying a car is ‘boxy’ would strike a negative chord with many Japanese. In Europe, the Nissan Cube is possibly the best-known box, partly because it was actually sold here for a short period. However, it is only the square-ended tip of an iceberg, many of which, since Nissan got in first with the most obvious name, have superbly odd appellations.
It didn’t take long before the small vans being built in Japan in the 1950s and 60s became fledgling people carriers, possibly inspired by the original, 600 based, Fiat Multipla and the VW Microbus. The 1961 Subara Sambar and the 1972 Honda Life Step Van, illustrate this approach well and others followed. The 1977 Honda Acty was offered in windowed Street form and the 1986 Daihatsu Hijet S80 was even offered in 6-seater form in the UK for several years and is also built under licence in Italy as the Piaggio Porter. Other manufacturers offered their own passenger carrying models, such as the Mazda (Autozam) Scrum, Suzuki Carry and Mitsubishi Minicab, but these vehicles remained, in essence, tiny vans, with relatively uncomfortable driving positions.
In 1989 Nissan produced the Chapeau concept, shown at the top of this piece. This, looking like a miniature Popemobile or maybe a hearse, but finished in the colouring and graphics of a cheap aftershave, presumably might have become a Pike Factory product, but did not. Which was probably a good decision, but it sowed a seed at Nissan. In 1993, Suzuki introduced the first Wagon R, a very upright kei car which has been sold in various guises by Mazda, Mitsubishi and, in more rounded form, Opel/Vauxhall. The 1998, first generation Nissan Cube was a far more conservative offering than the Chapeau, more along the lines of the Wagon R, but it hinted at a more rectangular shape than most small cars of the time.
In 2000, Toyota produced its Cube competitor, the Vitz based bB, offering it to the US market as a Scion. Honda’s response in the cuboid race was the 2001 Unibox concept, though this was never a toe-in-the-water exercise. Clothed in transparent panels and housing a couple of small motor scooters, this was purely a calling card for Honda to show that it could still surprise, but not enough to manufacture the thing.
The 2002 Suzuki Lapin, also sold by Mazda as the Spiano, was a far more practical proposition. Its shape, and the availability of a canvas roof, possibly hinted slightly at the Renault 4, but this was a far squarer proposition. The same year, Nissan, too, decided to show a bit more of that Pike Factory car spirit and released the second-generation Cube, a larger and far more adventurous model with its now trademark asymmetric rear.
Meanwhile, Honda were still conceptualising with the 2006 Step Bus and, a rounded cube, the 2007 Honda PUYO, whilst Suzuki’s square-edged 2007 offer was the X-Head, one of those Suzuki concepts you wish they’d actually make, even if you don’t know what you’d do with it. Actually, the PUYO was trying slightly too hard to deny its boxiness, in the way that Euroboxes such as the 1984 Espace and 1998 Multipla did although, viewed in the context of this piece, I feel there is something more Japanese than Italian about the Multipla (and to readers who haven’t already read my tiresome proselytising on the Fiat, that isn’t a guarded insult). Obviously, it struck a chord with Honda, who took the concept for the more conventional looking FRV.
By now, the Cube Wars were hotting up. In 2008 Suzuki added the Palette to its range, also available as the Mazda Flair Wagon or the Nissan Roox. The same year conservative Toyota combined boxiness with hot-rod retro for the Hako Coupe concept, though maybe this was a prophet before the time of Waku-Doki.
The following year, in 2009, Daihatsu introduced its first Deca Deca concept which was followed up in 2013 by a new Deca Deca concept, this one a bit fussier, but still endearing itself with pilarless doors and a flexible space for people or cargo. Sandwiched between these we find the 2011 Daihatsu FC Sho Case, a fuel cell car concept with the styling of a state-of-the -art MRI scanner.
In 2012 Honda finally managed to productionise one of its boxy ideas with the N-Box. Practical and clever, this kei car has been hugely successful in Japan, and was followed in 2015 by the N-Box Slash. though we’ve yet to see the production version of its sibling N-Truck pickup concept, complete with trailer caravan. Actually, I find the Slash a typical example of Honda’s improving something that wasn’t broken – meaner windows and a sloping rear roofline neither improves it aesthetically nor practically. But those people who aren’t box purists would probably disagree.
Possibly the N-Truck was Honda’s response to Daihatsu’s 2013 FC Deck, yet another wonder that cements Daihatsu as the Kings Of The Concept Box. This does unfortunately underline the adequate but rather underwhelming nature of the boxes you can actually buy from the firm, such as the Move and the Materia, a version of the second-generation Toyota dB. In 2014, Suzuki took a name from their bike back-catalogue for the Hustler, a high riding SUV box, a production car and a dubious first.
Despite its not securing a worldwide market for the third generation Cube, a name that they should guard with more care than Ford are doing with ‘Ka’, in 2015 Nissan produced the Teatro For Dayz concept, a name that stands out even among many of the creative language lash-ups of the Japanese motor industry. Its chiselled exterior might have hinted at a next generation Cube, but that was less the point than an interior that demonstrated the plethora of interactive ways with which we will piss our time away in the future.
In 2015, Daihatsu yet again disappointed us at the Tokyo Show with the Hinata, another clever and stylish box that they aren’t going to sell. And this time they were in box overdrive, also showcasing the Tempo, a commercial vehicle with a fold-out side, perfect for roadside barristas. The highlight, though, was the Noriori, a car that offers you your very own underground train experience, at the same time as making a practical proposition for addressing accessibility.
Finally, in this short survey, we come full circle to the 2015 Suzuki Air Triser. Just as the original Microbus inspired some early Japanese boxes, so does 2011 VW’s Bulli seem to have inspired this mini conference room on wheels. But that’s no criticism of Suzuki – it’s no simple copy and, if Suzuki aren’t going to sell it, it’s even less likely that VW will get round to producing the Bulli.
Much as I appreciate the Japanese boxes, they do remind me of my general frustration with an industry that produces dazzling concepts that, ultimately, make what we can actually buy seem a bit lacklustre. But I get the feeling that, unlike many concepts, they aren’t just cynical marketing tools. Both in what is produced and what is mooted, there is a genuine effort to look at what individual powered transport might become in the future. If the autonomous car of the future is a Tesla S without a steering wheel, I’ll be disappointed. If it’s a Daihatsu Noriori, I’ll order in some old car magazines to sit back with and enjoy on the trip.