For sale, 1992 Autozam AZ-1—The Kei Car That Dreamed of Was a Ferrari

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• Autozam A-1 is the rarest kei sports car (low road tax category with displacement and size restrictions), and one of them is currently listed for sale on the Bring a Trailer auction site, with the auction ending Wednesday, October 12.

• Autozam is Mazda’s small car brand, and this car was also born from the base of Suzuki.

• It is also a collectable fragment of the collapse of the Japanese economic bubble in the 1990s.

As Derek Zoolander might say, “What’s this, a Ferrari for ants?” Well, sort of. The pint-size Autozam AZ-1 incorporates elements of Testarossa, F40, and even 512BB. The bodywork is wild, as is the gullwing door, but tucked under sheet metal is a turbocharged three-cylinder engine that displaces almost more volume than a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.

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What gives? Well, the AZ-1 is a kei car, one of the class cars the size of a Japanese shoebox made under the country’s heavily regulated road taxation laws. Kei’s car, or right keijidōsha (“light cars”), are still the most popular form of car on Tokyo’s streets today, but are now mostly uniform squares, maximizing space on a small footprint. Funny, but few of them are really interesting.

Not so with a throwback to the high-water mark of Japan’s bubble economy snobbery. The AZ-1 is as exotic as a kei car has ever been, a mid-engined, gull-winged, turbocharged hummingbird.

This 1992 example is being auctioned at Bring a Trailer, part of the Hearst Autos group along with Car and Driver. With six days remaining, the offer sits at $18,250 and is sure to go up.

As Japan entered the 1980s, morale was high and real estate prices soared. Automakers in the area caught up in the enthusiasm, embarking on month-to-month product development from the V-12-powered Toyota Century to the turbocharged rotary-powered Mazda RX-7, to the world-beating R32 Nissan Skyline GT. R.

But the interesting stuff isn’t all fancy. Nissan came out of its design slump with limited Pike Factory cars, and the excitement was starting to spread. Soon, Honda had the Beat, a convertible mid-engined flyweight, which was like a tiny droptop Acura NSX. Small car specialist Suzuki, largely responsible for the Beat, unveiled the Cappuccino, a roadster that’s light and agile enough to make the first-generation Miata feel like Boss Hogg’s Cadillac DeVille.

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Speaking of Miatas, Mazda has none other than assigned NA Miata lead engineer Toshihiko Hirai to head the development of its wild kei-car project. The idea is to inject a bit of excitement into Mazda’s Autozam sub-brand, perhaps moving more regularly keis out of the showroom.

Three cars were developed for the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show: Type A, a gullwing sports car; Type B, more stripped down version; and the Type C, Group C’s little car. The public really likes the Type C, which really puts the petit le Mans at bay. Mazda executives, however, took a more cautious view, and thought the company could actually sell a production version of the Type A.

Most of the development work is done in the UK by a small team of engineers. The move may have been a financial blunder on Mazda’s part as, away from headquarters, the development team went to town to improve structural rigidity and tune the 660cc engine to the limit permitted by regulations. The engine will still produce the same claimed 63 hp as the Beat and Cappuccino — which is the maximum allowed — but it’s more responsive and has more mid-range torque.

As for handling, the AZ-1 has the same slight rear bias as the F40. And, while its power is a little over a tenth of that of the iconic turbocharged Maranello, the AZ-1 is also a little devil that’s hard to stay on the road. It may look cute, but with a tendency to oversteer it’s not as puppy friendly as the Miata Hirai. It’s a tiny little car but serious enough.

In kei car world, that’s what everyone wants too. When it came to customers in 1992, Japan’s economic bubble had burst, and toys like the AZ-1 were a plush toy that few chose to buy. Mazda sold only 4392 units during the year (along with 531 Suzuki Caras-branded cars), compared to about 28,000 Cappuccinos and 33,000 Beats sold.

Failure creates scarcity, and scarcity creates collectibility. By the pound, the final bid on this AZ-1 will go up with bluefin tuna like freshly caught at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. However, it’s still cheaper than a Ferrari, and just as exotic. Think of it as the F.04, the mid-engined micro supercar from the land where kei car is still king. And you have until Wednesday, October 12, to submit your bid.

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