From a tuner's first production car to Toyota's Group S rally monster.
When it comes to countries with their own approach to cars, the Japanese domestic market stands out. Japan's unique culture has led to some unique cars, particularly in the 1980s leading into the 1990s. That decade's massive economic boom for Japan came as it led the world's electronics and automotive industries. That led to a lot of money being thrown around, and in the automotive industry, that meant research and design departments with growing budgets and cars like the Honda NSX and Lexus LS400 came to light. But while Honda was designing a supercar and Toyota was developing a luxury brand, some weird and wonderful things were also going on. Not all of the cars on this list come from that exact period, but that's where you'll find the craziest.
Yamaha is most famous for its motorbikes and musical instruments, but also in the Japanese company's list of expertise is cylinder heads for car engines. Yamaha particularly has a long history of working with Toyota and Lexus, most famously on the screaming V10 engine that powers the Lexus LFA. Yamaha has also been involved in Formula 1, although not with considerable success developing its OX99 V12 race engine. Yamaha kept pushing, though, and decided it should go in a supercar. After things not working out with a German partner, Yamaha went to work with the UK's Automotive Design company, and the result was an oddball two-seater supercar with a 400 hp V12 engine that redlined at 10,000 rpm. In reality, the car is an open-wheeled race car chassis with the body dropped on top, and the tall bubble cockpit houses the passenger directly behind the driver like a navigator behind the pilot of a jet fighter plane.
The project never made it to production, but Yamaha regularly wheels out the three existing cars for demonstration and regularly has one on display at its museum in Iwata, Shizuoka, Japan.
Sigma Advanced Racing Development (SARD) is a racing team and tuning parts supplier that has become a large part of Toyota's racing and performance history. SARD was the first Japanese race team to qualify for Le Mans, and later on, in the 1990s, decided that the mid-engined Toyota MR2 would be a good basis for a GT endurance racer. The race team stretched and widened the chassis, then went to work on suspension, brakes, and aerodynamics. Most notably, though, SARD replaced the engine with a 4.0-liter V8 from a Lexus LS 400 and strapped a pair of turbos to it. A road-going version was needed for homologation, so SARD also set about making the single model necessary to go racing at Le Mans. Amazingly, it's no longer tucked away in a private collection but is spotted once in a while on Japan's roads. It doesn't have the twin-turbo system from the race car, but it still packs a bunch of power and endurance GT goodness.
Tommykaira is a Japanese tuning and manufacturing company and named for its founders, Yoshikazu Tomita and Kikuo Kaira. If you're wondering where you may have seen the ZZ before, it's likely you've played a lot of either the Gran Turismo or Forza video games. The ZZ was Tommykaira's first production car not based on another model and launched in 1990. It was powered by a 190 hp 2.0-liter Nissan four-cylinder engine. That's a humble output number, but the ZZ hit 60 mph in just 4.0 seconds due to its ridiculously low weight of 1,500 pounds. Between 1990 and 2000, Tommykaira sold around 200 models; however, it returned for a new generation in 2014 with an electric drivetrain.
Primarily, Mitsuoka is a coachbuilding company and builds cars with unique and often unconventional styling. Mainly, Mitsuoka bases its designs on Nissan and Mazda vehicles, but the Orochi is based on the first-generation Honda NSX platform. It debuted in 2001 with Mitsuoka describing the Orochi as a "Fashion-Super Car." The Orochi came with a leather interior, carbon fiber body panels, a body kit, and a rear spoiler, while later special editions added an exhaust system with four pipes. It's not known exactly how many were sold, but runs were limited, and we're not sure all the build slots were filled in its 2006 to 2014 production run. The codeword we're going to use for its aesthetics is "polarizing," while the Evangelian Edition paint job is just plain laughable.
If you were making a list of cars that would define the 1980s just through pictures alone, the mouthful that is Nissan Autech Zagato Stelvio AZ1 would definitely be there. In this use of excess cash in the 1980s, Nissan's tuning arm, Autech, signed up with the Italian coachbuilder Zagato to create a luxury sports car specifically for the Japanese market. The basis of the project was a Nissan Leopard with a turbocharged version of Nissan's 3.0-liter V6 under the hood and clothed with a Zagato-designed body and interior. A production run of 200 units was planned, but the Stelvio AZ1 was absurdly expensive, and demand topped out at 104.
When talking about Group B rallying, cars like the Metro 6R4 and Ford RS200 showed up too late to the party but are still legends of the era. It's often forgotten that Group B was set to be replaced by Group S, a prototype class that dropped the homologation requirements from 200 road-going versions of the race car to just 20. That would have lightened the load on engineers and led to even more insanity, but the death of Group B ensured Group S wouldn't happen. Joining the list of insane cars that died along with Group B is Toyota's 222D, which was aimed squarely at entering Group S. It was based on the MR2, but the 222D had an all-wheel-drive powertrain and a 2.2-liter transversely-mounted four-cylinder engine with a monster of turbo strapped on.
Turbo-lag lasted around three seconds, and, according to the owner of one of the survivors, the 222D is impossible to drive. With more development, there's little doubt we would remember the 222D in the same vein as other 1990s rally monsters. Of the eleven prototypes built, only two are believed to have survived, and the other one is kept with Toyota Motorsport in Cologne, Germany.
Yet another car that could only have existed in Japan's economic bubble of the 1980s and 1990s is the Mitsubishi Debonair V 3000 Royal AMG. The weird cultural collide of the AMG tuned Mitsubishi Galant is well documented; its baffling Debonair V 3000 Royal AMG precursor isn't so well known. It is basically Mitsubishi's second-generation of luxury sedan with an AMG-designed body kit; hence it's often forgotten. Two trims were available, the V 3000 Royal AMG or the elongated V 150 AMG.