Some say that competition brings out the best of us. While I’m not entirely sure how accurate that statement is, competition can produce some incredible feats of engineering, like the time Mazda stuffed an entire car into a Samsonite suitcase. Gather round, everyone, for the story of the suitcase car.
The saga of the suitcase car dates back to the early ‘90s, when everything looked as sunny as a July day. The economy was doing alright, Japanese carmakers were pushing technology to the limit, and Mazda was throwing an internal competition called Fantasyard, an exhibition of fantastic mobility innovation where teams would throw their wacky ideas at the wall just to see what sticks.
The story goes that a group of seven people from Mazda’s Manual Transmission Testing and Research Group got their hands on a pocket bike and the largest Samsonite suitcase they could find, then got to work. Usually when a group of seven skilled craftspeople get together, they can inspire and produce wonderful things. Like Franklin Carmichael’s Snow Clouds, 1938, or Jerry T. Okimoto’s Mobile Painting #5, the resulting suitcase car was a sheer work of art.
For starters, the suitcase car looked incredibly normal when folded up. Aside from a removable panel for the front wheel aperture and two little axle sockets, it looked like any other suitcase at an airport. Next, it was really quite quick to set up. The official procedure was to unfold the car, slide a pair of locking rails to keep the suitcase from flexing, pop in the wheels and axles, fold out the front wheel, lock the handlebars and pop the seat into position. It sounds like a bit of an ordeal, but it should really only take a few minutes at most.
The next bit of genius is the on-board equipment. While the suitcase car is tiny, it features a brace of headlights, brake lights, turn signals, and even a horn. Genuinely functional real car stuff that’s a bit necessary when out on the road. I’m sure you could even get a suitcase car plated and insured if you lived in Florida. Mind you, they do seem to plate just about anything down there, so registering a suitcase car wouldn’t be a huge bragging point.
So what sort of experience do you get once you fold out the suitcase car? Well, top speed is about 27 mph, although I wouldn’t want to hit an expansion joint at that speed. Partly because I can’t afford any spinal damage and partly because I have serious doubts about the structural rigidity of a Samsonite. While range hasn’t really been measured in distance, the suitcase car is said to run for two hours on a single tiny tank of two-stroke mix. More importantly, there’s a disc brake on the rear axle and a rear differential, so it’s not like it’s a particularly crude device devoid of any semblance of safety and handling. In fact, it was so much fun that somebody managed to bin the first one.
Yeah, it turns out that humans aren’t great at impulse control when they have a parking lot and a 27 mph explosion-powered suitcase at their disposal. There are two stories about what happened. The first comes from Mazda’s UK press department, which claims that the company built two more suitcase cars. The original is said to have been wrecked, the American example is said to remain, and the European example is alleged to have mysteriously disappeared. While the possibility of a sacked employee accidentally taking the wrong suitcase home is slim, it can’t be ruled out entirely. The one remaining suitcase car now lives at Road Race Engineering in California, and their story is a bit different. Their story goes that the original red suitcase car was written off, then re-bodied into a fresh suitcase in 1994. Judging by how some suitcase car pictures show varying levels of equipment, I’m slightly leaning toward Mazda’s official history. Whatever the case, the fact that a functional suitcase car is still out there seems pretty cool. It even ended up on Oprah, putting it up there with the likes of the Pontiac G6.
So what about the usage case of the suitcase car? After all, it was originally intended to be a form of last-mile transport after getting off of an airplane. While airport access wasn’t hugely restricted prior to the September 11 attacks, security likely wouldn’t have been a fan of someone deploying 33.6 cubic centimeters of fury to traverse a terminal. Likewise, airlines likely wouldn’t have been too pleased about the prospect of carrying a 70.5 pound (32 KG) suitcase filled with flammable liquid. However, in the context of trains, the suitcase car really begins to make sense. Imagine getting off of the Shinkansen, unfolding your tiny little car and tearing through rush hour on the way to the office. The cops probably wouldn’t like it, but your goals are beyond their grasp of understanding.
A more important question is if some form of electric suitcase car 2.0 should be built today. After all, lithium-ion batteries are allowed in carry-on bags, while powerful brushless motors and durable electronic speed controllers are now cheaper than ever. I reckon it’s high time for a suitcase car revival. A suitcase car would take the pain out of schlepping across a terminal, could be made small enough to simply carry onto a plane or train, and could be recharged in the car on the way to the airport or commuter lot. It would be both brilliant and potentially relentlessly annoying, which means that it should be proper fun.
Images from Mazda and Road Race Engineering