Home » The Tiny Autozam AZ-1 Is The Ultimate ‘Slow Car Fast’ And Its Gullwing Doors Rule

The Tiny Autozam AZ-1 Is The Ultimate ‘Slow Car Fast’ And Its Gullwing Doors Rule

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The Autozam AZ-1 is one of those cars that the internet just loves. And, unlike so many other things that the internet just loves, this one makes sense. It makes sense because everything about the Autozam AZ-1 is compelling in some way. It’s that magical combination of serious and absurd, a ridiculous concept executed with absolute care and perfection. The AZ-1 is a Kei-class car, a category of small car designed specifically for Japan and the unique geographic and cultural idiosyncrasies that entails. It’s a class of hardworking delivery vehicles and little commuter cars. It’s not a category that demands a supercar, and yet that’s exactly what the AZ-1 is: a Kei-class supercar. It’s the very idea of slow-car-fast, rendered in steel and rubber and plastic. It’s a blast, and I’ve been wanting to drive one forever.

Luckily, I got to. Here’s a video of my joy:

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Autozam is a sub-brand of Mazda, one they use for their Kei-class cars and small cars, often re-branded Suzukis. The Suzuki connection is significant here, because the AZ-1’s inspiration came from a 1985 Suzuki concept car called the R/S1, or maybe R/S-1, or some other combination. I’ve seen a lot of variants online.

Rs1

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However you add slashes or dashes to the name, the R/S1 was a very sporty mid-engined car, light and nimble. The concept of a small, fun sports car appealed to Mazda, heady on the fumes of Japan’s Bubble Era, and by 1989 they had three concepts of their own to show, the AZ-550 cars, Types A, B, and C.

Abc

Of the three concepts, Type A was the closest to the production AZ-1, with its gullwing doors and supercar-after-a-cold-shower proportions. Type B was a little hardtop convertible, sort of like a Honda Beat, and C was supposed to be a little Group C rally car.

Toshiko Hirai, the same person behind the development of the NA Miata, was put in charge of the project, which should be a good reminder that the AZ-1 was never intended to be some kind of joke, a Kei car dressed up in a racing suit. Sure, it had to meet the Kei class restrictions of the era – a 660cc engine making a maximum of 64hp and a very specific and restrictive size envelope – but within those parameters, Mazda intended to build an actual supercar.

And they did. It was mid-engined and rear-wheel drive, the classic supercar formula, and had that all-important supercar trait: exciting doors. Full gull-wing doors gave great access to the little but comfortable interior, and looked amazing. Plus, it’s fun to drive with them open, as I found out.

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When you drive an AZ-1, you get the entire supercar experience, minus one detail: speed. But you know what? Who cares about speed? Speed is just a number, and if you can feel like you’re tearing ass, what does it matter if it doesn’t look that way from the outside? The AZ-1 sounds great, it’s responsive and quick and so nimble, and I promise you that if you drive one of these hard, with the ruthless abandon of a puppy chasing a bun-liberated hot dog, you’ll have a spectacular time, and you’ll never be in danger of losing your license unless you decide to take a shortcut through a playground.

Sure, you have a good bit less horsepower than a Smart, but, again, it just doesn’t matter. This is a concentrated Lamborghini, a newborn dragon set free on the roads, everything you want in a fast car, just scaled down. Sure, it helps if you, like me, can buy your clothes in the Husky Child section of Harbor Freight, but I think even if you’re a bit bigger, it’s worth cramming into.

Unfortunately, this little monster came at just the wrong time: the tail end of the Bubble Era, when Japan was shaking its head and vowing to be more of an adult. As a result, only 4,392 AZ-1s were built, and only 531 badge-engineered Suzuki Cara versions.

Caraazx1

The AZ-1 gets its share of attention and hype online, and, for once, it’s earned. These cars are wildly enjoyable things, engineered with the same attention that a full-size car would get, but playing ball within the Kei rulebook. If you love speed and driving hard but lack the willpower or self-control to trust yourself with something genuinely powerful, this is a fantastic solution.

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All the fun, far fewer consequences. You know how a little tiny dog can bark and be all aggressive and a loon and we just laugh, but if a Pit Bull looks at you the wrong way, people panic? It’s like that. Reduce the scale enough, and you can get away with anything.

 

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Myk El
Myk El
4 months ago

Such a good looking little car. I’ve only seen one in the flesh, probably this very example.

Joshua Jones
Joshua Jones
5 months ago

No video link available. Using Windows 10. Newest version of Chrome with built-in Adblock. Cool article, though.

Scott
Scott
5 months ago

The internet also loves clips of dogs that have learned how to speak English, and videos of well endowed, scantily clad South Korean Twitch streamers. Both of those seem to make a lot of sense to me. 

But of course, I adore the Autozam AZ-1, and also appreciate that it’s got door handles from the NA Miata (unless I’m misremembering). Doug DeMuro reviewed it a while back as well if anybody’s curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tn-Z5FHXcBA BTW: Doug did manage to fit into the AZ-1 despite being a well-fed 6 foot 3 inches tall or whatever he says in his videos.

As has happened before, I can’t see a video of Torch Drives embedded or linked to from your article Jason, but I’ll go look for it on Youtube, since the AZ-1 has been on my list of wish-I-could-at-least-test-drive-one since I first read about it in the late 90s. I’m using Opera under Windows 11 if it matters.

I’m going to the JDM car show in Long Beach next week (I hope… knees seem to wear out awful fast after 50) https://japaneseclassiccarshow.com and there’s a chance there might be an AZ-1 to see there and at least admire in person. The number of Kei cars and tiny trucks there last year was incredible. 🙂

An aside: I love your “puppy chasing a bun-liberated hot dog” metaphor/analogy/simile (I’m sure David knows which is correct… without googling, I do not). 😀

BTW, I couldn’t agree more about your ‘who cares about speed’ statement. I get such a fat, stupid smile on my face while driving my NA Miata around a nice curve in the road at barely 30-40 MPH. It just feels good, regardless of the fact that I’m not setting any personal lateral G-force records. Gotta take pleasure where you can get it, amiright? 😉

AssMatt
AssMatt
5 months ago

Surprised Adrian hasn’t busted you yet, but they’re “Mondial-style” vents, not “Testa Rossa-style.”

Adrian Clarke
Adrian Clarke
5 months ago
Reply to  AssMatt

Knowing how slowly the non-written content sausage of this site is processed, it’s entirely probably this was filmed before he experienced the glory of the Mondial…..

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
5 months ago

Torch, I really appreciate your honesty. You freely admit that you’re not that good a driver and an idiot. You’re not trying to pump your own tires and are very self-aware of your limitations. It’s refreshing.

I too, am not that good a driver and an idiot.

Banpei
Banpei
5 months ago

You are living the dream!
I would never be able to drive one of these. I’m 6 foot 3 and have shoe size 13. So even if I would be able to bend my head sideways to fit, my shoes would be stuck before I could even press one of the pedals…

JDE
JDE
5 months ago

Imagine if they upsized it just a bit. underpinned it with the already popular MX5 Chassis, but gave it even more supecar level handling and maybe AWD via a small Hybrid set up. It’s not like the CX-50 is all that good, so use the electric motor somewhere else.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
5 months ago
Reply to  JDE

So an MX-5 with gullwing doors? Meh.

JDE
JDE
5 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

I was thinking more a of an NXS version of the Miata. Basically a Corvette fighter.

Christian Reibel
Christian Reibel
5 months ago

I’ve wondered if the Corwin Getaway (1969) had any influence on the AZ-1. For anyone that doesn’t know, Cliff Hall wanted to design a car made for easy maneuverability around LA and wanted it locally produced to be a positive economically for black communities. It’s dimensions and layout are similar to an AZ-1, 11′ long (AZ-1 10.8′), 43″ tall (AZ-1 45.3″), and a 74 hp subaru engine in MR layout. The body lines are very similar to the AZ-1 as well, just a little more angular, but it was also the sixties.

Personally, I prefer the cappuccino in the ABC group.

https://journal.classiccars.com/2021/03/02/corwin-prototype-petersen-notable-piece-black-history/

Jamie Peterson
Jamie Peterson
5 months ago

I don’t think there was actually any influence based on the designer interviews, but there should have been, since the concept is so similar. That is ridiculously cool.

Scruffinater
Scruffinater
4 months ago

I think my favorite part of this site is googling the random stuff I’ve never heard of that people mention in the comments. Well done!

Alexk98
Alexk98
5 months ago

I’ve sat in all of the ABC cars while visiting duncan, and sadly at 6’0″ and 190ish pounds, I don’t fit in the AZ-1. Well, I DO fit, in an origami sort of way, but don’t have enough room to operate anything. The beat is surprisingly spacious due to the cockpit being offset for drivers space, but there’s certainly no AZ-1 in my future regardless of whether I can afford one which is a shame

Jamie Peterson
Jamie Peterson
5 months ago

I’ve been looking forward to this! One correction: the AZ-1 was actually a Mazda concept right from the start. The designers have released sketches and clay models going back to 1985. 7 years was unusually long for Japanese manufacturers, who usually use a 4 year cycle – it came at a time when Mazda was massively overstretched, so they just didn’t have the manpower to spare. The sad thing is, the AZ-1 project started before the Beat and Cappuccino, but they finished last.

The prototype “Type B” and “Type C” cars were designed in-house, but outsourced to a couple of companies in Japan for production. The Type B was made by Daiichi Kogyo, and the Type C was produced by a racing car manufacturer in Japan. Again, that’s since they didn’t have enough manpower to spare.

The development for production was outsourced to England (in the same way the MX-5 was developed at IAD) to a company called Hawtal Whiting. They tuned the suspension at the Millbrook Proving Ground, and received a few production cars afterwards (so there have been a handful of AZ-1s in England the whole time).

The factory they built it in was innovative in a few ways too. For starters, since Mazda had no spare factories, a local parts supplier called Kurata converted their factory under guidance from Mazda. All welding was fully automated, and the dies were designed to be swappable so that one factory could mass produce many low-volume cars with minimal downtime. Unfortunately, after the AZ-1, they never got to use the factory for anything else. The only thing it didn’t have was a paint booth, so they loaded batches of chassis from the upper level of the factory onto a truck , which would take them across the road to another company for electrodeposition, and then the painted bodies would come back in at the lower level for final assembly.

This car was also used as a low-volume way to try out various suppliers for plastics. Each body panel was supplied by different suppliers, and it uses various production techniques. Reinforced reaction injection moulding for the bumper and skirts, sheet moulding compound for the bonnet, doors, C-pillar, engine cover and rear trim, polycarbonate for the roof trim, PPE/PA for the rear quarter panels (due to the higher heat), and PBT for the fuel door.

I love these cars, and I’ve been trying to stitch together the history of them. I’ve got boxes and boxes of 30-year old magazines, technical literature, VHS tapes, yadda yadda. The whole thing really symbolises Mazda’s Icarian attitude of the time – I don’t think any manufacturer got slapped harder by the asset bubble bursting.

Oh, and not-so-fun fact, Toshihiko Hirai always hated this car. He joined the project midway, and never liked mid-engined cars. He felt it was gimmick. “If the MX-5 is my first son, then the AZ-1 is my misbehaving second son”, and he compared the handling to that of a “wild horse that can’t be tamed” (he loves horse analogies). He stepped down after the project.

Jamie Peterson
Jamie Peterson
5 months ago
Reply to  Jamie Peterson

Oh yeah, an owner in Japan asked Suzuki why they named their rebadged version Cara. Surprisingly, they had an official answer:

It’s an abbreviation of “Car Amusement”. Just weird lmao

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
5 months ago
Reply to  Jamie Peterson

Awesome levels of info there.
The Type C would have been absolutely amazing, too bad the Bubble didn’t burst like two years later.

Phuzz
Phuzz
5 months ago

Looks like they’re about £20k in the uk 🙁

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
5 months ago
Reply to  Phuzz

The same one has been 20k for about a year. I imagine the actual sales price is well south of that.

I’d love one, but I’m not paying Elise money for one.

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
5 months ago

I remember one of this showed up at one of the car meetings in the Walmart parking lot of Troy, MI when David used to work with rust lol I don’t recall if I was driving my Honda Insight Gen 1 or VW Beetle but they looked huge compared to this. Really interesting car, if the owner is around please share your experience with it

2nerkid
2nerkid
5 months ago
Reply to  Mrbrown89

I think you might be talking about me, I brought my AZ to the inaugural Autopian meet last year: https://www.theautopian.com/holy-crap-were-there-some-great-cars-at-the-autopians-first-second-official-informal-car-show-and-meet-up/

There is a blue one running around town too, I’m not sure if they’ve ever been to an Troy Walmart meetup but they were at Radwood Detroit last weekend.

I love the car! It’s the perfect complement to my motorcycles, about the closest thing to them on four wheels. As a thirty year old car with thirty year old suspension and chassis components, it is maybe a bit more wallowy than I’d really like but it’s still incredibly quick to turn, and I have some upgrades planned that should eliminate the slop. I know roughly what Jason is talking about here, I’ve gotten the motor screaming around corners with my heart beating faster than it would if I were on two wheels, only to look down and see that I’m barely doing more than the speed limit. Though my quickened pulse might also have something to do with how rare the car is and how unrepairable it would be if something went catastrophically wrong ????

It’s a treat to drive everytime I bring it out! The one thing you have to get used to is just how much people stare. The most common question I get is, “What is that??”, usually spoken in a tone that sounds like they’re unsure if what I’m driving is indeed an automobile or instead some kind of spaceship.

JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
5 months ago

Walking back to my car parked in a garage off Alvarado Street in Monterey we saw one of these parking and the owner was thrilled I knew what it was and I was excited to see one in person.

10001010
10001010
5 months ago

I’ve been fortunate enough to drive a couple of AZ-1s (came –>this<– close to buying one of them) and nothing prepares you for the sound of that tiny turbo right over your left shoulder as you get in the gas. I was smiling from ear to ear the entire time.

Toecutter
Toecutter
5 months ago

It’s a shame we didn’t get the Type C. Looked to be more functional and aerodynamically slippery, plus from an aesthetics standpoint, I prefer it.

I think it would be interesting to explore the limits of the Kei-car classification, by building the fastest vehicle possible that fits the legal definition. Thus far, the Caterham Seven 170 is probably it, weighing 970 lbs, and doing 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds with an 80 horsepower engine(it was given a pass around the 63 horsepower limit). Its top speed is drag limited to 105 mph because its aerodynamics are crap.

I envision a one-seater of about 500 lbs, with the aerodynamic drag of a velomobile, and complying with the horsepower limit of 63. 63 horsepower with reliability might be doable on a 300cc engine, which would be preferred over 660cc in order to keep weight down. I think a 160 mph Kei car that does 0-60 mph in under 5 seconds is possible. The fuel economy of such a thing would be incredible.

Last edited 5 months ago by Toecutter
SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
5 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

If a manufacturer did that and sold them, you would get the Suzuki X7 effect: before the X7, in the UK you could ride a 250cc bike with a provisional licence and “L” plates. The X7 was released in 1978, big excitement about it being the first 100mph 250, brouhaha, probably questions in Parliament, and in the early ’80s the law was changed, limiting provisional riders to 125cc and 12hp.

Toecutter
Toecutter
5 months ago
Reply to  SonOfLP500

If it gets to that point, then it’s time to go electric.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
5 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Just don’t try to drive it in Georgia.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
5 months ago

I like the climate controls, the same 1-DIN-size unit as a Ford Festiva, but turned on its side to gain some person space.
https://www.austinjdm.com/cdn/shop/products/IMG_0196.jpg?v=1662248635

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
5 months ago

> if you can feel like you’re tearing ass

I thought tearing ass meant something else.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
5 months ago
Reply to  Harvey Park

Some people see a vase, others see two faces…

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
5 months ago

I need to see a side-by-side size comparison with an MR2 Spyder.

Scott Sullivan
Scott Sullivan
5 months ago

It is quite a bit smaller and not in an uncomfortable way. A good example is the footbox. The unused wiggle room is removed. This makes the dimensions lower and it is still perfectly usable. At 5’11”, now, with size 10 shoes I fit snugly. Having a person my same size next to me is a little cramped. My main passenger was 5’2 and we both fit fine.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
5 months ago

I enjoy that it still operates with the doors open.

For years, convertibles had tops that would go up while the car was in motion; then that seemed to end (maybe in the late ’80s/early ’90s?) and you either had to be in park or have the parking brake on to raise/lower the top.

But just the other day, I saw a recent-ish Mercedes glide into a parking garage entrance with its top in motion…made my afternoon.

Roofless
Roofless
5 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

You can imagine, aerodynamically, why they stopped letting you open or close the top while moving.

Newer ‘verts are better reinforced, though – I think the Mercs can do it at like 35mph.

Austin Thomason
Austin Thomason
5 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

The Miata RF can open or close the top at speeds of up to 5 mph. I frequently close the top as I’m pulling up my driveway, waiting for the garage door to open. In my old NB and NC, putting up the soft top was only limited by your arm’s ability to overcome the wind!

Dan Pritts
Dan Pritts
5 months ago

Still true of the nd soft top.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
5 months ago

Old girlfriend had an NA (which I strongly advocated that she get – I drove it more than she did) and I’d be latching it as she was still pulling into the parking spot!

Last edited 5 months ago by Jack Trade
TJ Heiser
TJ Heiser
5 months ago

Personal record – I’ve pulled my Miata NB’s top closed at 40 mph. as I get older, and losing muscle strength, I don’t try it over 25 mph anymore!

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
5 months ago

I badly wanted one until I tried to get in for a test drive… and couldn’t get my large frame through the door! I daily drive a K-truck, but even that didn’t prepare me for how extraordinary tiny the interior was.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
5 months ago
Reply to  Rapgomi

I (6’1″) have never driven one but have heard the same. The Cappucino, like all Suzuki kei-cars of that era, was packaged for people about 2″ shorter than me.
I drove a Beat for 10 years with no problems and even my friend Joe, same height as me but about 20st (280lbs), could also drive it, with someone in the passenger seat. However, with the roof down, he did look like he might stand up at any minute with it wrapped round him like an inflatable rubber ring.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
5 months ago

The 64 horsies only have to push 1600lbs: that makes it doable. I had to refrain from asking for a test drive while at Duncan a few months back: I knew I’d want one. And they really are tiny—about waist high (ok: 45”. I had to check). But I knew my inner 8yo would want the gullwing doors if they ever closed on me

Classic and Clunker
Classic and Clunker
5 months ago

I’m jealous, Torch.. Have seen them at Cars and Coffee but never had a drive. Is a mid-engined Kei a “Kenginei”?

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
5 months ago

How far can you glide if you drive off a ramp with the doors open?

Drew
Drew
5 months ago

Maybe it’s because I was trying to rewind to see you climb in and out of the car, but I got three separate ads in less than a minute of video (like 30 seconds of me trying to mess with it, but I went up to the minute mark. I think something broke. Probably because of me.

Drew
Drew
5 months ago
Reply to  Drew

I started to let it run. Commercials cut in every 30-40 seconds. Could be something with my work network, but it’s unwatchable for me right now.

Matt Hardigree
Matt Hardigree
5 months ago
Reply to  Drew

Weird ad logic applied. I think I have fixed it.

Drew
Drew
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hardigree

Not at work now, but it’s definitely better at home. Thank you!

Drew
Drew
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hardigree

I have now had a chance to check at work. Looks fixed all around. Thanks for the fast fix!

Chris D
Chris D
5 months ago
Reply to  Drew

The same Lincoln commercial keeps coming on, and plays twice each time. That just makes me like Lincoln even less.

A. Barth
A. Barth
5 months ago

“it’s like a little motorized jet suit that you get to wear”

Hmmm – it almost sounds like “fun little motor-pants”….

Aaahh, okay: the convertible is a pair of pants and the hardtop is a suit. 😀

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
5 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Space pants!!

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