Home » This Tiny Affordable Sports Car Is Like The Japanese Version Of A Lotus Elise

This Tiny Affordable Sports Car Is Like The Japanese Version Of A Lotus Elise

1997 Tommy Kaaira Zz Ts
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“Simplify, then add lightness.” That’s the iconic saying Lotus Cars attributes to its founder Colin Chapman. It’s been the driving force behind many lightweight, minimalist cars that are thrilling to drive. Yoshikazu Tomita and Kikuo Kaira also lived Chapman’s philosophy and built their own car befitting of the saying. The Tommykaira ZZ looks like it could be the Japanese cousin of the Lotus Elise. At 1,433 pounds it’s light enough to make 178 HP feel like you’re driving a supercar. Oh, and that’s almost 200 pounds lighter than an early Elise, too.

The Tommykaira ZZ has been compared to the Lotus Elise in automotive media more than once. It’s easy to see why, too, as this car is a stripped-down sportscar made to go fast and pretty much nothing else. The one up for grabs today on Bring a Trailer doesn’t even have a proper roof, full doors, or an interior that could even be generously described as “comfortable.” However, in losing all of the excesses, the Tommykaira ZZ is so lightweight that it makes Geo Metros and early Smart Fortwos seem like real porkers.

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Despite the comparisons to the Elise, the Tommykaira ZZ actually beat the Lotus to market by a few months, and today, the little sportscars remain an affordable way to quench your need for speed.

The Car From The Video Games

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If you grew up playing racing games like I did, this car might seem familiar to you. Tommykaira’s tuned cars, including the ZZ, have made appearances in Gran Turismo from the game’s second entry in 1999 to Gran Turismo 6 of 2013. That’s long enough for multiple generations to have raced digital versions of these lightweight cars around all sorts of tracks.

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But Tommykaira wasn’t always video game famous.

As Road & Track writes, Yoshikazu Tomita’s first impact on the Japanese car scene started when he imported and sold European sports cars in Japan. His company, Tomita Auto Inc., was known for its imported BMW and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Tomita also got into the tuning scene by being the first Hartge (a German tuner) dealer in Japan.

The other side of the Tommykaira equation was Kikuo Kaira. He didn’t import cars but was a Formula 2 racer-turned-engineer. Speed Hunters notes that Kaira’s accolades are many. They include being the chief engineer for the Toyota DOME 84C Le Mans racer, engineering Tom Walkinshaw’s Formula 2 car, finishing the Japanese Grand Prix on the podium, and engineering with Kojima Racing for a Formula 1 car.

Eventually, Tomita and Kaira crossed paths at Tomita Auto, and in 1984, Tomita brought on Kaira as an engineer at his firm. Together, the men would tune sports cars from Europe and Japan before deciding to combine their strengths to build their own cars. The company known as Tommykaira today was launched in 1986. Before you ask, that name is indeed the surnames of Tomita and Kaira pressed together as one brand.

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At first, Tomita and Kaira built hopped-up European cars, starting with the tuned Mercedes-Benz 190E called the Tommykaira M19.

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eBay via MBWorld

Now, the M19 wasn’t wild, but more mild. Modifications included a ported head, a new cam, and an increased compression ratio. Additional changes included a dual exhaust, sport suspension, and wheels. A stock 190E with the 2.0-liter M102 made 118 HP. Tommykaira’s changes bumped it up to 153 horses. Next came the Mercedes-Benz 300E-based M30E, which saw its power bump from 185 HP to 225 HP.

After fiddling around with those German cars, Tomita and Kaira started souping up cars of local flavor, starting with the Nissan Skyline R31. This one would be rebranded the Tommykaira M30.

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It would be given a similar style as the old Benz builds, but given a 3.0-liter RB30DE straight-six. This engine was created by combining the head of a 2.0-liter Nissan RB20 six with the block of a 3.0-liter RB30E six. A stock RB30E back then made between 153 HP and 188 HP depending on the tune, but the Tommykaira M30 made 237 HP and 217 lb-ft torque.

As the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, Tommykaira’s tuned cars varied across manufacturers and got even more powerful. As Road & Track writes, Japanese tuner cars back then were all about layering on more power rather than doing more with less. Tommykaira had its hands on everything from tuned Nissan Skylines to the Subaru Impreza. In the 2000s, Tommykaira was even tuning tiny Kei cars.

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In the early 1990s, Tomita and Kaira felt there needed to be a change. Both thought the better way to go faster was to achieve more with less. Tomita owned a pair of Alpine A108s while Kaira subscribed to the “simplify, then add lightness” philosophy. Japan’s tuners, automakers, and motorcycle manufacturers were building vehicles with increasing horsepower numbers, but Tommykaira would achieve speed without the bloat.

To do this, Tommykaira began the development of its own car, teaming up with Takuya Yura from Mooncraft Co. Ltd. for design work. The ZZ wasn’t a revolutionary design, just one seemingly forgotten to the pages of time. It rode on an aluminum monocoque chassis with tubular steel subframes. It uses double wishbones on all four corners and is stopped with all disc brakes. The ZZ didn’t even have a real roof, at least not at first.

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Instead, you can bolt on a panel that spreads between the windshield and the roll bar. Later examples would get real weather protection, but barely more than the absolute minimum needed to go as fast as possible.

The interior is also aggressively minimalist. There’s no leather here. Instead, you plop down in buckets and your interior “trim” is just the car’s metal tub. It’s even more hardcore and lighter than the Elise it’s often compared to.

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Under a hatch behind the two seats sits a 2.0-liter Nissan SR20DE inline-four engine. These engines were found in Nissans like the S13 and the S14 Silvia, but here it’s a bit pumped up. A stock version of this engine made 145 HP, but Tommykaira tuned it to 178 HP and 143.8 lb-ft of torque. A later update saw that number reach 183 HP and even later to 197 HP. It’s also notable that the engine in the Tommykaira ZZ is fed from four 45 mm Keihin carburetors.

Japan’s Lotus

The Tommykaira ZZ made its debut in 1995 and reached production in 1996, just a few months before the Lotus Elise made its own rollout in September of that year.

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Perhaps unexpectedly, the car wasn’t built in Japan, but in the UK through Tommykaira’s then-new Tommykaira U.K. subsidiary. Reportedly, Tomita wanted to leverage the UK’s decades-long experience with building fiberglass and aluminum sportscars.

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What Tommykaira created sounds like a masterpiece. Allegedly, the car can hit 60 mph in around 4 seconds and it’s one of the few cars where describing the handling as being like a go-kart isn’t hyperbole. Check out this modern review from Road & Track:

I only had about an hour or so to drive the ZZ around Manhattan for photography. It shines despite the fact that this hardly the natural environment for a lightweight sports car. Once you get over the initial intimidation of right-hand drive and being so low that Toyota Camrys seem impossibly tall, the Tommykaira is easy to drive. Every control is light and precise, especially the shifter, which might be the best I’ve ever felt in a mid-engine car. Even the non-power steering doesn’t ask for much muscle, while giving incredible feel.

The front of the Tommykaira might be one of its best attributes. Turn the wheel and the ZZ darts into the corner immediately—this a rare instance of go-kart-esque handling actually applying here. The engine is surprisingly friendly too, with lots of low- and mid-range torque and an exhaust note that’s the right amount of rude. Strangely, you don’t really hear much of the characteristic “honk” of an engine with individual throttle bodies, but this is hardly a problem.

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New, the ZZ was priced at 5 million yen, or roughly about $33,000 back then. Unfortunately, the ZZ didn’t have staying power in the market. Roughly 220 ZZs were built between 1996 and 2000, with most of them being exported to Japan. Reportedly, a change in Japanese safety regulations in 1999 forced Tommykaira to end production of the ZZ, which then caused its UK subsidiary to fail. Breckland Technology was formed and picked up where Tommykaira left off, fulfilling orders and building modified ZZs. The ZZ would also be sold under the Leading Edge Sports Car Company, which sold modified versions of the sports car as the 190RT and 240RT.

Despite all of this, Tommykaira never gave up on the ZZ. Tommykaira was scooped up by Japanese auto parts giant Autobacs in the early 2000s and while the firm developed a twin-turbo six sequel called the ZZII, it never went into production. A second-generation ZZ launched in 2014 as an electric sports car that sold until 2021. And as Jalopnik once reported, there was allegedly even a ZZIII in consideration at some point.

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Tommykaira is back to being more independent today and reportedly, Tomita still wants to make the ZZII. Only now, the car would have a V6 borrowed from the current Nissan GT-R.

Until that happens, just bask in the awesomeness of the 1997 Tommykaira ZZ for sale today on Bring a Trailer. As I noted before, the car is super minimalist. You don’t have a real roof, there is no air-conditioner, and the largely metal interior will try to bake you on a hot day. Yet, before you turn into grilled meat, you’ll enjoy the five-speed manual transaxle and the gray microsuede bucket seats.

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If you need another vehicle for scale, the wheelbase of a 2019 Fiat 500 is 90.6 inches while the ZZ is only slightly longer at 94 inches. So, you’re getting a vehicle that weighs under 1,500 pounds that’s barely larger than a Fiat 500. That’s a recipe for fun right there.

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The listing states that the car was painted silver just this year by Masterworks Custom Paint & Body of Hudson, New Hampshire. You also get a heater, though I’m not sure how effective it would be given the roof situation. Perhaps confusingly, this car was imported as a Nissan Skyline earlier this year and has the documents to show it’s legitimate.

My favorite part is the price. Bidding is at $19,997 with a day to go on Bring a Trailer. So long as things don’t get out of hand in the final moments, it’ll be a fun and fast sports car that many people can still afford. Go ahead, live out your Gran Turismo childhood again, but this time with the real deal.

(Images: Northeast Auto Imports, unless otherwise noted.)

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Rod Millington
Rod Millington
2 months ago

I was always a ZZII fan in GT3&4 as you could just make the thing stupendously fast.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
2 months ago

Looks like an AC Propulsion tzero, itself based on the Elise and the predecessor to the OG Tesla Roadster.

Archer
Archer
2 months ago

We need a deep dive into the electric sequel!

Torque
Torque
2 months ago
Reply to  Archer

ZZII Electric boogaloo

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
2 months ago

So as a person of the taller variety, what are the chances that I would comfortably fit in this? Because I love me some go-kart handling, but some of the smaller sports cars out there are not friendly (looking at you Lotus).

Logan King
Logan King
2 months ago

I love BaT. Not only does it let me kill time effectively while I’m at work, but it’s so fascinating getting basically reference-quality photos of super rare cars like this. Where else would you get up close photos of a ZZ-S that shows the insane shift linkage and made-out-of-welded-scrap-metal pedal box?

It’s also kind of fascinating how many cars of this ilk (this, the Caterham 21, the Angel T01, the Renault Sport Spider) that were all trying to hit the market at the same time that Lotus was basically able to kill dead in the 90s with a car they kinda threw together to keep the lights on as Bugatti was busy going bankrupt. I know how barely of a useable car my Elise is, and I know S1s are kinda cobbled together in comparison to federalized S2s, and this thing when viewing photos of this high quality looks like it’s only about 4/5ths of a car that an S1 Elise is.

Last edited 2 months ago by Logan King
Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
2 months ago
Reply to  Logan King

I daily drive my S1 Elise for years. I found it exactly as usable as my MX5. The MX5 had race seats, so getting in and out was the only issue with either of them.

Logan King
Logan King
2 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

I mean I suppose if you’re not terribly worried about water ingress.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
2 months ago
Reply to  Logan King

I had a hard top on my S1 and it lived outside all year. The inside was dry, apart from that one time I drove through a flood.

Logan King
Logan King
2 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

And I use mine as a convertible. So?

I’m really not sure what you’re attempting to argue about or why you’re doing it. I use my Elise daily, a fair bit more than my Corvette. I know which one of those two is the more practical car despite that, and I know that the S1 is a more compromised car in comparison to a Federalized Elise S2. That you use yours daily neither impresses me nor really changes my original comment, the thrust of which was mostly talking about how much more crude of a car the ZZ-S appears to be in relation to even the earliest of Elise just like most of the other similar cars that the Elise killed at the time.

Last edited 2 months ago by Logan King
Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
2 months ago
Reply to  Logan King

You said “I mean I suppose if you’re not terribly worried about water ingress.”

I was responding to that because it wasn’t a problem I experienced.

I entirely agree that the ZZ does seem crude, it’s closer to a Lotus 340R than an Elise.

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago

I wish someone took Colin Chapman’s philosophy about adding lightness, and on the same lightweight car, doing the same with aerodynamic drag reduction.

You can do a lot with only 178 horsepower. Consider that the Opel Eco Speedster tops out at 160 mph with only 112 horsepower.

As a side bonus, you now can have a high performance car that can also get close to 100 miles per gallon of fuel with proper engine selection. See Casey Putsch’s Omega sports car.

Last edited 2 months ago by Toecutter
Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Sounds like a challenge for someone to drop a monster of an engine into a VW XL1

RKranc
RKranc
2 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

Wonder if you could shoehorn a Koenigsegg TFG into a XL1?

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

An LT6 would be amazing in an XL1. It would probably get somewhere around 50 mpg highway, too.

Gubbin
Gubbin
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

I dunno, do Insight K swaps count?

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago
Reply to  Gubbin

Yes, at least as far as the options available on the used auto market go when coupled with some sweat equity, this is an amazing combination of traits. A 13-second 1/4 mil time possible in a car that can routinely return 45-50 mpg in normal driving.

But you can’t buy that on the new car market, never could buy that on the new car market, and the Insight itself was nowhere near as slippery or as low-slung as is possible for a road-legal vehicle, nor was the Insight rear-wheel drive.

Insight K-swaps still rule, regardless.

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