In 1991, Bugatti debuted the EB110, meant to be as high-tech a car as possible. It had a daring five valves per cylinder. In 1994, Ferrari followed suit with the 40-valve V8 355, then its own 60-valve V12 F50 a year later. But they were both beaten to the punch. Who was it? Mclaren? Lamborghini? Nope! It was Mitsubishi.
(Full Disclosure: Our friends at Duncan Imports invited us to their shop in Virginia for a week to drive some of their finest wares. They’re extremely good folks with a mind-blowing selection of import cars, so check them out if you’re in the market.)
Welcome to our new video series Bubble Cars, where we test some of the finest and weirdest cars of Japan’s automotive golden age. We started off with something that’s a lot more obscure than your average NSX or whatever, but no less special.
In 1989, Mitsubishi debuted the little Minica Dangan ZZ. That was a three-cylinder kei car. This was the very first production car with five valves per cylinder, and it kinda made sense.
Five-valve-per-cylinder designs aren’t easy to engineer, but they offer better breathing for an engine, good for high power, high efficiency, and high RPM. The idea is simple, the execution is not.
For instance, if one valve for the intake and one valve for the exhaust is good, two for the intake and one for the exhaust is better. If two valves for the intake and one for the exhaust is good, then two for the intake and two for the exhaust is better. If two valves for the intake and two for the exhaust is good, then three for the intake and two for the exhaust must be best!
The problem is that space gets kind of tight in the top of the cylinder at that point, and the gains are pretty slight over four valves per cylinder. Five valve tech’s time in the sun was bright, but brief, as everyone realized the cost wasn’t really worth it.
For a little bit of context, this was all happening in what’s called the Bubble Era, when Japan’s car companies had the money and the drive to invest in any technical breakthrough that crossed their radar. The car market was exploding in Japan at that time, as it was the middle of an economic bubble so big that when it burst, it cast the country into a recession so big it was called the Lost Decade. It lasted about 20-odd years.
But back at the peak of the Bubble, everyone in Japan was buying cars, and the market was so competitive, that automakers started experimenting with every kind of niche it hadn’t explored before. Little kei cars were just one such under-invested segment, and everyone tried something different. Honda made a mid-engine roadster kei car. Mazda and Suzuki partnered to make one with gullwing doors. Mitsubishi got the Dangan ZZ out there.
In any case, the Minica Dangan ZZ sort of made sense. It was meant to be a tiny hot hatchback and lure in buyers with some novelty. Cutting-edge high performance engine tech fit in, at least in the context of the Bubble Era.
What didn’t make any sense was this: You’re looking at a 1994 Mitsubishi Minica Toppo. Again, this is a simple idea, but now a completely bizarre application. Mitsubishi took the tech from that earlier hot hatch kei car and put it in the high-roof Toppo commuter van. Now with four cylinders but still with the five-valve Dangan head, you could get these little Toppos with a regulated 64 horsepower and a bristling 71 lb-ft of torque, as noted by the wonderful old Gazoo website, back when that was an online encyclopedia and not a brand for new Supras. These cars weighed something around 1,700 pounds, and got a twin-scroll turbo and an intercooler, too. A tiny intercooler. The radiator didn’t even take up half the width of the car.
I mention Gazoo because this spec for the Minica Toppo doesn’t even show up on Mitsubishi’s own website.
It’s even more of a trip now to think about. Mitsubishi barely makes cars anymore. To think of when it was beating Bugatti (and also in 1991, Toyota, with the 20-valve 4A-GE) to the punch on engine tech is a sign of how unhinged the Bubble Era was. And how nuts Mitsubishi was, jamming all that into a van.
So what’s it like to stick Ferrari-grade engine tech into something with the handling dynamics of, uh, a small van?
It is.. a lively experience. We got to test this thing out down in Christiansburg Virginia, home of Duncan Imports, where it’s for sale. Merging with truck traffic in a car that’s not even 11 feet long is a trip in and of itself, let alone in a car that wants you to drive like your right foot is welded to the floor.
The engine in this car runs out to 9,000 RPM, and hearing the rather spacious interior fill with an absolute howl as it gets there, waiting for another shift on the five-speed manual, well, it is once of the most incongruous driving experiences in the car world. It is absolutely spectacular.
As I said, in the context of the Bubble Era, this sort of car made a little bit of sense. But the bubble burst late in 1991, and the business case for vehicles like this disappeared with it. You feel this kind of wild energy in this 20-valve Minica Toppo, like a dream trying to blow right out the tiny little hood scoop.
But this wasn’t the only weird experimentation with kei cars. For a little bit of history on another one, from Mitsubishi’s classic rally rival, well, watch this space next week.