The 1991 Tokyo Motor Show Is Where I Go to Feel Joy Again

Attendance at the 1991 show set an all-time peak. It was the end and beginning of something.

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Screenshot: VIDEOJAPAN

Take your pick of pretty much any Tokyo Motor Show, a few decades ago or more, and you’ll find some absolute gems. I’m quite fond of 1987's, though 1989's Tokyo Motor Show was good, too. 1991's, meanwhile, brought us the Jaguar XJ220, the Honda EP-X, and the Toyota AXV-IV, among many other cars. A theme of the show was fuel efficiency, with rumors before the event saying that Honda might have a 100 mpg car. That didn’t end up happening, but everyone was still going small and lightweight.

That was perhaps because of the show’s theme, which was “Discovering a New Relationship: People, Cars and the Earth as One,” though it might have also been because in October 1991, Japan’s Bubble Era was over. Few predicted the Lost Decades that would come in the ‘90s and ‘00s, but in October 1991 there was more reason to be cautious than optimistic. The ground was shifting beneath everyone’s feet, and automakers figured the best course might be to make themselves useful. There were loads of concepts, but few automakers (except Jaguar, of course) were trying to be cool; many of the concepts instead were intended to show off technological innovation.

Here’s how Toyota described its offerings back then, to take one example:

In the passenger-vehicle section, the Toyota AXV-III will showcase advanced technologies that provide top levels of safety and comfort, and are gentle on the environment. Other concept models include Toyota’s AXV-IV, an ultra-lightweight, highly efficient commuter car that realizes the lightest weight and smallest size possible without sacrificing vehicle performance and comfort; Toyota Avalon, Toyota’s challenge to future car design; and the Toyota Estima (Previa) Limo that offers new possibilities for tomorrow’s limousine. A total of eight such vehicles will be displayed in the passenger-car area.

In the commercial-vehicle section, five special-exhibit models will be shown, including the Toyota Ambulance, Toyota’s answer to the demand for ambulances equipped with the latest emergency medical equipment; Toyota Fun Runner, a stylish sports vehicle for outdoor people; and Toyota Hiace Limo, a chauffeur wagon for active executives.

Moreover, there will be various technical exhibits such as the high-pressure fuel-injection diesel engine and soot-reducing particulate trap system, which have been developed with environmental protection in mind.

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Elsewhere, Mazda was there with the third-gen RX-7; Mitsubishi was there with the delightful duo Mr.1000 and Ms.1000; Subaru was there with the Amadeus; Isuzu was there with the Como, which is a batshit super truck with a V12; and Honda with the EP-X and FS-X, both cars that were simply too good to be true. Nissan, meanwhile, was there with something called the Cocoon, which blew a mist of water in your face to keep you awake.

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Photo: Nissan
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One thing that didn’t happen at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show was GM showing up with Saturn, despite expectations that it might do so, given that GM intended for Saturn to compete with small Japanese cars. Instead, Saturns weren’t sold in Japan for another five and a half years.

I invite you, next, to take in this contemporaraneous Australian review of the show, which talks about a lot of themes — the earth is in danger and cars aren’t helping much — that are still with us today:

1991 Tokyo Motor Show

Second, here’s a home movie of the proceedings; this is a home movie of heaven.

第29回東京モーターショー1991年11月4日撮影TOKYO MOTOR SHOW 1991

The 1991 Tokyo Motor Show’s attendance was at its all-time peak, with over two million visitors for the first and only time in its history, a number that it will probably never surpass, seeing how car shows are pretty out of fashion these days. The Bubble Era was over, and something else was beginning, and deep down probably everyone knew it.