Everyone loves the Autozam AZ-1. One of the shining examples of Mazda’s bubble-era audacity, the Ferrari-aping, gullwing-doored, mid-engined AZ-1 is exactly the kind of vehicle we’re conditioned to think could never be mass-produced. Yet, between 1992 and 1994, Mazda made nearly 5,000 of the damn scamps.
There’s no question the AZ-1 is delightful; however, it’s not the kei sports car I would’ve had Mazda build.
The AZ-1 traces its lineage back to Suzuki’s RS/1 and RS/3 of the mid-to-late ’80s, a pair of mid-engined kei car concepts with high-performance aspirations. Suzuki eventually shelved that idea, though, and went for a more conventional tiny sports car in the form of the convertible, front-engined Cappuccino.
Mazda picked up the project, renamed it the AZ-550 Sports, and immediately went all-in by bringing three different proposals to the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, called Type A, B and C.
The Type A was essentially what would later be known as the AZ-1. Mazda didn’t fuss with the design too much in the transition to production, outside of ditching the concept’s pop-up headlights. In fact, as Japanese Nostalgic Car explains, the company increased the size of the car’s engine, from 550 cc to 660 cc, per kei class restrictions that had been raised by the Japanese government during the AZ-1's development.
But it’s the alternatives that didn’t get made — Type B and Type C — that I’ve always been fascinated by.
Type B remains my favorite of the three. It’s certainly the least conventionally beautiful of the trio, with its low-slung bulldog headlight treatment and bulging front wheel arches, but I’m drawn to the Lancia Stratos-esque greenhouse. Perhaps Type B lacks Type A’s mini-Ferrari aspirations, and that makes it less cute, but I reckon it’s the best proportioned and most athletic of the bunch.
On the complete other end of the spectrum is Type C — literally a shrunk-down version of the Hiroshima-based manufacturer’s Group C prototypes, particularly the Mazda 737C. It bears the brand’s historic racing colors, white and light blue, and is even adorned with decals for its motorsport sponsors and suppliers, Renown, Dunlop and Cibie.
As it happens, Type C was the one that received the most interest from auto show-goers, and it’s not hard to see why. I imagine it was also the most difficult to produce and least appealing to mainstream buyers, which is why Mazda opted for Type A instead.
Look, the AZ-1's great — no one is allowed to speak ill of it. But I think it’s high time these other pitches deserve their due. Which of the three would you choose?