Imagine a Ferrari squeezed down to the dimensions of a Shriners parade car. Now imagine sharing that car’s compact cabin space with another person and a hateful little three-cylinder engine with the raging whine of a vindictive bee swarm. Now you’re driving, baby. In an Autozam AZ-1.
The AZ-1 isn’t really a supercar. It only cost the equivalent of $12,000 off a showroom floor when it was brand new, it never set any speed records and it’s put together with just basic plastic and steel. But its hardcore performance-oriented driving experience paired with flamboyant styling and gullwing doors make this little sword-swinger a supercar in spirit, and its limited production run seals its fate as a future classic.
Most people won’t recognize the AZ-1 because it was only sold in Japan for a flicker of the early 1990s. In that brief but wild time, only about 4,000 of the little things were ever even built. And since they were built to be driven with a certain sense of not giving a fuck, who knows how many are even left today.
If you did come across one on American roads, would you even see it below the beltline of your F-150?
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As goofy as the AZ-1 looks in 2017, this car wasn’t made because somebody at Mazda had a sense of humor. In fact, the creators of this car were really quite savvy.
In an effort to encourage the building and buying of undersized cars, ergo mitigating pollution and urban traffic while motorizing the working-class public, the Japanese government set up its automotive taxation scheme in such a way that dramatically favored cars with very small engines.
Small engines need small bodies to have any hope of moving with some semblance of speed, and thus what’s know as the “kei car” class was born.
The Autozam sub-brand was created by Mazda specifically to service the need for this tiny type of automobile. While most of Autozam’s offerings were pure efficiency plays, legend has it that Miata design leads Tatsumi Fukunaga and Toshiko Hirai walked into the wrong office one day and accidentally put a sports car on the company’s smallest chassis.
Just kidding. The AZ-1’s invention was a deliberate effort at injecting the Miata’s fun-car philosophy into an even smaller package. And I can promise you, it worked.
After 1990, when the AZ-1 was released, kei cars in Japan were limited to 660cc engines. That’s modest even by motorcycle standards.
But there are plenty of small motorcycles that make big power, and the kei car class placed no restriction on how high an engine could rev or whether or not it could be turbocharged.
That’s why this 1992 AZ-1 has a screaming 9,000 RPM redline and a turbo juicing its output to just over... 60 horsepower. Scant, I know, but when it’s only pushing 1,600 pounds of car this beast can rage all the way to a top speed of... 86 mph. Okay, maybe those numbers don’t really articulate the Autozam experience per se. Just check out the video, already!