The guts of a Toyota Prius.
Photo: AP

We’ve got a big deal in town at the moment, a little gathering called the New York International Auto Show. And while recent car shows have turned into the autonomous pod showcase, there was a time when auto shows were places to experiment. Take the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, which featured the first Plymouth Prowler, in addition to the Chrysler Phaeton, one of the more ridiculous concept cars ever made. But you know what else was there, not quietly at all, in retrospect? An omen of our electric future.

That omen was the Toyota Prius, of course, and it’s kind of insane when you think about just how long the Prius has been with us. It celebrated its 20th birthday in December, and the 2018 Prius is still out there doing Prius things, a good, reliable hybrid for people whose taste is a little boring. (It’s OK to have boring taste, believe me, I have boring tastes in many things.)

Way back in 1997, the Prius was novel; a car that was powered by a 1.5-liter in-line four cylinder gasoline engine in addition to a 30-kilowatt electric motor. People didn’t really know how it was going to go! I only knew of one family who had one when I was growing up in Northeast Ohio in the late ‘90s and early aughts, and even then I think it was because they were from San Francisco.

Photo: AP

But after a few uncertain years, the Prius genuinely took off, going from selling just over 20,000 units in 2002 to peaking at 181,221 Priuses sold in 2007. That’s a lot of cars! To put in some context, last year Chevy sold 185,857 Malibus, which is good enough for 9th place among all cars. And while I know sedans have fallen out of fashion, getting tens of thousands of Americans to buy a hybrid is impressive, since people tend to forget how iffy that proposition was to begin with.

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Toyota’s (then) new Prius.
Photo: AP

But! The Prius wasn’t the only interesting thing at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, of course. Let’s run through some of the cars! There were a lot of cars. We’ll start with a new Dodge Viper, the Viper GTS-R, which made 450 bhp, and went from 0-60 in an even four seconds with its 8.0-liter V10. Paint job was nice, at least.

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And then there was the Audi AL2, a weird version of the Audi A2, which did eventually make it into production. The AL2 was first seen at Frankfurt that year; it’s known mainly now for its all-aluminum body and chassis, which made the car significantly lighter than its competitors but also, nowadays, very expensive to fix.

Audi AL2
Photo: AP
The Plymouth Prowler was not our future.
Photo: All images AP

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The Chevy Astro.
Photo: AP

And if the AL2 wasn’t small enough for you, there was the Hypermini. Also made of aluminum, the Hypermini had a range of—don’t laugh, it was the ‘90s—just over 70 miles, with a full charge taking about 4 hours. Designed for cities, Nissan did manage to sell a few of these things, making 219 in total. Really wondering why this didn’t take off!

Hypermini
Photo: AP

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Still, you could envision a market for the Hypermini. I cannot envision a market for the Chrysler Phaeton, which was big and ugly and, in hindsight, a weird attempt at resurrecting the style of touring cars from the 1930s. Equipped with a 5.4-liter V12 that made 425 horsepower which they made by combining two 2.7-liter V6s. The Phaeton came amid an effort by Chrysler in the ‘90s to get weird, with the Prowler and Viper more successful outputs in that respect.

Moving on: the Daewoo d’Arts, a good-looking little hatchback that produced 56 horsepower but never went to production. I like its face, more than anything, and, for once, the two-toned paint job. It’s a puppy.

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One thing that’s striking about sifting through old car show photos is the pervasiveness of the booth models, which the Associated Press euphemistically calls “promotional assistants” in their photo captions.

Renault Sport Spider
Photo: AP

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It’s a good reminder of how encoded sexism is in the auto industry. It’s also good that that booth models are finally being phased out.

Back to the cars: Here’s the Ford Ka, which I pronounce in my head like a Bostonian enunciating “car.” You can pronounce the Ford Ka however you like, though, which might make it, in fact, the best car name in the world. Want to sound European? Go ahead, try on a few accents while saying “Ka.” It’s fun.

Ford Ka.
Photo: AP

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And here’s the Nissan Stylish 6. A precursor to the Quest, the Stylish 6 came and went very, very quickly, proving to be an early symbol of Nissan’s struggles to make a good minivan. The color, a sort of burnt orange, was nice, though.

Nissan Stylish 6.
Photo: Photo

More interesting is the BMW Z07 concept, the design for which was overseen by one Chris Bangle, with help from Henrik Fisker. In other words, it’ a pretty car, this one. And while this exact model didn’t go into production, a different version of it did. You’ve probably heard of it: the Z8, the values for which are roughly what they were originally: $150,000 or so for a good one. The Z8 was a good car.

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BMW Z07
Photo: AP
Mazda Roadster
Photo: AP

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Saab 9-5
Photo: AP

And then there’s this thing, described as “the world’s only psychedelic Range Rover Mini.” I’m not certain anyone else was trying to make psychedelic Range Rover Mini?

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Honda J-VX
Photo: AP
Ferdinand Piëch with the Volkswagen W12.
Photo: AP

It’s the Volkswagen W12!

Photo: AP

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This had a 12-cylinder engine of course, making 414 brake horsepower, and lives on in video games like Gran Turismo. This car was mainly built to show the world that Volkswagen was, in fact, capable of building an actual supercar. It was ordered up by Ferdinand Piëch, of course, who is a mad genius responsible for many of the most interesting cars of the last several decades.

Photo: AP

And here’s the Mercedes-Benz Maybach, a prelude to the Maybach 57, the first Maybach produced in its revival under Daimler. The tri-toned color scheme is ... not optimal.

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We’ll end on GM CEO John F. Smith Jr. smiling while sitting in a Cadillac Seville. That’s pretty much how I feel about the Tokyo Motor Show all the time.

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Photo: AP