I’m currently working on a project about the “Bubble Era” of the Japanese auto industry the period from the mid-1980s into the early ’90s when the Japanese economy boomed, and Japanese carmakers rode the explosion like an ’80s action hero. It’s hard to generally describe how nuts the whole time was, so I’ll highlight a few specifics, including the wonderfully-named Mitsubishi Minica Lettuce, a real car sold to very real people for a totally nuts reason.
I happen to have more resources at hand about the Minica Lettuce than anyone else currently living, so it seemed a good time to write about this thing. Anyway, it’s good for illustrating the general feeling of the Bubble Era.
The Minica Lettuce debuted in 1989, hardly two years before the economic bubble burst and Mitsubishi started its long decline to where it stands now. The Minica is a kei car, meaning it was a kind of mini car that followed strict small size and low power regulations from the government. Those regulations actually increased as Mitsubishi was putting this car on the market, meaning that Mitsubishi missed out on cramming a whopping 660cc engine under its little hood rather than the 550cc it made do with, as allowed before 1990.
OK, if you want to get technical, the standard Minica actually had a mere 548cc, putting out 46 horsepower from three cylinders to push around about 1,400 pounds. It measured ten and a half feet long by four and a half feet wide. The Minica was also slightly taller than it was wide.
Now, later kei cars got much more experimental with the format, particularly the budding sports car kei car trio of the Autozam AZ-1 (a mid-engined coupe gullwing doors), the Honda Beat (a mid-engined roadster) and the Suzuki Cappuccino (a front-engined roadster), but I have a soft spot for this sixth-generation Mitsubishi Minica, because it was about as nuts as the standard kei car layout got.
It was still an economy car hatchback, as pretty much all kei cars are still. What’s fun is how Mitsubishi played on that format.
The regular Minica was a major step forward for kei cars becoming more adult, more like regular-sized cars. It featured much improved braking, handling and stability, more upscale styling and it had a bigger interior with higher-quality materials. It was much more of a normal car than the basic kei cars before it. And Mitsubishi offered options not seen on any kei car, or any production car, before it.
There was the Minica DANGAN-ZZ, which was the first production car with five valves per cylinder, using a turbocharged 548cc three-cylinder. Think of how tiny those valves were. So tiny! The car got permanent all-wheel drive with a hydraulic coupling and it made do with 64 horsepower at 7500 RPM. Mitsubishi said it could make a great deal more, but kei car regulations would restrict things to 64 HP.
Even the regular Minica got electric power steering, a tilt steering wheel, power windows and power seats standard! Wow!
Alright, I’m getting sidetracked. You came here for Lettuce content, and Lettuce content is what I will deliver.
Even more than the DANGAN-ZZ, I love the Lettuce. It truly has one of the greatest names in automotive history, and there’s a fun story behind it.
The Minica as a whole was targeted towards women (who accounted for 60 percent of the kei car market and most of the return buyers of kei cars at the time), as you can see in the ads above. But the Lettuce was even more specialized.
It was “perhaps the first car to be sold in supermarkets,” as The New York Times put it in 1989, a car designed for shopping and sold “not far from other canned goods,” as the article continued:
At the other end of the spectrum is Mitsubishi’s Lettuce, the newest in Japanese minicars, tiny cars that maneuver on narrow side streets originally designed for bicycles and rickshaws. At first glance, the Lettuce looks like a giant manufacturing mistake: two passenger doors are on one side, with only one on the other. In fact, the car was designed for Japanese mothers - more than 60 percent of the Lettuce’s drivers are women -who are moving young children and grocery bags out of the passenger side of the car.
‘’We jointly designed the car with Seiyu supermarkets,’’ Mr. Sugiyama, the Mitsubishi executive, said in reference to one of Japan’s largest supermarket chains, ‘’because no car seemed just right for food shopping.’’ Seiyu is selling the $6,000 car in supermarkets, not far from other canned goods. Its options include plastic pink hubcaps. The manufacturer does not recommend it for highway driving.
Yes, you read that right. The Lettuce’s distinction was that it had one door on the driver’s side and two on the passenger side, which was to “prevent children from getting out on the outside,” as Mitsubishi pointed out to Car Styling magazine back in 1989. The name itself also got a clarification:
After Parsley comes the Lettuce. A pet name designed to attract lady shoppers, it is in fact the name of a shopping information magazine published by Seiyu Co., a member of the Seibu Saison Group, Seiyu Co. is selling the Minica Lettuce model through its nationwide retail network.
This is what tickles me so much about the Minica Lettuce: Designing a car specifically for shopping is beyond insane.
Virtually every ordinary car ever sold has been designed for carrying stuff around, stuff that certainly includes items you buy when you go out shopping. A car, for the most part, is basically a shopping cart with wheels and seats.
For Mitsubishi to attempt to design a kind of super-shopping car, to spend the development money building out a unique body, it can only mean that the company was pursuing literally every idea that its designers could think up.
And this was how the Bubble Era was as a whole. Every niche was targeted. Sports cars. Super cars. Luxury cars. Retro cars. Modular cars. Cars sold in pairs. Daihatsu showed off a concept for a car to hold a rack of clothes. Nissan nearly made a car it described as a “luxurious phone booth.” Toyota played around with a turbine car and a two-stroke eco-commuter car. Everything was on the table, and if a business case could be made for it, no matter how tiny it went into production. There were no limits.
So the Minica Lettuce might seem like a silly idea now, but it’s a reminder that there was a time of great creativity in the auto industry, the likes of which we may never see again.