Something is happening to parking lots in Tokyo. In a word, they’re disappearing. The one where I caught this superbly preserved Sprinter, for instance, has been fenced up since late last year (I took the pictures in May 2022). Since I moved in this city, I’ve seen at least 20 large parking lots disappear. It’s alarming in a way – they are a great source of CCs. But what does it say about car ownership in the Japanese capital in general?
In a word: it’s low and getting lower. There are over 900 cars per 1000 people in the US. In Japan, the figure is only 660, but there is a big difference between town and country: in Tokyo, it’s more like 200 nowadays, down from an all-time max of 246 in the mid-‘90s. Sure, it never got very high, but it was essentially near zero in the early ‘50s. The trend is now on the decrease, though.
There are many reasons for this, including the fact that people are getting older and give up renewing their driver’s license. Land prices and rents are going up, making large plots occupied by parking lots very attractive to build on. Car renting and sharing has become a huge thing here, too. And it’s just plain inconvenient to drive in this town. The streets are just too narrow to be practical, even for kei cars.
What does this all have to do with the E100 Sprinter here? Nothing directly, but it does come from a time when car ownership in Tokyo was still creeping upwards. And so too did car parks, given how little street parking is available here. There are still a lot of smaller lots dotted about, with three or four spaces for regular-sized cars and maybe a few motorcycles (bike parking is a whole nother situation), but the bigger lots are disappearing fast, at least in my little corner of the megalopolis. Why, just as I started writing this piece, I noticed that one very close to my digs, where I caught this Porsche 914 back in 2020, was closed down. Soon to be replaced by a ten-storey apartment block with no provision for parking, no doubt.
Anyway, let’s focus on this Sprinter, if only for a moment. I’m sure some of you will know it better are the Geo Prizm, but in its home market, it could be pretty luxurious. It’s basically an A100 Corolla with a different body and aspirations of being a junior Mark II, especially in this more refined 1.6 litre G-badged guise.
But then, that was the Sprinter’s brief from the get-go, back in 1970: to be a slightly more polished and exclusive variant of the popular Toyota. The Mercury me-too clone to the Corolla’s Ford, if you will. The interior certainly has more of an upmarket feel to it. The aftermarket steering wheel adds a little colour, too.
These were made in Japan between 1991 and 1995, right when JDM saloons hit peak luxury. Nothing much about the rear bench is all that lah-dee-dah, just plain decent. The front seats are set all the way back, so the rear legroom looks a bit measured in this photo, but that’s just an impression.
The inevitable decline of the automobile as a viable mode of daily transport within this city, on the other hand, is a proven fact. The recent acceleration of parking lot closures is just the latest symptom, one that the long-term trends might have foretold. It does take a while for these things to change the physical world, but they do eventually. After two straight decades of decline in car ownership, parking space over-capacity is finally being addressed. And Tokyo’s pretty much the last place in the country where population is still rising, so the real estate has to be used somehow.
The Sprinter? Oh, yes. Great car. Reliable. Well built. Handsome bordering on almost pretty. Sorry your ten minutes of CC fame had to be hijacked by a lengthy rant about urban automobile temporary storage, but that’s the way it goes. Just needed to park it here.
Curbside Classic: 1995 Geo Prizm – NUMMI Bear, by Joseph Dennis