CC Capsule: 1998 Tommykaira ZZ – Gone In (Almost) 60 Seconds

Just a short post for this second installment of “JDM Rarities Week,” but it’s one that really took me by surprise. I assume some of you might have heard about the Tommykaira ZZ, but until I chanced upon this one on one of my regular Sunday strolls at the Jingu Gaien, I certainly had no idea this even existed.

Kyoto-based Tommykaira is chiefly a tuning outfit, working their magic on a variety of models, such as the Subaru Impreza, the Mercedes-Benz 190 E or the Nissan March. Circa 1991, they (i.e. Yoshikazu Tomita and Kikuo Kaira) decided to try their hand at developing a genuine sports car from the ground up.

The vision being quite close to Lotus, with an emphasis on lightness and a 4-cyl. engine, work on developing and manufacturing the car would take place in Britain, with a few ex-Lotus folks supervising the job. By 1992, a prototype monocoque aluminium chassis with a front and a rear subframe and all-round double wishbone suspension was ready for testing.

Though built in the UK, the Tommykaira was destined for Japan, so the engine Tommykaira picked was (arguably) the best 2-litre 4-cyl. Japan had to offer then: Nissan’s SR20DE. In stock form, the DOHC motor produced 150hp, but Tommykaira squeezed an extra 30hp from it, chiefly by fitting four carbs in place of the EFI. Given the car’s featherweight nature (670-700kg, depending on who you ask), the cocktail would be potent enough, yet remain affordable and simple to fix if need be. The fiberglass body was designed by Takuya Yura, again with a hint of Lotus, though the ZZ actually predates the Elise. Not sure who did the logo, but that looks like a nod to Gordon-Keeble.

The use of cutting-edge chassis technology and an extremely good power-to-weight ratio made for a thrilling combo, according to all the folks who tried one. This completely analog machine would propel its occupants from 0 to 100kph in four seconds and could reach 240kph – if said occupants could handle that without windows.

Launched in 1996, the Tommykaira ZZ was always meant to be a limited production experiment, but its maker was perhaps a bit surprised by how well it was received: around 450 orders poured in, so now the onus was on Tommykaira to deliver. With a monthly production of about a dozen cars at best, that would prove rather a long tedious affair, especially when a combination of currency fluctuations and regulatory changes always kept the car’s future in jeopardy.

Finally, in 1999, the Japanese authorities announced that they would tighten safety standards, which spelled the brave little ZZ’s untimely end. The last car was shipped to Japan in 2000, for a grand total of 206 units made. But a British firm called Leading Edge bought the tooling and made an extra 275 (somewhat modified) cars in the early naughties, so the ZZ was not without issue. And the marque did leave an overall favourable impression in its home country, so much so that a new “second generation” Tommykaira EV roadster was made from 2014 to 2021. Episodic carmakers are a strange phenomenon, but they sure make the automotive landscape more interesting.