Curbside Classic: 1990 Toyota Sera – The Future’s Not Ours To See

Ever wondered why a particular model existed? I sure thought that when photographing this one. Not that I didn’t kind of like it, but I had no clue what it was. Then I read up a bit about it, and I don’t feel more enlightened than before. One thing strikes the onlooker though: this Sera is crossover madness. Just not the kind of crossover we’re used to. A heady and unexpected mix of Jetsons and Tercel, with a smattering of melted DeLorean thrown in for good measure. More of a mélange, really.

They didn’t launch it without warning. In 1988, the AXV-II was displayed on the Toyota stand at the Tokyo Motor Show. The public reaction must have been deemed positive enough to press ahead with production. After a number of notable detail changes, the car went live in March 1990. As Toyota said in their press release, “Sera is the future tense of the French word “être” (to be); it has been chosen for the new Toyota model to signify a dream-like car that takes us to the future.” So that’s what the future was like 30 years ago. Nostalgia ain’t what it used Sera to be.

It was probably one of those things that made sense at the time. A “you had to be there” kind of decision. When they green-lit the Sera, circa 1987, the sky was the limit on Japanese carmakers’ ambitions. The domestic economic situation was ebullient, foreign markets were being conquered at an ever-increasing pace, Korean competition was still manageable and expansion was the name of the game. Decisions were being made that included creating new marques left and right, making V8 engines (and triple rotaries) available for the common folk, and a proliferation of luxury models and flashy sports cars were coming off the drawing boards.

Those crazy times gave us a number of long-lasting consequences. A non-exhaustive list: Mitsuoka, Lexus, Infiniti and Acura came to be; the V8-powered Nissan Cima and the Toyota Crown Majesta dominated the JDM luxury sedan segment; Honda, Mazda and Nissan all came up with four-wheel steering systems. A proliferation of new models widened choice to bewildering levels – especially on the domestic market.

But there were a number of stinkers as well. It’s unavoidable. Mazda’s attempt at generating marques (Autozam and Eunos) was a failure. Mitsubishi and Mazda eventually had to quit the executive segment when the top end of the market dried up, and Isuzu had to retreat out of passenger cars altogether. Nissan and Mitsubishi started their slow slide toward disaster. So where does the Toyota Sera belong? Success or dud?

The unique butterfly doors (“Not ‘gullwing,’ please!” Toyota seemed to say at the time) and the glass canopy look are the car’s main party trick. And it is quite the trick, for sure. Even with the doors closed, the glass top has an uncannily old-fashioned futuristic look that really makes this rather petite car stick out of the crowd, be it back in 1990 or nowadays. No production car ever looked like this.

Our feature car adds to this ‘60s feel with the small roof spoiler (or is that a transparent sunshade? He he… crazy thing, this Sera), which I haven’t seen on other cars I’ve been Googling for the past few minutes. Just adds another layer of weird on the bubble top.

And I guess that from the driver / passenger’s perspective, the Sera must be a very enjoyable experience, provided that refrigeration is up to snuff. The B-pillar is rather fat, but that’s pretty much all the solid roof you have over your head. The rest is transparent and must give one the impression of being in a fancy fish bowl, not unlike the many bubble-topped vehicles that preceded it. And if I may, I’ll just go on a wee tangent at this point. Don’t worry, I’ll be brief. Ahem…

There are too many of those to enumerate here, but judging from what I could dig up in a short spell of online research, the heyday of the bubbletop roof was circa 1955, though the concept had been around for a couple of decades before that – ever since airplanes started having them, I guess.

In Britain, coachbuilder Hooper were renowned for their post-war bubble-top limos on Daimler (’57 DK400, top left), Bentley or Rolls-Royce (’59 Wraith on the right) chassis. Other European countries also got in on the idea, but for other applications. One of the few pre-war examples was the Hanomag record Diesel car (second row, left), raced in 1939. Several other racers were so equipped post-war, such as this PininFarina-bodied 1956 Alfa Romeo 6C 3000 CM Superflow (second row, right). PininFarina also used a cantilevered version of the concept on a 1959 Cadillac chassis (third row, left). One of the last examples of the idea (until the Sera came to be, in any case), was the Caimano, made by Giugiaro’s Italdesign on a 1971 Alfasud base. On the other end of the spectrum, the plexiglas roof was adopted by a number of microcar makers, such as the 1952-64 Messerschmitt and the 1965-66 Peel Trident (last row, left and right respectively).

Above: 1954 Mercury Sun Valley; below: see-through tops galore

In the US, Ford were the strongest proponents of the idea, with the Skyliner / Sun Valley bringing Perspex half-roofs to production cars, but full bubbletops were either aftermarket accessories (such as the Corvette ones, which are highly sought after today) or seen as belonging to the bespoke / dream car realm. The former was seen in various partially transparent configurations, but the famous 1961 Lincoln that Hess & Eisenhardt made for JFK (second row, left) could be set up as one long bubble top. Dream cars, on the other hand, went bubbletop-mad in the ‘50s. We have the very tame 1954 Chrysler La Comtesse (second row, right), but if you preferred the hard stuff, Lincoln had your back in the third row (’53 XL-500 and ’56 Futura). At the bottom, we have two GM examples: the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville and the 1956 Buick Centurion.

Clockwise from top left: 1962 Forecasta; 1959 Studillac by Canazzi; 1957 Aurora; 1964 Cosma Ray; 1961 Predicta


There were also a bunch of truly outlandish see-through designs emanating from American customizers, especially Darryl Starbird (left column in composite above). And let’s not forget the positively psychedelic 1957 Aurora “safety car” – an all-glass canopy was seen as a safety feature, apparently… A lot more info on the American side of the story can be found in this great article from Hemmings’ SIA Archive, which I urge you to click and read – after you’re done with this post, of course. It’s telling that this December 1989 article can still claim that, despite halfhearted attempts such as the glass-roofed Ford / Mercury coupes, “the true bubbletopped automobile has yet to appear in the mass market.” This was mere months prior to the launch of the Sera, but also forgets the Messeschmitt, which though it usually only had three wheels, was a mass market vehicle.

But let’s get back to the Sera. Below the greenhouse, it’s about as vanilla as they come. Styling is defined by Toyota themselves as “spherical” – it certainly is very smooth, but were it not for the funny doors and canopy, it would be quite anonymous. The suspension, steering and general platform is based on the contemporary Starlet / Tercel / Paseo. The 104hp 1.5 litre 4-cyl. engine usually drives the front wheels via a 4-speed automatic (manual cars were pretty rare). It even has drum brakes on the rear wheels, except if you ticked “ABS” in the options list.

Said options list does not include power steering, electric windows or air-con – those are all fitted as standard. On this car more than any other, A/C is a fundamental human right, or at least ought to be enshrined as such under some sort of UN convention. Imagine how that glass cockpit would feel on the mildest of sunny days without it, given that you can’t really open anything close to a window.

Toyota kept the Sera as part of their JDM range until December 1995, yet 75% of the 16,000-odd units made were produced between the early 1990 launch and mid-1991. They kept making small batches of Seras after that, with precious few changes. Notwithstanding the Sera’s glass top, the bottom had fallen out of the market. The car was not conceived for export, so it had no future. Even with butterfly doors, Toyota couldn’t get out of this one gracefully. Ah well. You can’t win ‘em all.


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Curbside Classic: Toyota Sera – Wings Don’t Make It Fly, by David Saunders