Curbside Classic: 1993-94 Autozam AZ-1 – Small Wonder

It’s always good policy to keep the best for last, so after having examined the minutiae of the Suzuki Cappuccino and put the Honda Beat under the microscope, time has finally come to investigate the third – and doubtless most interesting – of the “ABC” mini-sports cars of the ‘90s, the famous Autozam AZ-1. This will also be the first CC post about the Autozam marque, so I might have to start this off with a quick history. Ahem.

As we touched upon when discussing the ɛ̃fini MS-9 a few weeks ago, Mazda created a bunch of new brands and sales channels in a vain attempt at trying to emulate the big boys – a mix of Toyota and GM, in effect, that proved overly ambitious and almost comically ill-timed. Besides the luxury-tinged ɛ̃fini, Mazda created the sort-of-sporty Eunos brand and, focusing on smaller cars, Autozam.

The Autozam branch, created in 1989, served as a sales channel for a number of badge-engineered Mazda products, namely the Carol kei car (1990-98), the Revue subcompact (1990-94, a.k.a Mazda 121), the AZ-3 coupé (1991-98, a.k.a Mazda MX-3) and the Scrum kei pickup/van. The Carol and the Scrum were essentially badge-engineered Suzuki products – the Alto and the Carry, respectively. Autozam was also the importer and distributor for Lancia and Autobianchi, which helps explain why I keep running into Delta HFs all the time around Tokyo.

Later additions to the Autozam family included the top-of-the-range V6-powered Clef saloon (1992-94, top left, a re-bodied Mazda Cronos), the AZ-Wagon (1994-97, bottom left, a.k.a Suzuki Wagon R) and the famous AZ-1. Thanks to the Autozam Carol’s bullish sales performance, the marque survived until 1998 and the sales channel still exists, though all traces of Autozam’s distinctive branding have long been expunged.

So let us return to our CC of the day, arguably the only Autozam that justified the whole costly branding exercise, the AZ-1. These minuscule machines are a relatively rare sight these days. I think I might have seen a half dozen in three years – and until recently, only fleetingly. Then I finally caught a lovely red one.

And as luck would have it, even as I started writing this very post, I found one of the other colour. Yes, they came in blue or red and that’s it. Because there was a lot more to this crazy contraption than mere body colour. Still, the serendipitous find of a second subject was a probably a sign that CC needed a serious dose of AZ-1. So on to the star of the show!

It all started far away from Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters, but in Hamamatsu, home of Suzuki, back in the mid-‘80s. In those days, Suzuki were busy trying to rejuvenate their image and created a mid-engined coupé utilizing the upcoming Cultus/Swift GTi’s 1.3 litre DOHC 4-cyl. named RS / 1. This concept was shown at the 1985 Tokyo Motor Show, but ultimately Suzuki decided to nix the idea and focus instead on the front-engined Cappuccino.

But all that work from Suzuki was not for naught. Mazda were keen to re-enter the kei car market, as they knew the regulations were about to be changed again – engines were to be limited to 660cc, up from the 550cc that was prevalent since the mid-‘70s, when Mazda left the kei niche.

As is common among carmakers in general and Japanese ones in particular, Mazda and Suzuki worked out a deal to enable Mazda to reenter the kei segment with the Carol, as well as killing off their aging Porter kei truck in favour of the Suzuki-based Scrum. This would help Suzuki realize substantial economies of scale, maximize amortization/ROI and potentially double kei car and truck sales.

Mazda figured the RS / 1 could be repurposed into something that might bring more foot traffic into their upcoming Autozam dealership network. But they needed to modify the concept quite a bit first, as Mazda were planning to aim it at the kei class, just like Suzuki were doing with their RWD Cappuccino and Honda were known to do with their mid-engined Beat roadster.

Autozam was launched at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show and a strange trio of tiny sports cars was front and centre on their stand. The AZ-550s were the result of Mazda’s reworking of the Suzuki mid-engined prototype into three distinct prototypes: a wedgy gullwing-door design with hidden headlights (Type A), a blocky standard-door notchback (Type B) and what might be best described as a mini-Le Mans racer (Type C) with butterfly-doors. The Japanese public was asked its opinion and it seems Type C was favoured by a clear majority of respondents, but Mazda pressed on with Type A anyway.

There were a number of changes between the fall of 1989 and the launch of the AZ-1 three years later. The 40hp 550cc engine used in the prototypes was replaced with a 657cc DOHC 12-valve turbo 3-cyl. delivering 64hp – the maximum allowed by the kei car legislation. It’s the same engine used in the spicier Suzuki Altos, but sat behind the driver instead of in front of them. The suspension was independent struts all around and disc brakes were fitted to all four wheels for good measure.

Mazda engineers took a while to construct a solid enough metal skeleton for the AZ-1 to pass the Japanese crash-test requirements. This involved a last-minute change of the location of the spare wheel, which migrated from the front to just behind the seats, lest it push the steering column into the driver’s rib cage in the event of a front-end collision. Flip-up headlights were also abandoned to keep costs down, leading to the AZ-1’s trademark amphibian gaze.

In true sports car fashion, the AZ-1 was low to the ground, light on its tyres (720kg) thanks to its GRP body and available only with a 5-speed manual transmission. The asking price was also quite sports car-like, as in a tad on the hefty side: ¥1.5 million – just a little less than the Eunos Roadster (a.k.a Mazda MX-5) that was then taking the world by storm.

As a relatively expensive manual-only mid-engined kei sports car, the AZ-1 would necessarily be ultra-niche, but perhaps Mazda went a bit too far on the quirky side. The car went on sale, and unlike its fellow sports keis (namely, the Honda Beat and the Suzuki Cappuccino), it went nowhere. It did not help that the Japanese economy had imploded about a year prior to the AZ-1’s launch, but the Beat and the Cappuccino had to contend with similar headwinds and sold much better than the Autozam.

Production was curtailed in October 1994, after just two years, though there were enough stocks left over to keep the AZ-1 in the range through to September 1995. All told, Autozam sold just under 4500 AZ-1s – there are at least two “precise” numbers floating about the webs, so I’ll keep neutral and vague on this particular aspect of the deal. But that’s not the entire story in any case.

For one thing, Suzuki wanted in on the (lack of) action as well and launched their badge-engineered version in 1993 as the Cara. The only notable difference with the AZ-1 is that Suzuki shoehorned a pair of fog lamps in the bumper, making the Cara even more expensive than the Autozam as a result. And they still only came in blue or red. Suzuki only sold 531 units, making this a very rare car indeed.

But not the rarest by a long shot. The tiny community of tiny AZ-1 fanatics were catered for by Mazda’s M2 division, which devised a special version (in black, silver or white), limited to a body kit. Less than 50 of these were made. The engine was not modified, but it was apparently not very tricky to tweak the turbo and improve the exhaust to squeeze somewhere between 100-120hp out of the Suzuki triple. Mazdaspeed also made kits for the AZ-1 – quite different from the M2 kit, and other kits have appeared.

As a matter of fact, I found this heavily modified AZ-1 a while back – unfortunately, this was at a time when my smartphone lens was acting up and it was located in a very challenging place, photographically speaking. This could be a modified M2 1015, but there were no scripts or badges anywhere on the car.

But it’s still worth trying to salvage a few pics via Photoshop so that this possibly unique beast could be included in this post. I have no idea who made this, nor whether more of these exist. Google image searches for this front end have come up empty, so this could be a completely artisanal nose job.

The rear spoiler looks a bit like the M2 item, but this car also has a B-pillar spoiler (which makes sense given the engine placement, I guess) that is very elaborate, yet seems bespoke to this particular car. The novel nose is certainly distinctive and looks like it could be more aerodynamic, but I’m still keener on the standard production Autozam.

The AZ-1 was the lowest production car bearing the Autozam brand, followed closely by the Clef saloon, which went a bit over the 5000 unit mark. But I bet there are less than a few handfuls of Clefs around anymore, to pretty much nobody’s chagrin, whereas AZ-1s have achieved full-blown (sorry, turbocharged) icon status.

As Autozam’s sole exclusive model (which is debatable, given the existence of the Suzuki Cara), the AZ-1’s failure in the market place has paradoxically guaranteed its place in the Pantheon of JDM legends. Everybody loves an underdog – even if it’s a peculiar kind of Basset-Chihuahua mix.

Mechanically, these are quite solid. The absence of automatic transmission, another factor in the AZ-1’s sluggish sales, is a blessing from the point of view of longevity and mechanical simplicity. Model-specific parts are an issue, but fortunately the glassfiber body panels seem to age pretty well.

As a result of this combination of scarcity, oddity and reliability, the AZ-1 has always kept a loyal following in Japan and soon attracted the attention of foreign collectors. And now that they can be exported to the US legally, prices have skyrocketed. But realistically, this is not a car for folks who measure over 175cm (5’10’’) and live on a steady diet of fish, soy and seaweed.

Apologies for the long text; sometimes, smaller cars demand a bigger-than-average CC post, as is the case here. There aren’t many cars you can identify from far away at night just by the shape and height of the headlights. Nothing looks like the AZ-1, and that’s a good thing.