Currently reading: From the archive: on this day in 1991
Booming Japanese car makers go crazy with concepts at the Tokyo motor show

In the late 1980s, Japan enjoyed a bubble economy. Asset and stock values soared and the middle class got rich.

The automotive industry, its biggest by far, went wild, hitting annual production of 13.5 million in 1990 (5.8m up on its 2022 total). This created a combination of vast budgets and high demand for new technology – and goodness did the country’s manufacturers deliver.

Let’s head back to the 1991 Tokyo motor show to see some weird and wonderful evidence. Honda at long last made its first ever concept cars to appear beside its new Civic and Prelude.

The FS-X was a large, sporty, American-style saloon with a very efficient 3.5-litre V6. Its reception was universally enthusiastic – unlike for the EP-X, a small but bulky, tandem-seat, aluminium-bodied ‘commuter car’ with a 70bhp VTEC triple.

Over at Mazda, the all-new Mk3 RX-7 rotary sports car was joined by a bewildering assortment of 626 variants (it had bravely launched four new sibling brands); and as for concepts, the M2 1009, a compact four-seat off-roader, and the ichthyic, gull-winged HR-X, which had a hydrogen-fuelled twin-rotor engine whose tank doubled as a battery, replenished by regenerative braking. Bonkers!

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In addition to rolling out a sports coupé concept with a mid-mounted Swift GTi engine (named the Spry), Suzuki grabbed lots of attention – not least from its UK importer – with a roadster. The Cappuccino was powered by a tiny 660cc three-cylinder engine that gave it just 63bhp, but then it was a miniscule thing that weighed a scant 725kg.

Daihatsu also sought to follow in the tyre tracks of the Mazda MX-5, revealing the pretty X-021, with an aluminium spaceframe, a composite body, racing-derived suspension and a 140bhp 1.6-litre four up front and rear-wheel drive. Sadly, it never made production.

Oh, and it created the Milano version of its Mira kei hatchback, a tall, semi-circular carbuncle that allowed you to “enjoy comfortable driving, even in a miniskirt”...

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Nissan also had a small topless sports car and was likewise keen on selling it – which would have been quite something, considering that the Duad had its engine beside the driver, causing a 38cm offset between the two front seats!

Slightly more realistic from the firm was the Cocoon, a spacious yet very stylish six-seat MPV, plus the FEV, an electric coupé whose nickel-cadmium batteries could be charged to 80% in just 15 minutes and would yield a 155-mile range.

And as for production, it had the catchily named Leopard J Ferie, a 4.2-litre V8 saloon that would split the Leopard lineage by migrating to new premium brand Infiniti.

Centre of attention on the Toyota stand wasn’t its Carina-previewing AVX III concept but the Avalon, an absurd and impractical but trendy and luxurious open-top cruiser, designed in and for California.

It also had the Aristo, a Giugiaro-designed six-pot saloon that, like the Leopard, would later get a new brand, namely Lexus (as the GS).

Despite being one of the smaller Japanese concerns, Subaru fielded some of the show’s most impressive concepts: the Amadeus, a shooting brake version of the wildly styled SVX four-wheel-drive coupé; the Rioma, an elegant, targa-top sports car based on the Legacy saloon and also of course with 4WD; and the Hanako, a bubble-shaped two-seat commuter car with a 48bhp four and a novel ‘fuzzy logic’ CVT.

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Another minnow, Mitsubishi, tried out a retro design theme – but regrettably its efforts were more like Mitsuoka’s pastiches than Nissan’s cute (and popular) Be-1, Pao and Figaro trio. The mS 1000 was an unholy mix of Morris Minor and Alfa Romeo, the mR 1000 a Lotus Europa stressball.

Having stolen hearts in 1990 with its 4200R supercar concept, Isuzu sent jaws to the floor with the Como: a supercar at the front and a pick-up at the back, with a mid-mounted 3.5-litre V12 that had been designed for (but been rejected by) the Lotus Formula 1 racing team. Holden Maloo, eat your heart out!

It also strayed from its truck-and-SUV heartland for the Terraza, an oversized commuter car in the same vein as Honda’s with, madly, a ceramic engine; and the show’s worst concept, the Nagisa, “half boat, half car, complete rubbish”.

Yet despite all this innovation, it was a foreign firm that caused a stampede: Audi, with the Avus, a supercar with a look inspired by its world-beating streamlined 1930s grand prix racers and a 509bhp W12 engine to match. The mirror-finished beauty would never see the road, but its engine would, a decade later, in the A8 limousine.

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