History and histories

Japan’s microcars

The origin of the species

Photo credit: RM Sotheby’s, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Wheelsage

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a long and painful war, a defeated Japan, which was subjected to severe industrial restrictions, desperately needed mobility in order to restart its economy. One law in particular stimulated the creation of inexpensive micro cars, called “Kei Car” or “K-car”, after “kei jidōsha” which means “light automobile” in Japanese, with two-stroke engines limited to 100cc and four-stroke variants to 150cc. The market only took off in 1955, however, when regulations allowed engine sizes to increase to 360cc. The first example was the Suzulight, produced by Suzuki. At less than 3 metres in length and just over one meter wide, it soon became the symbol of Japan’s economic recovery. In 1958, a van version was introduced. The engine was a two-stroke 359cc twin-cylinder unit, originally producing 16hp which was later increased to 21hp.

1955 Suzuki Suzulight. Twin-cylinder (two-stroke) 359cc 22hp

Less fortunate was the Fuji Cabin from 1957, which was the result of the merger between Hitachi Aviation – which had been banned from building aeroplanes – and Fuji Automobile, a manufacturer of motorcycles and small two-stroke engines. The three-wheeled design, the poor quality of the fibreglass bodywork and the high price meant that only 85 examples were produced, each with a 122cc single-cylinder engine producing 5.5hp.

1957 Fuji Cabin. Single-cylinder (two-stroke) 122cc 5.5hp

Subaru’s interpretation of the Kei Car legislation came one year later with the 360, nicknamed the “ladybug.” With its 25hp engine, it was a direct competitor of the Suzulight, but it was produced in large quantities with all the advantages of scale. In the same year, it was joined by the Custom version in the form of a van, built specifically for commercial activities.

1958 Subaru 360. Twin-cylinder (two-stroke) 356cc 16hp

The market was growing and small cars were a necessity for Japan with its narrow streets and tiny parking areas of many houses. As a result, in 1960 Mazda joined in with the R360: a two-seater with an air-cooled, twin cylinder 356cc engine producing 16hp. This model was soon expanded into a range that offered a pick-up, a 2+2 and even convertible versions.

1958 Subaru 360 Custom. Twin-cylinder (two-stroke) 356cc 16hp

Towards the end of the 1960s, Honda also entered the market but demonstrated its technological prowess with a 354cc twin-cylinder 4-stroke engine producing 31hp. It was the first Kei Car to come with automatic transmission and in 1961 Honda introduced the N600 version, with a light alloy engine.

1960 Datsun Fairlady. Four-cylinder (four-stroke) 988cc 36hp

Japan’s economic recovery was now very strong and the tax benefits for Kei Cars were reduced as anti-pollution rules were introduced. But the Japanese micro cars didn’t disappear. Indeed, free from limitations, Japanese manufacturers introduced a variety of different forms, just like they had started doing at the beginning of the 60s with small roadsters such as the Datsun Fairlady, Honda S500 and Toyota Sports 800. These exceptions become a stimulus for new rules that were more restrictive in terms of emissions and safety, but were clearly aimed at encouraging the development and introduction of a new approach towards micromobility. We are talking about the Nissan Figaro, Suzuki Cappuccino, Honda Beat and Autozam AZ-1 ,all of which were marketed in the early 1990s. The electric revolution will take it from here!

1960 Mazda R360. Twin-cylinder (four-stroke) 356cc 11hp
1960 Mazda K360. Twin-cylinder (four-stroke) 356cc 11hp
1963 Honda S500. Four-cylinder (four-stroke) 531cc 44hp
1967 Honda N360. Twin-cylinder (four-stroke) 354cc 31hp