Japan’s ‘kei car’ regulations were introduced post-World War II to create a new affordable class of car for a population recovering from the ravages of global conflict. The regulations live on these days as a way of limiting vehicle size to ease parking and traffic congestion in one of the world’s most crowded countries.
Kei-car regulations have evolved over the years, but since 1998 cars are required to fit within a ‘box’ measuring 3400mm long, 1480mm wide and 2000mm tall. Maximum engine size is 660cc (though forced induction is allowed) and maximum power is capped at 47kW.
Generally, Kei cars take the shape of practical, yet bland vans. However, Japan’s booming economy in the late 1980s led three manufacturers to boldly develop Kei sports cars. Suzuki made the Cappuccino, Honda the Beat and Mazda the AZ-1. Not that it was called such, as Mazda sold the AZ-1 under its Autozam brand, which also sold Lancias. Strange.
The seeds of the AZ-1 idea were planted with Suzuki’s RS/1 concept from 1985. However, when Suzuki abandoned the mid-engined route in favour of the more conventional Cappuccino, Mazda picked up the baton.
It introduced three distinct versions of the ‘AZ-550’ as concepts at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, with ‘Type A’ being selected as the car for production. Google the other versions, as they’re extremely cool, especially the Group C-inspired race version.
Stylistically, the only real change was fixed headlights replacing the pop-up units of the concept, though changing from aluminium to steel for the car’s internal tube frame skeleton delayed its introduction until September 1992.
Sadly, by this time Japan was in the grips of a fierce recession. Mazda planned to sell 800 AZ-1s a month, but ceased production having built just 4392, plus a further 531 for Suzuki called the Cara. A price tag within spitting distance of Mazda’s own MX-5 certainly didn’t help its cause.
In an effort to shift stock, Mazda developed all manner of AZ-1 special editions. One of the first was this Mazdaspeed version, including a body kit, alloy wheels and the option of uprated suspension, an LSD and sports exhaust.
1992-1995 AUTOZAM AZ-1 SPECS
Engine: 657cc I3, DOHC, 12v, turbo
Power: 47kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 85Nm @ 4000rpm
0-100km/h: 9.2sec (claimed)
Price: AUD$29,000 (est)
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