2007 Tokyo Motor Show

By Guy Bird for Blueprint, Feb 2008

Big in Japan

The Tokyo motor show still reveals the most cutting edge car designs in the world but it is no longer just Japanese designers behind its exhibits as Guy Bird reports 

A city car that resembles a shrunken truck cab, a van with a pod that slides out from its rear and a monochrome sportscar interior transported from the set of Aliens II were just three of the highlights of another spectacular Tokyo motor show. Renowned as the best expo for new concept cars – literally ‘vehicles for ideas’ for carmakers to test the water for possible design directions, hint at next-generation models and/or showcase new technology – Tokyo is the place to see the automotive future.

Vehicle concepts that might seem quirky or downright wacky elsewhere make sense in a country where there is a definite culture of being open to new innovations, a craving for the latest technology and an industrial expertise in delivering reliability with a good eye for quality and detail. A buying public used to the idea of robots that can undertake household chores will likely be quicker to embrace the novelty of an electric armchair on wheels that can dock into a mothership for longer journeys too (as the latest Suzuki Pixy and SSC concepts proposed).

A buying public used to the idea of robots that can undertake household chores will likely be quicker to embrace the novelty of an electric armchair on wheels

But despite the biennial Tokyo motor show’s established global importance – it’s one of the top five alongside Detroit, Geneva, Paris and Frankfurt and now in its 40th year – it has always seems a very Japanese show, unlike the more neutral setting of Geneva where makers and designers from all over the world show products. 

Just like any savvy global product manufacturer wishing to tap into the mindset of local markets most Japanese carmakers have design studios outside of Japan (mainly in Europe and on the west coast of North America) and plenty of non-Japanese designers – but the ‘home fixture’ of the Tokyo show has tended to be the preserve of the Japanese design studios. At the 2007 show among the 77 world premieres, there were signs of change. Yes, there were only a few European carmakers and their designers showing new concepts (Audi, BMW and VW) and the majority of global unveils were still by Japanese car brands, but at least three – Toyota, Nissan and Mazda – showed concepts utilising the talents of young non-Japanese designers. All the concepts mentioned at the start of this piece are examples.

The ‘shrunken cab’ Toyota Hi-CT was one of the most strikingly original car shapes at the show. Its 25-year old French ex-Nike designer, Alexandre Vanghelder says its extremely unusual “tall and narrow” silhouette “expresses the traits of Tokyo itself”, and features rear wheels that extend beyond the rear of the car. Despite seating four adults the petrol/electric hybrid is 216mm shorter in length than the small new Fiat 500. An external luggage box, electric mini-bikes or other kit can be clipped onto the Hi-CT’s rear – a bit like a vertically arranged rear roof rack – to increase practicality and also to proudly display the nature of the occupants’ leisure interests to the outside world. Vanghelder, who works out of Toyota’s ‘Design Research & Laboratory’ in Tokyo, says the car’s proportions also reflect a possible new definition of automotive design cool, “it’s no longer about sleek sports cars like a cheetah, this is more like a gorilla.”

With Japanese carmakers concerned that large portions of Japanese youth seem to be slowly losing interest in mobility and car ownership, due to increasing congestion, lack of space and other virtual distractions, Toyota hopes it could be a breath of fresh air.

The unveiling of the Nissan NV200 – a stealthily matt grey van concept among a show choc-full of shiny metallic-painted car concepts – was another vehicle that set itself apart well before a gloss white sliding pod emerged dramatically from its rear to rest on two stilts. More unusual still, this van represented the first instance of Nissan allowing one of its Tokyo show concepts to be designed and built outside of Japan – in this case at its impressive European studio in London’s Paddington. Project leader and exterior designer for the NV200, the suitably international Martin Uhlarik (a Canadian born to Czech parents) considers it a major feather in the cap for the London team.

The concept is still very Japanese in aesthetic though, utilising limited space for maximum benefit, mixing minimalism with innovative ideas and showcasing excellent detailing and craftsmanship. Not only does the sliding pod give great access to the van’s neatly arranged cargo but the area the pod vacates also creates an ingenious third space behind the driver’s cabin. Flipping down a table reveals two built-in computer screens while the passenger seat can slide and swivel back via a groove in the van’s floor to become an office chair. For the purposes of the concept, Nissan’s London-based team imagined the vehicle as an underwater photographer’s workspace and this third area as the mobile editing suite. While an undoubted show car touch, the basic exterior shape is destined to inform the next Kubistar production van and although the sliding pod is far from production-feasible today, Nissan is taking the design element seriously enough to investigate patenting the idea.

The third Euro-influenced Japanese concept at Tokyo was the Mazda Taiki. Mazda is perhaps the Japanese brand most open to outside influence. As part of the Ford Group for many years it has been the only Japanese marque with a non-Japanese design chief for some time, currently headed up by Dutchman Laurens van den Acker, behind the acclaimed Nagare (or ‘flow’) concepts.

The Taiki – a hydrogen-powered-sportscar – is the fourth in the series of this new design direction. The exterior was penned by Brit and recent Coventry University transport design graduate Joe Reeve. It features grooves and detailing that ape the natural flow of air over the earth’s surfaces – like ribbed sand dunes, pond ripples or perhaps a carefully-raked Zen garden – to emphasise the car’s excellent aerodynamics and connection with nature, another important Japanese design aesthetic theme.

The whole ensemble looks by turns wonderfully organic and moodily skeletal. A bit like the set of Aliens II, but less scary

The interior offers dramatically different driver and passenger seat treatments. One is opaque white, the other black with a transparent cover revealing the criss-cross structure of the seat within. The ‘A’-shaped cut in the rippled dashboard to afford more passenger room is another unusual touch. The idea behind the asymmetric approach is that the black cockpit aids driver focus while the solid white passenger seat and footwell is more relaxing. The whole ensemble looks by turns wonderfully organic and moodily skeletal. A bit like the set of Aliens II, but less scary.

All three concepts are ‘pure Tokyo motor show’ and are great examples of Japanese design. That they happen to be developed in part by European designers is not to the detriment of Japanese designers. Japanese designers were also heavily involved in all the concepts mentioned and most concepts at the 2007 Tokyo show were still all-Japanese design affairs, including the superb ‘Hello Kitty’ cool of the Honda Puyo with its silicone-clad soft-touch exterior that pedestrians literally bounce off in a collision.

Automotive design has been an increasingly global design process for some years, but this small trend shows the emerging confidence of some Japanese carmakers as key global players – Toyota set to overtake General Motors as the biggest car producer in 2007 – to encourage such a cross-pollination of ideas. As a country like Britain knows well, outside influences can often help insiders see the beauty of their own design culture with fresh eyes.


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