Tiny, mid-engined, and featuring those all-important gullwing doors, the Autozam AZ-1 has it all. And now you, too, can enjoy the things Japan was tired of in the 1990s.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had a Suzuki kei car on Rare Rides; that honor goes to this Mighty Boy pickup truck. Today’s ride is another entrant in the Japanese domestic market-specific kei class. And the AZ-1 was a long time coming.
Back in 1985, Suzuki started things off with a mid-engine sports kei design called the RS/1. Presented at the Tokyo Motor Show, the design was more than just a concept: it was a working example with a balanced weight distribution and a 1.3-liter engine. But it was not to be.
Plans dashed, the company followed up with another RS concept, the RS/3. This one was ready for the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show. Keeping styling similar to the original RS version, the new model was updated to meet recent JDM safety regulations. But Suzuki had limited funds in the bank at the time — and another roadster on the table. Once more, the RS found itself sidelined as the Cappuccino went to dealer lots instead.
Suzuki put on a sad face and sometime after handed the project over to Mazda. That automaker called upon the same man who designed the original MX-5. Renaming the project “AZ-550,” Mazda brought the roadster to the Tokyo show in 1989. Three different versions were shown in three different body styles. The crowd liked all three, and Mazda picked one for production.
A long road to finalization and production ensued, with a full three years elapsing between the time of the ’89 show and the cars actually leaving the factory. Suzuki comes back into play here, as the company was the manufacturer of the car it had designed two (and a half) times. Cars came straight out of the Suzuki assembly plant, shipping to Mazda’s Autozam dealerships. A bit of irony there — Suzuki picks one design over another, and ends up manufacturing the design it didn’t want for Mazda, so they could offer it against the Suzuki.
Available in third-quarter 1992, buyers faced two color options. Both of were two-tone — grey on the bottom, and either red or blue on the top portion. Just as the AZ-1 was released, Japan entered a nice, big recession. The gullwing doors and mid-engine design meant an asking price of over $12,000 — a bit less than a Japanese MX-5, but more than either of its competitors (Honda Beat and Suzuki Cappuccino).
All AZ-1s had a Suzuki inline-three engine of 657 cc displacement. A five-speed manual was the only transmission on offer, complimenting the mid-engine layout and rear-wheel drive. Giving in to the economic climate and its accompanying slow sales, the AZ-1 ended up cancelled after 1995. Total production was just short of 5,000 cars.
Today’s example is a 1992 model, in blue. In excellent condition and with 63,000 miles on the clock, it asks $17,995 at an import dealer in Virginia.