No, we haven’t taken leave of our collective senses – at least not completely; this week’s Retropower Hero isn’t a person, a place or even an individual car, but a period in the history of the Japanese automotive industry, the ‘Bubble Era.’ There’s every chance you’ll have never heard of the term before, though you will almost certainly have heard of, and in many cases lusted after, the cars it created.
Wind the clock back to the late ‘80s, and the Japanese car industry was in rude health after a decade of unbroken, unparalleled growth. Japanese engineering had shed the unwarranted reputation for cheapness it had been unfairly tarred with thirty years beforehand, and the nation’s cars were now seen as impeccably well built, forward looking and, increasingly, stylish.
Japanese industry had also benefited from both the incredible growth of the post war years, something impossible to recreate. Its native automotive industry had also enjoyed aggressively protective import and export taxes for much of the ’80s, meaning that Japanese car makers had become accustomed to making immense profits on models sold ‘at home.’
With the bit between its teeth and with overall victory in its grasp, Japan’s car makers set out to deliver the coup de grace to the automotive industry’s traditional European and American heartlands. The likes of Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and a whole host of others, they all set to using their newfound wealth, confidence and clout to design and build a slew of world beating automotive projects for the ‘90s. These projects would encompass all sectors, from BMW-smashing luxo-barges to Porsche-humbling Le Mans racers, and all would be beautifully engineered, incredibly ambitious, and as a result, eye-wateringly expensive.
Of course there’s only one thing certain about bubbles, and that’s that, eventually, they burst. Japan’s Bubble Era burst in dramatic fashion in 1991, when the impact of the global recession began to be felt. It didn’t help that much of Japan’s wealth had been built on economic speculation on the behalf of the aforementioned car makers, and soaring (and inaccurate) property valuations. How high? Well, in 1988 the New York Times valued all of the land in Japan at $13.47 trillion, comfortably more than the value of the entire land mass of the USA, and in late ‘80s money at that.
The impact of the bubble popping was dramatic, with most of the more extreme projects being killed off almost overnight. Some, however, were too far into their development cycles and survived ‘the chop,’ emerging onto the global automotive scene as legends in their own right – and testament to Japan’s wildest, most creative era. These are some of our favourite ‘Bubble Era’ creations.
We’ll start with a pair of Bubble Era products which did make the cut, the 2JZ and RB25 engines. Both played a key role in ‘making’ their respective cars the tuner, big power icons they are today, the Toyota Supra and Nissan Skyline. We’re not going to delve into why these engines are so great because there’s every likelihood you’ll already be well aware; after all, both have been the cornerstone of the aftermarket tuning scene for the best part of a quarter of a century. Over engineered to the point of disbelief, they owe their existence to the Bubble Era.
Until Toyota’s somewhat muted victory last year (when they were only the manufacturer taking part), Mazda were the only car maker to have won Le Mans, generally agreed as the most gruelling race of them all. That it did it with its showpiece engine, the rotary (a quad rotor 700bhp in this case), was very much the icing on the cake, and it also ensured that one of the most important race cars in Japanese history was powered by satan’s own sewing machine. A project of this kind, this ambition and complexity could only have come from the Bubble Era.
Mazda seemed to go particularly bonkers as the late ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, what with its Le Mans programme, K-Series range of tiny, 1.8L transverse V6s, and, of course, bonkers rotaries. The biggest and baddest spinning triangle of them all was found in the firm’s range topping luxury car, the Cosmo, and was called the 20B-REW. This was a 300bhp, 400nm triple rotor monster of an engine, one with a direct lineage to the all-conquering Le Mans programme and therefore the last word in Wankel technology for the road.
Oh yes, it also came with a space-age (well, as close to space-age as the era could muster) interior complete with a GPS system, which must have seemed utterly mind blowing back in 1990.
Even tiny Yamaha wasn’t immune from the excesses of the Bubble Era and the superbike and keyboard experts went all in, using its ill-fated venture as an F1 engine supplier to build a low volume supercar, the OX99-11.
Yamaha’s F1 power plants might have lacked the success of their Honda rivals but it was still an incredible bit of kit, with an all alloy 72 degree V12 making 400bhp and could rev to 10,000rpm. It was directly based upon the 560bhp version found in the back of Martin Brundle’s 1991 BT60Y, which about as cool as things get. The 0-60 dash was supposedly completed in a mere 3.2 seconds, while a low weight meant a top speed of 215mph or so – in 1992.
The Bubble Era was so unhinged that Autozam, an offshoot of, you guessed it, Mazda, would sell you the AZ-1, a gull-wing doored, mid-engined kei-supercar with more than a touch of the RS200 and Diablo about it. The engine in question was a boosted three-pot sending its power to the rear axle. That engine was hardly a powerhouse by the standards of the day, but its 70bhp of puff was doubtless enough to make it an entertaining proposition. Plus, this was a kei car and therefore forced to comply with the draconian legislation governing such models.
Dome Jiotto Caspita
Those of you with an especially keen interest in Le Mans and its history might well have heard of Dome, but even then, it’s hardly a household name having struggled to make an impact. Come the early ‘80s though, and Dome wanted to make a supercar, and not just any supercar – they wanted to take the fight to the best Europe had to offer, and it set about it through liberal use of technology.
The technology in question came from Group C and F1, two of the most exciting forms of motorsport and both at something of an apex in 1989. Two different engines were trialled over the course of the car’s protracted development phase, the first being Subaru’s mental flat-twelve Coloni F1 engine. This proved about as thirsty, heavy and complex as you might imagine, so Dome instead restyled the car and fitted it with an F1 grad Judd V8. Neither of the Caspitta variants ever made the cut and none were ever sold.
If you want to grasp just how wild the early ’90s were for Japanese car makers, then you need only look at Isuzu’s prototype supercar – the 4200R. The ingredients were fairly eye-catching by the standards of the day, with power derived from a 4.2 32v V8 good for 350bhp, with drive sent to all four wheels via a suitably trick system of differentials. There was also active suspension courtesy of Lotus, a legacy of both it and Isuzu being owned by GM at the time.
The best bit? The mad-as-hell interior, complete with VHS tape deck, satnav, and best of all, a fully functioning fax machine. ‘Cos 1989.
Mazda Amati 1000
This was probably the most wildly ambitious Bubble Era road car project of the lot, and yes, of course it came from Mazda, the people whose Hiroshima HQ was effectively nuked a few decades earlier. Amati was intended to be Mazda’s drive upmarket, making it their Lexus, Acura or Infinity (all of which also owe their existence to this period, incidentally), and a Japanese BMW fighter.
However, Mazda opted to completely throw caution to the wind and upped the ante several times over, coming up with a V12 powered saloon car, rumoured to make just under 300bhp. Things get muddier still, as internet hearsay abounds that there were also plans to produce an even more technically advanced power plant for its new range topper, a W12. The 3981cc engine would have been arranged with 3 banks of 4 cylinders, with an aluminium block, magnesium heads, and both pistons and valves made from a high tech ceramic composite.
Dealers across the USA were convinced to sign up to Mazda’s drive upmarket and both a prototype and launch literature were produced, as was the tooling required for new, clean sheet engine design. It all came fascinatingly close to coming together before the bubble burst in 1991. By the end of the following year, the Amati 1000 was dead and Mazda was reduced to trying to sell the engine to Jaguar, which didn’t work out.
The whole Amati affair was financially damaging for Mazda, with the eventual price tag for a fat lot of naff all rumoured to be $400 million in early ’90s money. The company’s pride took a hammering and it was driven into the arms of Ford shortly after.