Meet The ’90s Kei Car Legends Keeping Portland Weird
Photography by Jenna Genio
Residents of the City of Roses have a funny motto: “Keep Portland Weird.” Entertaining the idea, I made sure that any automotive story set there would serve that slogan, and though these adorable morsels of personal transport aren’t locally-grown or raised in Oregon, they’re part of a new species of imports that have found a welcoming home here.
Because of the United States’ import laws (cars 25 years or older don’t need to be federalized) and Portland’s relative proximity to the Canadian border, the makeup of the car scenes in the Pacific Northwest shifts as new-old cars find their way over from Japan, Europe, and Canada. There are those that are all too familiar, the GT-Rs, Silvias, and the rest of the well-known import icons. Those are better than fine, but there are also a few pockets of enthusiasts that prefer the funky and unconventional side of JDM.
The origin story of these micro vehicles starts in post-WWII Japan; after the war, the Japanese automobile industry needed to galvanize local growth despite challenging economic circumstances, and to cater to a populace that could only afford motorcycles at the time, car manufacturers offered ultra-compact vehicles for passenger mobility or business delivery. Cars, trucks, and vans suited for both rural and urban duties. Thus, with their diminutive motors and simple, lightweight, efficient designs, kei cars were born (kei jidōsha means “light automobile”).
Fast-forward to the ‘90s: Japan’s automotive golden era, and the kei cars have remained a staple of Japanese transportation serving a host of functions. Noteworthy models have picked up an international following, and as more and more become eligible under the 25-year law, we’re happy to find more living abroad in places like Portland lately.
For this story, my guide into the kei scene would be Nick Singleton, founder and owner of the import business Driving Right. They know the JDM market inside and out, and operate a full-service sourcing and importing business that puts foreign keys in the hands of Stateside fans. Getting in touch proved easy, and with his network we got the project going with a well-rounded group of kei machines.
Our shoot took this remarkable convoy from the warehouse alleys of the Southeast to a Portland State University parking building across the Willamette River, and the experience of being in these cars among more typical traffic was like being guests from another dimension of mismatched proportion. From anyone who could see our miniature cars, we drew a lot of attention. Most people have seen a supercar or some such thing before at least a few times, but kei cars not so often. We answered the “What is that thing?” question often, and in case you’re asking the same we’ve put a few little bios together on the gang.
When kei enthusiasts talk about the ABCs, they’re referring to the trinity of sporty models; A for the AZ-1, B for the Beat, and C for the Cappuccino. The qullwinged kei coupe pictured here is the mid-engined Autozam AZ-1. Of the three, the AZ-1 is considered the most radical, with the least units produced (the Suzuki Cara version of the car is much rarer, and the M2 even more so). Suzuki provided the turbocharged 657cc engine, while Mazda’s Toshiko Hirai (known for the MX-5) oversaw the design. Unfortunately, the car didn’t do so well upon release; it was the most cramped and expensive among its peers. The recession at the time was the last nail in the production’s coffin, but its inspiring concept and scarcity have given the AZ-1 collectible status as it ages. It’s aggressive and exotic design make it look like the kind of car a giant robot pilot would drive to base each morning in some mech anime.
This particular 1992 Autozam AZ-1belongs to Bo Gaut, age 29. In fact, it arrived at the port mere days before these photos were taken, as I’d scheduled the story to accommodate it. The AZ-1 is quickly gaining popularity away from its domestic market as it becomes accessible, and I couldn’t miss the chance to see one of the first to arrive.
Honda Street EX
Bo also brought along his 1992 Honda Street EX—the higher trim of the famous Honda Acty work vehicle—that came equipped with 4WD and a sunroof from the factory. The second generation Actys were launched with a mid-mounted 545cc three-cylinder, but by 1990 it was bumped to 656cc. PNW folks typically love adventure and utility, so seeing a tiny van made to maximize efficiency tends to excite them. The Street is surprisingly roomy inside, and Bo’s already taken it out camping. A bit of an era-correct purist, he installed some OEM chrome accessories and mirrors along with some new speakers. “Because of the Japanese frequencies, the radio only picks up the Portland jazz station though,” Bo remarks.
He currently has a total of eight JDM cars in his collection (five of which are keis) with even more on the way. He also runs an import business, specifically for parts and accessories, aptly named Bo’s Garage.
I’ve known Mike Todd for years, though at 24 he is the youngest of this group. When I first got into town after traveling to find some other automotive oddities like the scene on the remote island of Cebu, Mike took me on a ramen run in his 1991 Honda Beat and mentioned the cars and people in the local kei car community, and actually made the suggestion for this story in the first place. Mike bought this “mini-NSX” from Nick; “When I test drove the thing, I couldn’t stop laughing,” he recounted.
The mid-engine Honda Beat was the last car Soichiro Honda approved before he passed, and as mentioned, is the “B” in the ABCs of sporty keis. It was designed by Pininfarina, which is why Mike got that telltale horn button… He also added an ECU tune by Beat-Garage to bring redline up to 9,500. Since it’s powered by a 656cc three-cylinder (a displacement similar to one of his motorcycles), he slipped on a stainless steel bike exhaust kit from Yoshimura—elevating the Beat’s sound near to sport bike levels. The car also received a sportier suspension from MUGEN setup especially for the Honda Beat.
After Nick Singleton sold his Honda Beat to Mike, he got himself a 1992 Suzuki Cappuccino—the “C” in the kei ABCs. The front mid-engine roadster is arguably the most popular kei car of them all, especially for the import crowd—due to its three-cylinder 657cc being turbocharged making it easier to squeeze more power out of the engine (as opposed to the naturally-aspirated Beat for instance). It also earned some fame from its role in the Initial-D anime series that also vaulted the AE86 into pop culture. This Cappuccino is now one of Nick’s favorite runabouts: “It’s just so nimble, and it does what you want, when you want it to… Plus it slides really well!”
It was already souped up a bit when he bought it, and thankfully the previous owner made sure to use quality parts from Monster Sport (formerly known as Suzuki Sport Racing), including stiffer coilovers, a new intake and exhaust system, and an ECU chip. “The turbo is so loud and the boost instantly goes from zero to full-on when it hits,” Nick explains. He dyno’d the Cappuccino and discovered it makes 72 horsepower. It may not sound like a lot, but that’s the number recorded at the wheels, and it weighs just about 1,600lbs. Nick’s joined some of the autocross sessions held at Portland International Raceway, and plans to take the car on the track more often. After all, the Cappuccino is the sportiest of the three, and of this bunch it’s the most suited for racing.
Suzuki Alto Works RS/R
While the Suzuki Alto may be one of the most civilized kei cars, the Alto Works RS/R is an enviable exception—the baddest-ass, the highest-performing version of the third-generation hatch with a turbocharged 657cc three, offset scoops, wings, and 4WD. This 1992 Suzuki Alto Works RS/R belongs to Matt Blum, 29. And while it may not be as exotic as the AZ-1 or in eye-catching roadster form like the Beat and Cappuccino, it is just as sporting as the ABCs, and many consider the Alto Works RS/R as the kei supercar.
The Alto Works RS/R already comes with a crazy streak out of its stock box, but Matt’s is wilder yet; it’s got an aftermarket clutch, a turbo kit, and a revised ECU—doubling the mandated kei power limit to to a mind-boggling 120! “This is going to be my winter car,” said Matt with a tinge of mischief. He feels lucky; it’s a challenge finding a clean example of this modern classic since a lot of the other examples have been heavily rallied and autocrossed (for good reason). He plans to do the same, in the near future.
Subaru Sambar Try XS
Matt also brought along his rear-wheel drive 1991 Subaru Sambar Try XS. “Try” indicates the non-commercial trim for passengers. While other manufacturers were putting three-cylinder engines into their kei cars, this particular version was given a supercharged 658cc inline-four, located in the rear. It would take several more years until Subaru switched to inline threes for the Sambar.
“I’ve always been a JDM guy. While American cars can be big and excessive, the Japanese like to make machines that are compact and minimalistic,” Matt told me. “I just like weird things.” He’s got five kei cars in his collection and says his Sambar Try is the fastest kei van he’s driven yet. Fast being a relative term of course. “Crosswinds on the highway can be a little scary—but it can do 75 mph, no problem!”
“JDM importation is definitely rising. The Japanese were making absolutely amazing cars in the ‘90s, and now that America’s just getting into that era again, the import craze is going to continue to rise,” said Nick Singleton. “The Japanese didn’t sell a lot of cars here, and if they did they offered better options and higher-spec versions in Japan. Now, fans are a little bit older and have a little bit more money, and a lot of them want these cars that they couldn’t have before.”
“Always buy local” isn’t a slogan that automotive addicts like to adopt in their car-buying habits, though the kei jidōsha invasion is keeping idiosyncratic cities like Portland, Oregon just that much more eccentric. These agile micro cars may not be built for big speed, but despite their size they’re pretty practical—and a whole lot of nostalgic fun. The PNW is worth visiting for its endless winding scenic roads, gastronomic offerings, microbrews, and local car meets, and if you find yourself lucky enough to see one of these keis in the wild, give them a thumbs-up and say hello!