It was a bright and breezy Autumn Saturday in 1991 when I found myself standing on the broad plaza of the Makuhari Messe, gazing at the modern, spacious glass buildings and watching thousands of people stepping off the arriving trains. We were to be among the record-breaking 2 million people visiting the 29th Tokyo Motor Show.
As we entered the North Hall, I quickly discovered that this was a Motor Show unlike any other that I had been to in the United States. Where your typical show in the U.S. was more or less a huge, temporary, multi-brand showroom where you could wander at random, climbing in and out of cars, picking up brochures off a rack and viewing the occasional prototype or new model on a turntable - the Tokyo show seemed more like a museum where one would walk along a pathway past the exhibits, perhaps listen to a presentation if you understood Japanese or pick up brochures handed to you from behind a desk by a smiling young lady, maybe peer into the windows of a car on the floor that's been locked up or gaze at a mockup of a transmission that had been laid open for viewing or even watch as the bodywork of a production car was peeled open like a grape to reveal its interior - then move along to the next exhibit along the pathway.
The Japanese manufacturers obviously understood the limitations of this format best. Rather than leaving their cars on the main floor surrounded by ropes, such as the ItalDesign stand with their BMW Nazca pair where you had to push your way through the crowds standing 20-deep to catch a glimpse of more than a roofline, the Japanese manufacturers utilized a variety of raised stages, turntables and lifts upon which to better showcase their concepts and production models. Toyota had a stage that seemed to stretch as long as a football field upon which their concepts were lined up, with a runway at the leading edge which the show-goddesses would occasionally step forward to and, in formation, strut off-stage for their breaks between presentations. In the center of the floor, Toyota also had a massive polished steel gyroscope within which they had mounted one of their AXV electric showcars.
Nissan took their stand a step further by installing a massive steel ribbon in their display area that curled and twisted from the floor up towards the lofty ceiling upon which they mounted their beautiful pillar-less hardtop sedans - Laurel, Cima, Gloria and Skyline - and below was a sloping wall upon which turntables bearing concept cars and the new Leopard J Ferie (Infiniti J30 to us) languidly drifted up and down on funicular-like tracks, allowing show-goers to view Nissan's offerings from afar. Even Mazda displayed a pre-production copy of its fabulous new third-generation RX7 upon a turntable that would periodically rise into the air as it rotated.
There were the beautiful specialty Kei-cars such as the Suzuki Cappuccino roadster which reminded one of a 2/3-scale Austin Healey as well as the impossibly-cool Nissan March-based Figaro which, as an uncanny interpretation of Lieutenant Columbo's 1960 Peugeot 403, could arguably be pinpointed as the impetus for the industry's retro-mobile trend of the 1990s. Then there were oddball concepts such as the Toyota Avalon (no relation to your Grandma's sedan) which when parked looked like a giant roofless, purple, four-door doorstop on wheels - yet at the push of a button, the forward glass panel tilted up as a massive windscreen, and two glass panels mounted aft rose and stacked above the rear deck as a pair of spoilers, unveiling a spacious, cream leather-lined six-passenger interior.