My Auto Show Memory: The 30th Tokyo Motor Show

April 11, 2011

In 1993 I was living in Ichigao, Yokohama, and working for an IT company in Tokyo. One early morning commute, crammed into a carriage approaching 150 percent capacity, I spied advertisements for the 30th Tokyo Motor show. A few weeks later, tickets in hand, I stood outside the sprawling Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba.

I grew up in the blue-collar town of Ipswich, Australia. In neighboring Brisbane, I'd visited a grand total of two auto shows as a boy. I would have gone to more, but my father wasn't a fan of crowds. Not that I was missing anything spectacular. We were in a provincial backwater, with organizers and manufacturers only seeing fit to throw us a few left-overs from Sydney's own relatively humble affair. It was as far from the bleeding edge as you could possibly get.

About 4,430 miles to be precise. Stepping into the convention hall from the breezy, autumn chill off Tokyo Bay, I cast excited eyes over the technicolor wonder of a luminous, constantly moving scene. It was my first international auto show, and arguably one of the most important on the global calendar. The CEOs and senior execs of the world's biggest car firms flew from Europe and the U.S. to see what their toughest competitors were up to. It was a difficult time for anyone in the industry to predict upcoming trends, and Tokyo provided the closest thing to a crystal ball, which given the benefit of hindsight, should have been regarded with more care by some.

The Japanese were three years into a protracted recession, forcing widespread restructuring, including the reduction of models, but none of this seemed evident at the show. Through the eyes of a young man from Ipswich, the glittering space was an unfettered carnival of high-tech automotive theater. To quote a line from Mad Max, "...All that remains are memories...," but what memories they are.

Organizers and automakers were keen to promote their green credentials. Mitsubishi introduced the hybrid NSR concept, quite ahead of its time. It boasted features that have only now made their way into the mainstream via cars like the Chevy Volt. A rear-mounted 1.5-liter gas engine powered the on-board generator, in turn recharging the batteries. Two 70KW electric motors powered the front wheels, propelling the slippery shape (0.25 drag co-efficient) to a claimed 124 mph. The range was impressive, especially considering the limitations of alkaline battery technology. The NSR was predicted to travel 610 miles at a constant 25 mph in hybrid mode, and in full electric mode, 310 miles at the same speed. Regenerative brakes conserved otherwise wasted kinetic energy, and solar cells in the roof trickled charge into the batteries whenever light was sufficient.

Mazda showcased the the HR-X2 concept car powered by a hydrogen rotary engine, and a breakthrough metal-hydride fuel storage system. Such advanced green tech proved to be surprisingly prescient, though the personal highlight of the event wasn't exactly for the ecologically minded.

Months earlier, I'd read in a magazine about the sensational unveiling of the Porsche Boxster concept at Detroit. The car was built to commemorate 40 years since the introduction of the legendary 550 Spyder, and there were clearly many design elements in the concept inspired by it. As we know, the production version went on to be a game-changer for Porsche, when it was released three years later. There I was, standing beside this piece of automotive history, posing for a photo. It was this moment, above all, that distilled the very essence of what made Tokyo special.

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