Every two years, the Tokyo Motor Show shows off wild and wacky concepts, features hopeful visions of a clean-running future, and launches shiny new versions of the best of Japanese engineering. And, every two years, you’d be better off just hanging out in the parking lot.
The first couple of days at the show is for media and exhibitors and, much as it is on this side of the Pacific, Japanese car enthusiasts are wonderfully nutty. All sorts of random machinery gets driven over and left outside the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition centre, and it’s always worth taking a quick tour.
Remember Isuzu? Probably not. However, this boxy little Gemini Irmscher is clearly well-loved by someone. A Japan-only model, it’s pretty stout, with a turbocharged 1.6L engine making just under 180 hp.
Despite parking being at a premium, not all Japanese owners choose to buy small. This portal-axle-equipped Geländewagen looks totally out of place in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Would you park it in a koi pond?
Nearly ubiquitous in traffic, the classic Mini Cooper was sold in Japan well into the 1990s. Later models came with air-conditioning and automatic transmissions.
Vintage cars are very rare in Japan, thanks to stringent safety requirements and tax laws. This Nissan Cedric is a survivor with a four-speed manual, and looks like a throwback to some forgotten Tokyo detective show.
Vans are hugely popular in the city, because they make the most of their footprint. Modifying them is also common, as is the case with this breathed-on Toyota Alphard. Bonus Volvo wagon in the background.
The Daihatsu Copen is tiny enough to make a first-generation Miata look like a Camaro. Because this is Japan, it’s still getting a twin-pipe exhaust system that’s big enough for a Lamborghini Huracan.
Hachiroku! The Corolla GT-S (Trueno and Sprinter in the Japanese home market) has a huge cult following thanks to the comic/manga/anime sensation Initial-D.
Forbidden fruit alert: not only did Canadians not get the early Mitsubishi Lancer Evos, but we never got anything close to this. The wagon version of the Evo is roughly equivalent to the Subaru STI hatchback, except with much sharper handling.
Comparing badges, this Porsche-built Mercedes 500E favours a big V8 for Autobahn cruising. The Honda-hero Civic Type-R makes a nice contrast, as it’s actually built in the UK.
A patina’d old Malibu wagon wouldn’t draw a second glance in a Tim Hortons parking lot. But how did this one end up in Tokyo?
Subaru no longer makes a hatchback version of the WRX. However, in Japan, you can get the Levorg, basically a wagon variant of the Impreza. Featuring turbocharged punch, this one’s also been tuned up with STI parts.
A classic Alfa Romeo braved typhoon-level rains to come here today.
Another oddball, this TVR Chimera is a British-built right-hand-drive machine with V8 power. You’d have to be mental to own one in a city with traffic this bad.
A weary old Toyota Land Cruiser pickup shows evidence of hard use. However, that’s the way these things like to live, and it’s probably twice as mechanically reliable as anything else in the lot.
Okay, now I swear this is Japan just teasing. Please, Subaru, just give us Subaru fans the choice of having a hot hatchback again!
A Volkswagen Beetle: you’re guaranteed to find one anywhere you go.
This tuned-up Alfa comes with a secret message on its bumper. That silver sticker denotes membership in the now-defunct Mid Night street racer’s club. Known for late-night top-speed runs on deserted ring roads, the club was infamous in the 1990s.
Porsche 911s are relatively common in Japan, but you almost never see one in right-hand-drive. Japanese owners take Porsche purism to the next level, and put up with having to go through tollbooths on the wrong side, just to have a proper German-spec car.
A flawless Mercedes-Benz 300 wagon shows the universal appeal of the bulletproof W123-chassis E-Class.
This is a Subaru Vivio Bistro, a weirdo little hatchback with retro styling. Japan went nuts for retro cars in the 1990s, and this kei-class car was just one. Because it’s a Subaru, it did show up in a rally or two, including one driven by rally hero Colin McRae in the gruelling Safari Rally.
Two takes on the hot hatchback. The Nissan Stagea is basically a wagon version of the mighty Skyline, while the Toyota CH-R is a little urban crossover. In this case, the latter has been fitted with an incredible amount of go-fast jewellery, but no additional power.
Making a repeat appearance, this classic Toyota Hiace is pure 1980s nostalgia. Up front, it carries stickers from a vintage shoe company.
Louvres! This Mitsubishi Starion is a turbo-coupe from a time when “turbo” badges were an absolute necessity.
Another homely minivan, this time featuring retro styling. Even more interesting is that someone has managed to park an entire motorcycle inside it.
The past and future of automotive enthusiasm, as represented by a Tesla Model S and an Aston-Martin V8 Vantage.
Until 2019, Tokyo!