Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Obscure Japanese Sports Car Of The Week: Tommy Kaira ZZ/ASL Garaiya

ZZ-S (left), Garaiya (right)
After last week's obscure Japanese sports car, the Inter Proto Series Kuruma, this week features a car (or cars) that you'll at least recognise from Gran Turismo and a few other Japanese racing games: The Tommy Kaira ZZ and its eventual platform sister, the ASL Garaiya. Think of it as an Elise of the rising sun from a tuning company better-known for putting multi-storey rear wings on Nissans and Subarus, and later a mini-supercar from the company who bought them, Autobacs (like Halfords in the UK, except Halfords have never made/sold a whole car), via one in a long line of flash-in-the-pan small British sports car companies.

Tommy Kaira ZZ (1997-2001)
The Tommy Kaira ZZ was brought about by ex-single seater driver and Formula 2 designer Kikuo Kaira, with the help of Yoshikazu Tomita, who together run the first tuning company in Japan to have a fully-tuned model (like RUF for Porsches or BRABUS for Mercedes-Benzes), based on a Nissan Skyline coupé (R30). The ZZ was made in the mould of Colin Chapman's Lotus sports cars and came out not long after the Elise appeared and immediately became the benchmark for all small simple MR-layout sports cars. Immediately, then, he was on the back foot a little. Piling on the initial trouble was that the various regulations and red tape in Japan in the mid-late '90s stopped small sports car companies from just sprouting up like they do in the UK and America. Tomita-san had already set up Toms Racing (not to be confused with Toyota specialist TOM'S) in Hingham, south Norfolk, mere miles away from Lotus's Hethel base, so they teamed up so that Toms built Kaira-san's sports car in Norfolk and then sold it in Japan. After touring for orders and getting some media coverage, sufficient interest meant they also decided to sell the RHD-only car in the UK, having secured a total of 300 solid orders here and in Japan.

An excerpt from Performance Car magazine
The result was a small sports car featuring a fibreglass body wrapped tightly over an extruded aluminium tub/frame with steel subframes, double-wishbones all round, a kerbweight of just 730kg and the SR20DE four-cylinder engine from a Nissan Primera eGT, which had been tweaked a little (Tommy Kaira specialise in Nissans and Subarus). They swapped the fuel injection for four carburettors - which even 15 years ago was a decidedly old-school feature - borrowed from a racing bike, and worked their magic on other oily bits to get 183bhp @6500rpm and 142lb/ft @4500rpm, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 251bhp/tonne. Forget a contemporary Elise, that's not far off a supercharged Series 2 Exige! The "direct driving feel" and seats that pointed inwards meant that it felt fast all the time, and it could outperform the likes of the Renault Sport Spider, Mazda MX-5, Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3 and the Honda Integra Type-R. Even the Elise. One Japanese magazine (probably Best Motoring) pitted all the above against the ZZ at the Tsukuba Circuit, and they were consummately beaten, the closest being the Integra-R - often touted as the best-handling FF car ever made - which was still 2 seconds behind the Tommy Kaira's 1:07.4 on the compact track. 0-60mph happened in 4.8s and the car could reach a very windy 140mph.

As you can see though, it was a pretty raw experience behind the wheel of one of these, as it didn't even have side windows, let alone a roof. For most road testers that was a bit of a downer, especially as the Elise was more refined, but not the only reason the car didn't take off - the Japanese economy took a serious downturn to the point where Tommy Kaira was bought out and they had to stop making the car (of which there was subsequently an 'S' version which added a removable hardtop with side windows and an extra 10 horsepower). To stay afloat, they sold the tooling and inventory to locally-based Breckland Technology Ltd - BreckTech for short - run by ex-Lotus engineer Mark Easton, who turned the ZZ-S into the Leading Edge 190RT with a new company called The Leading Edge Sports Car Company. Catchy. At this point, the Norfolk-built car stopped making the trip to Japan and was sold primarily in the UK.

Leading Edge 190/240RT (2002-5)
To make the 190RT, Leading Edge changed the fuel tank for a narrower one that ran the full width of the car, to replace the left-mounted one that impeded on the already-tiny cabin, as well as moving the radiator to the front to balance the weight better, strengthening the subframes and fitting wider rear tyres. The damping was also revised with the help of ex-Lotus engineer Oliver Winterbottom (whose farts are probably cold *fnar*). The side screens became optional, perhaps a money-grabbing scheme as they were essential at speed, and the strengthening added 33kg to the ZZ-S's original weight, making 763kg. Prices started at £26,500.

The 190RT quickly became the 240RT in 2002-4, which had - you guessed it - 240 horsepower, gained with racier camshafts and a revised cylinder head. It also gained a massive wing, presumably because most owners took this decidedly hardcore car with a tail-happy reputation to the track, where rear-end downforce is much appreciated in an agile little car like this. The 0-60 time dropped to 4.4 seconds, and the ride became much more Elise-like (i.e. better). Despite these improvements though, it has still remained a fairly underground car, and the brand hasn't done anything else since then... largely because the company was dissolved in 2006.

And so it was down to Gran Turismo to remind people that the Tommy Kaira ZZ-S exists, having featured it and the bigger, much faster ZZII in every game since GT2 (which also featured the ZZIII, a medium-sized car I can find literally no information on, but doesn't appear to be based on the ZZ featured here). But what of the other car?

ASL Garaiya (2002)
Known either as the Autobacs Garaiya RS-01 or simply the ASL Garaiya, it's based on the same chassis as the above cars and features the same carburetted twin-cam SR20DE as the Tommy Kaira, largely because Tommy Kaira was bought out by Autobacs, long-time title sponsor of SUPER GT whose main business is the same kind of thing as the car part of Halfords, doing car accessories and fluids, as well as basic servicing and audio. ASL is an anagram for Autobacs Sports-car Laboratory, a brand that allows them to keep their new-found sports car at arm's length from the main company. Well, imagining a sports car sold by Halfords would be a little weird...

What's not weird is that it was an equally agile and racy little car, with the engine tuned to 200PS (192bhp), but the extra bodywork and interior bits pushed the weight up to 800kg. I don't care that it's heavier though, because it's a very pretty car. Like a shrink-wrapped Ferrari from some angles, featuring tail lights from an Alfa Romeo 147 and having a seriously raked windscreen compared to the ZZ, the stand-out feature for me is the low-cut windows. They not only look very interesting, but they give you amazing visibility, apparently allowing you to see the apex of a corner and increasing the sensation of speed even more. The doors, now scissor-blade affairs (well, we are talking Halfords-esque upgrades here - customers would appreciate "Lambo doors"...), only go down to the low waist, because much like the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, the chassis structure meant that it had very high (and wide) sills, as you can see from the vertical image above, so while the open-topped Tommy Kaira only needed what was essentially a gate, the closed-roofed Garaiya would've been murder to get into with a normal door and said sill, although unless those doors rise well out of the way, it probably still is. This means the windows don't wind down, seeing as they stretch almost to the bottom of the door anyway. Hopefully you get air-con as an option, or some other kind of vent into the cabin, otherwise a long trip would be sweaty work.

Again, being from an accessories company, it does come with an aftermarket stereo (is it still aftermarket if it's standard-fit?) and plenty of silver brightwork for the handbrake, gear stick, pedals and all the bezels. Other than that, it's mechanically the same, although customers willing to pay ~£35,000 for one (slightly more than an Elise (S2) but less than a Noble M12) could help them tailor the adjustable springs and dampers to make the ride and handling suit their own personal tastes. Alas, once again it has remained obscure, to the point where I'm not sure if they even sold the initial run of 500 units they were planning to sell in Japan. The information provided in Gran Turismo 5 tells us that due to various circumstances, not one car made it into the hands of ordinary buyers. I'm getting the impression that building Japanese cars in Norfolk is not a very lucrative venture...

It's a shame the ASL Garaiya never really amounted to anything, although it did go racing in the GT300 class of SUPER GT as the ARTA Garaiya, featuring a long-body aero package and, after a few years, a new bespoke chassis. It's had a few successes over the years and still competes, but remains a racecar only. It was never going to set the world alight, but I really like it, and a pre-production road test suggests that it promised to take on the Lotus Elise once and for all as a driver's car, the kind of car I'm into. I reckon that with enough money, one could get hold of a Leading Edge ###RT and make/get a Garaiya body for it. Sure, the interior wouldn't be quite the same (although the baffling digital dial set wouldn't be missed anyway), but it'd still be a Garaiya... more or less.

Green Lord Motors ZZ-EV (2010 - Present)
The ZZ has returned! Sort of. As I found out a year ago, a group of Kyoto University students have worked with Tommy Kaira to bring back the ZZ as an electric vehicle under the odd title of "Green Lord Motors", which probably makes more sense in Japanese. It's a prototype at the moment, which they're presumably using to learn about and research into EV technology, but who knows? Maybe this one will stick. Maybe not. You can read more here.

Sources: evo review - Leading Edge 190RT, Autocar - Leading Edge 240RT review, Performance Car magazine (c.1997), Autobacs Garaiya RS-01 (First Drives) - Auto Express

1 comment:

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