Oh yeah, the Tommykaira ZZ came back as an EV

Eight(!) whole years ago on this blog, I was doing a series of articles, for my own amusement really, on obscure Japanese sports cars every week or so. It was called, ingeniously, Obscure Japanese Sports Car of the Week. I didn't end up doing that many, but I do like having the articles up as a source on the off chance someone looks the car up or if they ever come up in conversation. Well, would you know, one such car has cropped up in conversation in a couple of corners of Car Twitter over the past week: the TommyKaira ZZ (read my original article here).

An original ZZ from the late 1990s

When I originally traced the history of the ZZ in 2012 – and found it to be a history of almosts, so to speak, wherein every attempt to get the car into production ended within a couple of years through financial disaster – the box-section aluminium underpinnings and fibreglass body had just been repurposed by an engineering start-up founded by Kyoto University graduates, called Green Lord Motors (GLM). That started in 2010. In 2014, they released a fully homologated production version, with the original TommyKaira branding and badges intact.

NB: All images of the current car are from GLM's sites and social media pages unless otherwise stated

Before I get to the car in detail, though, I just want to quickly tie together how the Tommykaira brand went from the famous tuning and styling company to being 'just' a set of badges used by a Kyoto-based EV platform researcher and developer. In essence, after a financial crash had dealt a fatal blow to TommyKaira at the turn of the century, auto retailer AUTOBACS Seven – approximately equivalent to Halfords in Britain – picked its bones and collected all the assets around the ZZ platform, plus the bigger ZZ-II concept supercar, so it could build lightweight sports cars of its own... before seeming to hit the same problems for themselves (building JDM sports cars with a small niche audience in Norfolk, GB and then having to pay import tariffs on every last one is ruinously expensive, especially with a crashed yen). They got as far as designing a quirky yet pretty new coupĂ© body for it, but ultimately gave up on the project by around 2004 – save for a tiny batch of successfully completed 'ASL Garaiya' road cars and the basis for a GT300 Super GT project that ran on and off until the end of the 2012 season. 

As a sidenote, Breckland Technologies acquired the complete Norfolk factory and started selling updated ZZs as the Leading Edge 190RT and 240RT, but this didn't last very long either and the British company went bust altogether in 2009 (shortly after launching the Breckland Beira, a restyled, LS-swapped Pontiac Solstice).

As for TommyKaira's original vehicle customising business, that was separately rebooted under new ownership by a Toyota City-based company called ROWEN, who acquired the branding rights from AUTOBACS in 2009. Five years later, though, ROWEN unified its various sub-brands into a single entity and what was left of TommyKaira, it seems, essentially disappeared (including tommykaira.com, which sadly is now a dead link).
At this point, GLM, which had been using the brand under licence anyway, had the TommyKaira name and logos all to itself and continues using them on its re-engineered ZZ with battery-electric power, thus uniting chassis and badge once more for the only time since 1999.

The new ZZ appears to sit on largely the same extruded-aluminium platform design (albeit updated) as the original 1990s machine, which is noticeable in part by the characteristic way that the driver and passenger seats point visibly towards each other. I would think that's for packaging reasons, as the pedal box is offset towards the centreline of the chassis between the front wheels and so, instead of making you bend your legs across, they just rotated the entire driving position accordingly (as per original ZZs and the closely related ASL Garaiya) and the surrounding structure tapers with it.
The car's footprint, simple built-in rollbar behind the seats and the overall aesthetic proportions are all strikingly similar as well.

However, there are equally noticeable differences even before you see under the rear lid and spot lots of silver boxes and orange cables instead of the old carburetted SR20 engine. I think the updated design effectively merges all the past iterations of this platform together; the low-down side-mounted air intakes are the spitting image of the design used on the ASL Garaiya, while the front and rear faces clearly transfer graphical themes from the stillborn (read: still dead) ZZ-II supercar onto the smaller ZZ-S shape.

The new GLM design has a happier face though (one that coincidentally I find reminiscent of the Vauxhall VX220). But I do find it strange to see an electric version adding a large grille to a previously petrol-powered car that didn't have one! Still, this compact, voluptuous shape and expressive DRG tell you unequivocally that it's here to have fun.

Fun really ought to be the name of the game, too, when you crunch some numbers. This little car's rear-axle electric motor packs 225kW (305PS) of peak power and 415NM (306lb/ft) of instant torque for an effortless 3.9-second 0-60mph sprint. That all sounds like plenty for any small car, but seems like an especially enticing prospect when you see the whole car weighs just 850kg (1874lbs). That's staggeringly light for an EV, and lighter even than a current-year Lotus Elise! The Cup 250 is a positively portly 931kg, for heaven's sake. Combined with that motor, the ZZ has a higher power/weight ratio than a Nissan GT-R NISMO.

So, at this point, you must wonder how they've achieved that and, most likely, will reach the question: "doesn't that surely mean the battery must be absolutely tiny?" Reader, yes, the battery is absolutely tiny. There is no magic trick here. At just 18kWh (for reference, the Honda E [1513kg] gets criticised for 'only' having a 35kWh battery), the expected range of the ZZ EV is a mere 120km, or 75 miles – and that's best case scenario. If you took it to a track day it would probably be all done in a matter of minutes. I can find no mention of any regenerative braking ability to help postpone the inevitable, either. So, hey, maybe stick to short tracks with charging points on site and not bother visiting the Nordschleife in it any time soon. There are lots of sub-two-mile local circuits for club racing, karting and drifting dotted around Japan, to be fair, so it makes a little more sense with that in mind.

A five-minute walkaround

But, look, we're talking about a car with no side windows, a roll-up canvas canopy for a roof and no designated luggage space. Well, there's theoretically room under the front lid for a small boot, but they haven't formally fitted one into it, so as it is you'd be putting your spare raincoat straight onto the chassis' aluminium floor between the steering rack and the ancillary battery powering the dashboard and driving lights. 

The point is, nobody's expecting you to use this as your only means of transportation. Plainly it's a fair weather, drive because you feel like it sort of car. Not a GT, not a commuter (unless you're slightly bonkers/desperate), and not a shopping car. Use it more like you'd use a sports motorbike, perhaps. But more quietly.

The cockpit follows suit, with the only switchgear on the dashboard being a rotary transmission selector, the hazard lights button and an emergency killswitch. The new digital instrument panel is pretty swish and cleanly designed, though, so there's that. I have seen photos and videos of ZZs with a stick-on phone mount atop the dash and a cable running down and underneath, so presumably you can at least charge your phone while it performs the role of your entire infotainment system.

Because the inwards-pointing seats are so close together, there's only room in between them for a good old-fashioned manual handbrake (an artifact of its petrol-powered past along with the ignition barrel and key). The OMP steering wheel clearly does not contain an airbag, so maybe wear a helmet if you fancy going quickly.

Photo by me, FOS 2015 (which is why it's not very well lit)

As it happens, I saw this car when it appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2015, a year after production started. I can confirm that it is both small and a car that just puts a smile on your face upon spotting it. Well, it made me smile anyway, possibly because I knew much of the story behind it. But doesn't it just look fun! It whooshed silently up the hill a few times over the weekend too, of course.

Back in Japan, though, a racing driver has taken one up a longer, more challenging hillclimb course that gives away a bit more about how the ZZ EV might behave. I am of course only speculating amateurishly from afar, but it looks a little edgy coming out of slow corners as all that instant torque is deployed, yet the tyres also squeal on the way into some of the corners too, suggesting front-end grip could be at a premium (perhaps some understeer is 'dialed in' to counteract the inherent snappiness of such a short wheelbase, or maybe it's just the 50mm-narrower front track). A couple of braking zones further into the run betray the car's lack of ABS, too...

But I don't really know what I'm on about. I'll just have to go on a trip to Japan some time in the near future and see about getting a go in one, eh? ;-)

As a small, young company trying to hold the industry's attention, GLM has occasionally come up with fun concept versions of the ZZ in collaboration with other Japanese suppliers. So far there's been a camera-and-screen festooned version with Kyocera, a Roland Music 'sound synthesizer' that weighs 1.1kg and offers both a futuristic 'spaceship' noise and a generic engine sound (stick with the spaceshippy one, I say; fake engine noise is just tacky), and then there's the version below with a Teijin-developed polycarbonate-resin 'pillarless' windscreen. 

Teijin claimed in 2017 that, as well as being 36% lighter overall than a metal-framed glass windscreen, it's strong and abrasion-resistant enough to meet the latest Japanese safety standards for road cars. GLM/TommyKaira stated in an Instagram post in 2018 that it intended to make this an optional extra from 2019. I can't see where you'd mount the ZZ's weather protection onto it, though...

Finally, it appears the company was all set to tackle the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb this year with a purpose-modified ZZ (boasting quite an unusual rear wing placement), but the travel restrictions and rescheduling and general mess caused by the pandemic put paid to that idea. Better luck next year.

I know a tiny little sports car with a tiny little range is not going to change the world, electric or otherwise, but I think there are two levels on which the whole saga of the ZZ sports car platform grabs me. First of all, a lightweight sports car is inherently a magnet for driving enthusiasts and the idea of any car that combines 300 horsepower and 850 kilograms is exciting to think about. 

But most of all, this is a story of an obscure little sports car that refuses to die, even though it's equally failed to ever live for very long at any stage – honestly, with TommyKaira, Leading Edge [Breckland] and AUTOBACS' ASL division all falling to pieces upon producing it, you'd think it was cursed or something. Because TommyKaira originally failed to build as many ZZs (fewer than 260) as were ordered (over 400 backorders), it became known as "the phantom sports car." Given its thus far successful electrified rebirth, the old nickname now appears to be increasingly ironic.

No matter what happens, there is always another little corner of the automotive industry that sees the potential of what was created in the optimistic mid-'90s and wants to be the one who finally makes it work for more than a couple of years – and fair play, it looks like GLM's efforts are in fact working out at the moment. The company continues to be active and create things, while the original planned run of 100 ZZ EVs completely sold out and their website suggests you are welcome to ask them to build you one to order today (if you live in Japan). US media outlets originally reported the list price to be equivalent to around $80,000, but if that's a bit steep then this tidy secondhand one is a snip at roughly $47k (¥5.05m).

Maybe they should design a new removable hardtop for it, though... [pic from linked ad]

Now that it has gained vastly more relevance as an electric vehicle while also being built in the same country as where it's being sold (what an idea, eh?), this time may yet be the time that the ZZ gets to live a full life. Or, y'know, the entire GLM project is about to collapse as a new victim of a 'ZZ Curse'. But hopefully not! Hopefully instead they invent an amazing new battery that doubles the range with no weight gain. One can, after all, always dream...

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