Thursday, July 26, 2012

Autozam AZ-1 Owner Interview

Ross recently commented on a post of mine about the AZ-1 wherein he mentioned he owns one of the brilliant little things.  I of course immediately spazzed, overstepped a boundary and begged for an interview, to which he very graciously agreed.

I've had a deep admiration for the pocket supercar since first reading about it (in the very Road & Track article linked above) as an eleven year old, and needless to say, the opportunity to question Ross about his ownership experience was most appreciated.

ANF:  Could you please tell us about what influenced your purchase?

Ross:  I've always loved small cars/things.  The AZ-1 was actually a failure in Japan because, among other things, it was deemed too small!  When I learned that, my interest was piqued!  That, and I loved the design, the rarity, and the fact that it would be a suitable mid-life crisis car.

ANF:  Can you tell us a little about the import/registration process?

Ross:  Here in Canada we can import any vehicle from anywhere in the world as long as it is 15 years old.  And in my home province Alberta, it is illegal for an insurance company to deny any person insurance, so regardless of how esoteric your vehicle is, you are guaranteed to be able to insure it, and therefore, register it.

ANF:  What's it like to drive?

Ross:  It's a bit of a handful to drive, to tell you the truth.  It is very tiny and narrow, so you are constantly jumping from one rut in the pavement to another.  Also, it is mid-engined, so there is plenty of snap oversteer if you aren't careful!  The engine is quite loud, seeing as how it is about one foot behind you, and the turbocharger is conveniently located on the side of the engine facing you!  It is very precise and responds instantaneously to any steering input.  It is also very light, so crosswinds and passing semi-trucks can be dangerous.  It tends to like smooth pavement, and I have never driven it on gravel.

ANF:  How do people react to it?

Ross:  Quite well, actually. Especially when you open the door and crawl out.  It is so incredibly small that people can scarcely believe you drive it on public roads, much less over long distances.  Because it is so tiny, you have to be careful of other drivers - often they simply don't see you. Exactly the same problem as motorcyclists have.  It is a bit of a novelty - some people ask if it is a kitcar.  I often invite people to crawl in and sit inside, just to get a sense of how tight it is inside!  The seats don't move and neither does the steering wheel, so if people are claustrophobic, they don't do well in it!

ANF:  You mentioned that it once took you eight hours (!) to change the car's thermostat.  What's it like to work on?

Ross:  Nightmarish would be a good place to begin.  Oil changes are an exercise in colourful vocabulary, and that thermostat was a real bother.  There is an opening behind the driver's seat so that you can get at the "back" of the engine, so in order to get at that you just take the seat right out.  Everything is so incredibly tight and tiny that it helps to have friends with small hands!  The car is also very low to the ground, so ramps or a lift are essential for doing anything under the car.  In Japan most people don't do any of their own maintenance, so it was definitely meant to be worked on by a professional mechanic with a full set of tools and other things to make life easier.  Of course I'm a rank amateur and I have only the most basic of tools, but somehow I manage.

ANF:  Can you tell us a bit about the gullwing doors?  Are they equipped with explosive bolts or some type of emergency release in the event of a capsize?

Ross:  Well, it was built in 1992, so there is nothing like that on the car!  Truthfully, if you ever got yourself into any kind of an accident the odds of survival are really quite stacked against you.  There is no airbag, no emergency release for the doors, the engine is directly behind you, and the body is fibreglass.  I prefer to just not think about things like that!  I think at that time, Japan wasn't really too much into the whole safety thing.

ANF:  Have you, or do you plan to modify it at all?

Ross:  It's been repainted, obviously, at some point, and the paintjob was extremely shoddy. Originally the cars were two-tone, so I have plans to go back to the two-toned theme as I like it a lot!  It has an aftermarket exhaust on it, and I took the radio out, but that's about it.  I'd like to install cruise control at some point, and several more gauges in the space where the radio was, but I really do want to get it back to the original condition as much as possible.

ANF:  How does it handle freeway speeds and North American sized traffic?

Ross:  It is more than fast enough to travel on the highway, and it is very quick to accelerate, so I never have problems merging into traffic.  The visibility is sketchy at best, so merging onto busy roads can sometimes be a real roll of the dice, but once you're on the road everything is fine.  Of course, every other vehicle on the road is much larger than you, but you get used to that after a while.  As I mentioned earlier, you do have to make sure you are not in people's blind spots, though!

ANF:  Are parts or reliability an issue?  Does it help to have a connection in Japan?

Ross:  So far, knock on wood, it has been very reliable.  Cars built in Japan for the Japanese market are extremely well-made and used very sparingly, and also kept up extremely well, so even though they are 15 years old when they arrive here, they are practically new!  

I peruse the Yahoo! Japan site about every other day or so, and I have a contact in Japan that will buy anything I want/need and then ship it to me.  It is expensive, but really no more than any new car that you'd buy today.  The AZ-1 is a real rarity, so parts can be hard to come by, but believe it or not, my local Mazda dealer can get any OEM part I need as well, as long as I have a part number.  I bought brand new weatherstripping last year and did it through the Mazda dealer here.  An added bonus is that Mazda will ship any part from Japan anywhere in the world for free!  So I am planning on replacing all the rubber window surrounds this winter, and I'd like to get a new door panel (some of the fibreglass studs are broken on mine).  It was a bit of an adventure finding 13-inch tires for it, but I did find some!

ANF:  I saw you also have a Nissan Figaro and a Smart, can you tell us about those cars as well?

Ross:  The Figaro is an absolute joy to own, and just as eye-catching as the AZ-1, in its own way. The Smart got into an accident last fall and was written off, so that's when I got the Daihatsu Midget pickup.

ANF:  Regardless of realities like availability, legality or finances, what's your "dream car"?

Ross:  It would be impossible to nail it down to just one!  I tend to really enjoy rare, one-off vehicles (and other things as well) so any car that would be unique and where I would have the only one would be just fine with me!  I would love to own a Nissan Pao (sister to the Figaro), for example.

ANF:  Have you always been an enthusiast?  What is it that you like about cars, especially small ones?

Ross:  I haven't always been an enthusiast, but I got tired of seeing the same vehicles in the same colours all the time, so I decided to be different.  It was a bit of a leap of faith into the Japanese imports, but I have never regretted it at all!  It is a little scary driving a vehicle that you know no one can fix and that there are no parts readily available, but oh well.

ANF:  Anything you'd like to add that I haven't touched on?

Ross:  There are probably less than 4,000 AZ-1s left in the world now, so if you want one (Ed. - I do!!!), you'll definitely have a unique car!  I like using the AZ-1 as it was never intended; a long-distance touring car.  It really is a cramped, difficult car to drive and manoeuvre, but once it is on the road it is fun to drive and actually a little comfortable!  I'd love to take it on a really long drive sometime, say, to California and show up at a Cars & Coffee event, just for kicks! (Ed. - I'm a C&C, Irvine regular and am certain the little Autozam would be a huge hit!)  There are plenty of other things I'd love to say about it, but of course Ican't think of anything right now.

Many sincere thanks to Ross!


  1. You're welcome, Alan. For plenty of AZ-1 pictures, just look in Flickr:

    There is a great picture there of an AZ-1 beside a new Fiat 500. The roof comes up to the bottom of the side window of the Fiat...

    Take care;

    1. Thank you Ross and Alan. That was insightful and awesome. I knew they were small, but I didn't realize how tiny.

    2. Good read there, thanks Ross. I find it weird your seats dont move! Mine slide 18" maybe your brackets have been modified? Or mine could have been I suppose haha.

      I wonder why pictures on Flickr never show on searches :( If any of you are interested here is my AZ-1

  2. Wow, AZ-1 and a Midget and a Figaro. Thanks for the story!

    1. Lucky guy, eh? Thanks for reading, Richard.