TTAC is owned by Verticalscope, a company that quietly owns hundreds of car sites. This allows for an interesting division of labor. Colum Wood of Autoguide can drive “13 Porsches in 8 hours,” while yours truly has time to visit the Tokyo Toy Show. At work, Mr. Wood “wound up hitting 0-60 mph in three seconds in a 911 Turbo S, sliding sideways in the 2014 Cayman S and winding up on three wheels in a Cayenne… all in the span of just a few hours,” while yours truly wound up in a Tokyo jail for attempted grand theft toy auto. Not just any toy auto. I was caught stealing a prototype that costs somewhere in the neighborhood of the grand total of Colum’s 13 Porsches.
And here is the story.
Kota Nezu and Kenji Tsuji remind me of my spent youth. They look like “Art Director meets Product Manager,” casted for a Japanese version of Mad Men.
Nezu’s hair is dyed red, there are jewelry implants in his teeth, he has two piercings in the ear, and who knows how many elsewhere. TTAC’s cross-cultural adviser, Frau Schmitto-san, says: “He would be a big hit at certain Tokyo parties I used to go to before I met you.”
Tsuji is prim, proper, and he would vanish in the sea of millions of salary men that squeeze each morning into the Tokyo subway. The redhead and the salary man fathered a child together.
The child is the Camatte, and it is one of the biggest toy cars I have ever seen. It is nearly 10 feet long, and a little bit less than 5 feet wide. Right now, it has a top speed of just 25 mph, but switch the engine, and it “could go much faster” grins Nezu, and the diamond in his choppers blinks furiously.
The two fathered the Camatte when Toyota was invited to show something at last year’s Tokyo Toy Show. Tsuji is a Project Manager at Toyota’s Product Planning Department, a title and a function that are as nondescript as the millions of salary men. Tsuji develops cars. Nezu-san, the man with the red mop, designed cars for Toyota before he went out on his own to start Znug Design, an industrial design company that does everything from $100,000 motorbikes to thermos cans. Tsuji and Nezu have done other projects together before, and the Camatte is a joint brainchild.
The brainchild was illegitimate for a while, a skunk works project, until then Toyota R&D Chief Takeshi Uchiyamada put his hanko of approval under the matter. The first generation Camatte was shown at last year’s toy show. Akio Toyoda made an appearance, loved what he saw, and Tsuji is now full-time toy car development chief.
The backbones of the car are provided by a structure made from welded aluminum tubes and profiles. A lot in the car is exchangeable. The car I am looking at has an electric motor, powered by a mere mortal 48 volt lead acid battery. The engine can easily be swapped for an internal combustion engine. All four wheels are on double wishbones, for added soup-upability.
When I hear that the car is drivable, I immediately ask for a test drive. I am given the “are you out of your expletive deleted mind, Schmitto-san?” look.
The skin of the car is made from 57 small lightweight panels. That’s why the Gen II camatte is called Camatte57s.
“Camatte” can mean “pay attention,” in Japanese, or “take care.” The “s” stands for the Japanese word sawaru, which means “to touch,” I’m told. I need to remember that word.
The swapping of the 57 panels is fast and easy: They attach with quick-release pins, no tools, fingers do it.
The quick-release pins have a green ring. On the Camatte, the color green signals that something can be changed or adjusted. The toy car is dotted with many, many green rings.
Without tools, the car can one minute be a vehicle that projects an air of kawaii sugar and spice.
Then, pull a few snaps, attach new panels, plug a few pins, and the thing morphs into a brutish GI-Joe military-mobile, for the snails and puppy-dogs’ tails contingent.
Driver seat and pedals adjust to accommodate both kid and grown-up. Pull a lever, and the seat slides back, and the pedals move forward: Room for a mature driver. Pull a lever again, the seat comes forward and up, and the pedals touch the tootsies of the tyke. Sugoi!
The car is strictly a design study, a concept car with no plans for commercialization. In the strictly hypothetical case of the car ever going on sale, it could be driven by a grown-up through traffic, and, with the tuck of the two levers, by a child. The latter on a closed course, of course. When we discuss where kids could drive the Camatte, its fathers admit that that’s a problem in Japan. Very few people have a fenced-in yard, and if they have one, it is barely wide enough to accommodate a wheel barrow. Muzukashi desu nee – that’ll be difficult.
The car in search of a place to be driven is born from a concern that kids are no longer interested in cars. “We have done studies that show young kids actually like cars very much,” says Kenji Tsuji, and his research is confirmed by rows of pre-schoolers that line up for a minute behind the wheel of a stationary Camatte while Mom or Dad whip out the iPhone to snap a few pics, for immediate upload to Facebook. “Once children go to elementary school, they rapidly lose interest,” says Tsuji, and he frowns, while Nezu mimes throw-smartphone-out-of-the-window.
There are two theories for the sudden vehicular attention deficit syndrome. One theory blames the smartphone. I have heard that many times. The other theory is new, and it is surprising to hear it from the developer of contemporary cars.
“Modern cars are communication killers,” says Tsuji with a worried face. “Toddlers are strapped into a child seat in the back. No communication. In the olden days, father and mother would at least argue about the temperature being too high or too low. Now it’s all automatic, and there is no need to communicate.” Our discussion is – chotto matte kudasai – interrupted by an incoming call on Tsuji’s Smartphone on vibrating manner mode.
Nezu and Tsuji see the Camatte as a conversation starter, as a car parents and children can build, change, and rebuild together. They can do that undisturbed by modern frills. A regular car reviewer would decry a dash made from hard plastic in the Camatte, and a lack of both Bluetooth and USB. It doesn’t even have a radio.
No price of the car is known, or even contemplated. Knowing what drivable prototypes cost to build, I throw out that a few millions of dollars must have been sunk into the project. Nobody rises to say my assertion is way off. Currently, no amount of money can buy the Camatte. I get a firm “No!” when I ask whether Toyota would listen if, say, a big toymaker would walk into the booth, with an offer to license the design. Not even on an OEM basis? “No!”
I have driven many cars in my life, they came with the job. Usually, cars stir emotions in me similar to what the sight of a sausage does to a butcher: We watch car and wurst with professional detachment.
That little Camatte however, the machine that is made to make parents and children talk to each other, speaks to me. The more I look at it, the more I want to take it home, the lack of a yard be damned.
I try to talk my handler from Toyota into a long-term loaner, he says I am very funny. I ask Tsuji-san whether he would take a check, and how much should I make it out for. He agrees with my handler that I am a very humorous guy.
So I decide to steal the thing…
On Sunday afternoon, before the show ends, I come back sans chaperone. The crew is busy taking down the booth, nobody watches me. I adjust the seat, and sit behind the wheel of the baby blue Camatte.
I turn the black knob to ON. Nothing happens.
Nezu and Tsuji left with the other Camatte, the sportier version. I am alone with baby blue. I move the white lever that sits next to the “ON” switch. The car has two gears: One forward, one reverse. I release the hand brake. I tap the accelerator lightly, I hear a faint whirr, and the Camatte starts to roll out of Toyota’s booth. It does so silently, and nobody notices.
I invite two kids to sit in the back. If I get arrested for grand theft toy car, I might as well go for kidnapping. But then, who would stop an aging foreigner with two lolly-sucking adorable natives in the back? Nobody does. The kids think it’s a hoot.
We roll past people busy taking booths down. Brown cardboard boxes are being filled with toys.
We are on the fourth floor of Tokyo’s Big Sight. On foot, you have a choice of a very long escalator, or an elevator. But how do I get away by car? Mondai nai! No problem!
The Big Sight is where the bi-annual Tokyo Motor Show takes place, and it will do so again in November. If cars get in, they must get out. I know the place. There is a ramp behind that roll-up door. Let’s roll.
The Camatte is well-behaved. It accelerates effortlessly, well above walking speed. I don’t dare going faster, my male passenger is not strapped-in.
I forgot the lap timer anyway, so please don’t ask.
Does the Camatte understeer? Oversteer? No idea. It pretty much goes into the intended direction, I’d say.
It’s all downhill from here. My male passenger decides to buckle-up for safety.
Only two more floors to go. For a satellite-view of the ramp structure and the Camatte improvised test course, click here.
Terra firma! One more turn, and we will vanish into Tokyo’s afternoon traffic, in a baby blue baby roadster and with two lolly-popping kids. What’s their names anyway?
Ooops! I am intercepted by Tsuji-san, and a redhead with a diamond in his teeth. Baton-wielding law enforcement is walking up. Hontoni gomen nasai! I am very sorry. This is all a big misunderstanding, and I will explain, given the chance. Please?
Two Camatte are being rolled on a truck. There is a metallic click behind me, and my wrists are touched by a metallic cool. They have free Wifi at the Odaiba jail. I’m sure Verticalscope will bail me out.
Or will they?