The little red car sat squat and low on the street looking for all the world like the product of an unlikely tryst between a Dodge Viper and a child’s pedal car. It was a classic two seat sports car, with short rear deck, small passenger compartment and “long” hood that stretched away from the driver just far enough to cover the engine beneath it. The proportions were right, but the actual numbers were ludicrous: 81 inch wheel base, 54 inches wide, a curb weight just a touch under 1600 pounds and 660 CC engine with a maximum horsepower rating of just 63 horsepower. This was going to be an experience, I knew, but first I had to figure out how I was going to fit behind the wheel.
Many of us in the Western Hemisphere live in awe of the Japanese Kei car. A special category of micro-car, the Kei is limited in overall size and engine displacement by law. People who buy Keis benefit from a reduced vehicle tax and are also exempt from appearing at the local police station to prove they have a place to park their car before they are allowed to register it with the DMV. Kei cars come in all sorts of configurations but are for the most part utilitarian cars that strive to be small on the outside but as large as possible on the inside. Like the vaunted Mitsubishi Zero fighters of the second world war, Kei cars trade weight for performance and many of them are quite spry on the road, but lack the solidity of other small cars.
In the early 1990s three Japanese companies, Suzuki, Honda and Mazda under their Kei car specific Autozam brand, introduced competing sports cars. All three are worthy of mention in any article about small sports cars, with the Autozam AZ-1 and the Honda Beat being mid-engined rear wheel drive machines while the Cappuccino is a front/mid engined car also with rear wheel drive, and, since they all were built to meet the same legal standards all have virtually the same weight and horsepower numbers. Driving dynamics of the AZ-1 and the Beat, unfortunately remain a mystery to me because, unlike the Cappuccino I didn’t happen to have a student who owned one.
Taka was a cool dude. Tall and thin, but not especially handsome, he had the demeanor of a Japanese rock star. At 23 years old, he melted all the high school girls’ hearts whenever he slipped into the school and poured his lanky frame into the seats of our waiting room. It would have been easy for him to effect a snide, superior attitude but since his day job was running a backhoe for the Japan Rail company he was surprisingly down to earth. The little red sports car he drove fit him perfectly in size and attitude, at once glamorous and attention getting while at the same time firmly grounded in the real world and with humble underpinnings.
The Cappuccino was a tinny little thing of Lilliputian proportions and I realized as I approached the driver’s side that I was going to have to seriously contort myself if I was going to get my modest 6’1” 240 pound all American beef fed frame behind the wheel. My first attempt at a normal entry failed miserably. Next I tried stepping into the car with both feet, something that was only possible because of the car’s open top, and sliding down the seat back; no dice. Finally I pivoted my hind-end out the open door, put my hands on the black top and crab walked my way into the saddle.
My unconventional entrance worked, but now I was stuck with the steering wheel inches in front of me and the foot well so filled with my legs that I could only find the pedals by sense of touch. They were there, impossibly tiny and just millimeters from one another. Taka guided me. “Off to the left of the clutch is a dead pedal to rest your foot on.” He told me. It made all the difference and although I still felt pinched, the unseen world beneath made at least some semblance of sense.
When the door closed I found myself fully entrapped in the little car. Its high door sills precluded resting my arm on the edge of the window and the tiny console on my left just large enough for my elbow. The shifter was there, striking me in the middle of my fore-arm rather than fitting my hand, but as Taka climbed in next to me I turned the key, found the gear and hit the gas.
We headed out down the narrow, one way thoroughfare in front of my school to the main road that ran alongside the Uji river. It was a terrible road to drive, a narrow strip of pavement that ran precariously atop a levy intended hold back the river should it approach flood stage. The few guard rails that the Japanese government had decided to place along it at odd intervals always struck me as being much too close and I had avoided this road for many months as my Supra felt far too wide for it. It was, however, one of the few roads in town that didn’t have a stoplight every fifty feet and so it was a good place to air out a car – if you had the guts.
The narrow road seemed surprisingly wide from the cockpit of the Cappuccino. The little car wound out in first gear, and hissed energetically through its pop-off valve as I pushed in the clutch for the shift to second. There was another rush of acceleration and another gratifying hiss and the car scooted under my butt as I wound up the revs high enough for the turbo to have a real effect. The wind blew across the hood, over the windscreen and tousled my hair and the little car came into its own as I slung it into the curves that followed the river’s every bend. Despite the cramped quarters, the little car felt natural under me, pulling me out of the tiny cockpit and my focusing my attention onto the road ahead. Like a motorcycle I had the sensation of flying and the little car responded to my every input with razor sharp handling. The road rushed forward to meet us and I entered the zone where my driving inputs were purely mechanical, each happening a moment after my mind had already swept past that place on the road.
Taka’s hand on my arm brought me back to the real world and I suddenly realized I was flogging his pride and joy a little harder than I probably should be. We hit the turnaround and I brought the car back a little less energetically than I had taken it out. Back at the school we grinned stupidly at one another and I began the task of extricating myself from the seat I had taken so much time to clamber into. What a ride.
With my feet once again on terra firma, the car resumed its comically small proportions and the normal world reasserted itself. My initial thoughts about the car were, I decided, right. The Cappuccino is one part supercar and one part toy and all kinds of fun. Safety issues aside, it is a shame we don’t get more little cars like this in the states. Everyone wants to be a hero, and this is a car that could make a hero out of everyman. That’s O-kei with me.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.