A while back while researching the topic of automotive scams and scoundrels, I came across the story of the Amectran Exar-1, a proposed electric car, of which only a prototype was made from a Frua built concept car. It turns out that the Exar-1 still exists and it’s in the collection of Myron Vernis, who lives near Akron, Ohio. The car writing gig has given me access to some fine collections and contact with a number of prominent car collectors like Ken Lingenfelter and Jay Leno (both of them very much regular car guys who have the means to indulge a passion for cars that must of us share with them). Ken and Jay are great car guys, without a doubt, but I have a taste for the offbeat so my favorite car collector has got to be Myron because he might very well have the best collection in the world of unusual and oddball cars.
When I found out that the Amectran prototype still existed, I called up Myron and he clued me in about the Exar-1 and its creator, Edmond X. Ramirez, Sr. For what it’s worth, Vernis thinks Ramirez is a guy who ended up believing his own PR more than a scam artist. As I mentioned, I like unusual cars and it seemed that every time I brought up something weird, Myron would say, “I have/had one of those”. Since then I’ve run into Vernis a couple of times at the annual Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti, first when he was displaying his Japanese domestic market Isuzu 117 XC, and then last year he brought a Citroen CX 25 TRI station wagon (now that’s a car you don’t usually see in America).
A few weeks ago he emailed me saying that in addition to bringing something to the Orphan Car Show in the fall, he was going to be in Detroit for both of the top shelf car shows held here, the Concours of America at St. John next month and he also said he was bringing a couple of cars to the Eyes On Design show, held every Father’s Day on the grounds of the Eleanor and Edsel Ford estate in Grosse Pointe Shores.
I’m not exactly sure how his cars ended up in the “Tuner” category at Eyes On Design, because they are pretty much bone stock, but regardless of how they got in the show, I’m glad that Myron brought his 1972 Mazda Cosmo, the first rotary engine powered car made by Mazda (and the first production two-rotor Wankel in the world), and a 1968 Toyota Sports 800, the direct predecessor to the great 2000GT sports car.
You may go, “Hmmmm, the first Wankel powered Mazda, yeah that’s unusual, but what’s so weird about a Toyota?” How about an 800cc horizontally opposed air-cooled twin, normally used to run the air-conditioner compressors in Toyota buses? Yes, long before they hooked up with Subaru to make the GT 86 / FR-S / BRZ, Toyota was selling a rear wheel drive sports coupe with a flat engine up front.
The Sports 800 original design is cute as a button while the Cosmo’s styling is razor sharp and perhaps a bit inspired by the Alfa Romeo roadsters of the day. Looking over the photos, I think that I can also see influences from the E Type Jaguar, and the Chrysler Turbine car.
The Cosmo’s origins date to early 1961 when Toyo Kogyo, the corporate parent of Mazda, obtained a license from NSU for the production of a rotary Wankel engine. NSU held the patent on Felix Wankel’s motor. Work began immediately on prototypes and by mid-1963, two 798cc Type 8A twin rotor engines began testing. The following year, a Cosmo concept car featuring the latest version of Mazda’s rotary, the 982cc 10A, was introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show. Company engineers had trouble getting the rotors’ cast iron apex seals to last before settling on a design that used both carbon and aluminum. Eighty prototypes of what was by then known as the 0810 engine were assembled, with the majority installed in cars that were shipped to dealers for real world testing. The design of the engine was finalized in late 1966, producing 110 hp.
Production of the Cosmo coupes, intended as a halo car for the Mazda brand and for their revolutionary new engine, began in May, 1967. Front suspension was independent with A-arms, coilover spring/damper units, and a sway bar. There was a live axle on leaf springs in the back, but it was fairly sophisticated with a de Dion tube and trailing arms to control it. Brakes were disks up front with drums in the back, with no vacuum assist. The lightweight Cosmo was capable a 16.4 second quarter mile time with a top speed of 115 mph. It cost 1.48 million yen, ($4,100 in U.S. dollars). About 350 Series I Mazda Cosmos were made before a revised version was introduced in 1968. The Series II car, which stayed in production until 1972, the year of Vernis’ car, had a more powerful 0813 engine with 128 hp and 103 lb-ft, power brakes, bigger 15 inch wheels and a 5 speed gearbox. Wheelbase was bumped up 15 inches for a better ride and more interior room. The Series II car was capable of 120 mph and was more than a half second faster in the 1/4 mile than the original Cosmo, 15.8 seconds.
Another 1,176 Series II Cosmos were made for a total of 1,519 cars, which makes them pretty rare. All of them were hand made. Since only six were known to have been imported to the U.S. at the time, they are exceedingly rare here. Wikipedia says that Jay Leno owns a 1970 Cosmo and that Mazda USA found one in a garage a few years back. There’s also apparently one in Alberta, Canada. Then there’s Vernis’ Cosmo, which is actually rarer than Leno’s since Leno’s Cosmo has a more modern 12a motor from an RX-7 and Myron’s Cosmo has the numbers matching 10A with which it left Mazda’s fabrication shop in Hiroshima.
Vernis told me how he came to own his Cosmo:
I purchased the Cosmo from one of my very best friends in Greece three years ago. He is a great enthusiast and collector of Etceterini. He brought the car from Japan with a fresh rebuild on its original engine. He is a much more focused collector than I am and sold it because it really didn’t fit the nature of his collection.
While the Cosmo competed with the now treasured 2000GT, that iconic sports car was not Toyota’s first sporting automobile. That honor goes to the miniscule Sports 800, whose history dates to 1955 and an effort by Japans famed MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. MITI wanted to encourage the development of an inexpensive “people’s car”, homegrown for the Japanese market yet and suitable for export, unlike much of the postwar Japanese car industry that was making designs licensed from outside of Japan.
MITI’s design brief was a 400 kg vehicle that had a top speed of 100 kph and fuel consumption of 1 liter per 30 kilometers when traveling 60 kph on a level road. Major repairs wouldn’t be needed for 100,000 km.
The government agency wanted the Japanese auto industry to work together on a single new design but the automakers wanted their independence and made their own versions. Toyota’s was called the Publica, a two door sedan introduced in 1961 with rear wheel drive after a developmental detour with front wheel drive caused a delay. The first Publica was a four seater powered by an air-cooled flat twin 697cc engine that put out 28 hp. There was no cargo space for luggage, nor a radio or heater, but it was fairly modern for its day with double wishbones and torsion bars up front and a live axle on leaf springs in the rear. Brakes were drums all around. It cost 389,000 yen, around $1,000 in the U.S. dollar of the day. Toyota had high hopes and even set up a separate dealer network for the Publica but like Tata would find out years later with the Nano, sometimes consumers are more aspirational than automakers give them credit for and sales were not great.
To generate interest in the Publica line, in 1962, Toyota showed a concept for a Publica based sports car with a removable roof panel, and when the Sports 800 went into production three years later, it would be the first car with such a roof, before Porsche gave it the Targa name. It was called the Sports 800 for the 790cc 2U engine, as mentioned a horizontally opposed two cylinder job directly cooled by air. By then the stock Publica had 36 horsepower. With two carburetors the power was boosted to about 45 hp in the Sports 800.
Years before the Hachi-Roku AE86, the Sports 800 got its own nickname, Yoda-Hachi (Yoda, as in Toyota, Hachi, as in Japanese for the number eight). It was designed by Toyota engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa who had designed military aircraft during WWII, and Shozo Sato, who spent most of his career at another Japanese automaker, Nissan. The Sports 800 has a steel monocoque with aluminum trunklid, hood, roof panel and even seat frames to reduce the mass that the little 790cc twin had to carry around. The final curb weight was 1,279 lbs.
The front end foreshadows the 2000GT, and, like cars from the classic era, manually activated shutters in the grille to allow for faster heating in the winter. The body is low and aerodynamic while the tall greenhouse allows even tall drivers to fit. Good aero allowed the Sports 800 to see 100 mph if the straightaway was long enough and fuel economy exceeded MITI’s original 1 liter per 30 km standard by one km, the equivalent of 73 mpg. A race prepped Sports 800 won the inaugural 500 km enduro at Suzuka in 1966, against much more powerful cars like the Nissan Skyline and Lotus Elan. A fuel mileage strategy kept the Sports 800 out of the pits, allowing Shihomi Hosoya to take the checkered flag.
A few left hand drive models were built to test market conditions in the U.S. but it was never officially sold here so like the Mazda Cosmo it’s not likely that you’ll see one. It’s estimated that perhaps a dozen out of the 300 or so that still exist are in the States. About 3,000 total were made from 1965 to 1969.
Vernis described his purchase of the historic Toyota:
The Sports 800 came from Seattle. It was in collection of four such vehicles imported several years ago by an exotic Koi (yes, the fish) purveyor. He retired to Hawaii and offered the package to another close friend of mine in Texas who, in turn, gave me the option on this one. The gold color is not original but was done for a special magazine feature in Japan about fifteen years ago.
Myron Vernis is a special car guy with a very special car collection but he has a humble affect and I get the impression that he sees himself as everyman. As an enthusiast he’s knows that he has an impressive collection, he just doesn’t seem to be that impressed with him Online he goes by the screen-name of “Junkman”. Even though many of his cars are rather rare and quite historic, they’re not trailer queens. Myron and his lovely daughter Zoe drove the Cosmo and Sports 800 to the show from their hotel in Troy, some miles away from the Ford estate.
I asked Myron if there was anything interesting in the provenance of either of the cars and his response demonstrates well why he’s my favorite car collector.
Even though they are pretty special cars by their nature, neither one of my examples are exceptional. The one thing that I’m most proud of is that they are probably the most driven examples of their respective models in the US and possibly globally.
He’s undoubtedly correct. Both of the cars have a very high cool factor, and they’re both very rare in this country so it was a treat to see them, but to be frank, at a car show with a large number of very special cars I enjoyed hanging out with Myron and his daughter more than I enjoyed any of the cars at the show. He’s a font of knowledge about automobiles and he’s got an almost perpetual grin on his face. Of course if you had as many unusual, special, and fun to drive cars at your disposal as Vernis does, you’d probably be grinning to.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS