To gaijin (foreigners), Japan is a bastion for weirdness: karaoke bars and panty vending machines, Pokémon and Kei cars, Harajuku. What the Western world sees as weird is often just practicality with personality. For example, the Honda City and Motocompo combo.
Japan’s cosmopolitan cities are congested and crowded, with limited parking. Solutions include a fantastic public transit system, intelligently designed parking garages, and diminutive subcompact cars like the City. As wide as a king-size mattress and about as long as a couch, the City was Honda’s answer to some of the very real problems of the early ‘80s, including a worldwide recession, high gas prices, and a cash-strapped generation of young people who wanted cars with attitude.
The City’s design brief was simple: create new demand beyond what already existed, answer the international call for environmental sustainability, offer advanced features, make it fun to drive, and build a one-of-a-kind car that fit Honda’s image as a creative car manufacturer. Honda put its youngest, brightest engineers on the job, and they punched through the hesitancy of Japanese corporate hierarchies with help from Toru Arisawa, who oversaw automobile advertising for Honda. In 1981, the bug-eyed hatchback debuted in Japan with its own theme song and a specially designed Motocompo scooter behind its rear bench.
In crowded Japanese cities, commuters often parked miles away from their places of work and were forced to walk from there. If a driver couldn’t park the City near his or her final destination, the scooter could be removed from its hatch, unfolded, and ridden up to 43 miles on a quarter-gallon of gasoline. When folded, the Motocompo measured three feet long, two feet tall, and one foot wide. The optional scooter cost $392, weighed 92 pounds, and had a 50cc engine good for 18 mph, making it an odd-but-practical, quintessentially Japanese solution to a problem faced by everyday people.
Soon after the City’s debut, Hirotoshi Honda — son of Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, and co-founder of the tuning shop Mugen — got his hands on the hatchback and started modifying it. He installed a turbocharger and stiffer springs into a City, then convinced Honda to create a City Turbo performance variant, which earned the nickname “Bulldog.” With a 1,237cc, 100-horsepower inline-four and a five-speed manual transmission, the City Turbo was no bruiser, but at a svelte 1,565 pounds, it felt spritely. Bolder, more powerful versions followed, as did a one-make race series. The City Turbo also holds a notable place in Honda’s history as the first vehicle to wear the “R” performance badge.
Although the City was never sold in the States, the City Turbo you see here — complete with optional Motocompo — belongs to the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. In Japan and India, the City got the attention of young drivers and became a cultural icon; Americans could only look in wonder at the strange little car with a scooter in its trunk.
The Western gaze tends to exaggerate the oddness of Japan, and Americans often describe Japanese cars like the City as “cute” or “quirky” or “clever.” What’s lacking is a respect for Japanese engineering prowess and capability, and an acceptance that subcompact cars aren’t all that special; they’re just small. The City’s design is sharp, but nothing to swoon over. Swap a badge on the hood, and you could have an early ’80s Opel, Volkswagen, or Yugo — albeit a better-running one. Honda perfected the small-car design by maximizing space efficiency and cleverly packaging innovative, helpful features like the Motocompo trunk bike. It was a perfect transportation solution for its era and for its intended customer.
In tandem, the Honda City and Motocompo moved bodies efficiently and with personality and fun. It’s hard to imagine a modern manufacturer creating a car with a tailored scooter in its trunk. But just wait: One day there will again be a worldwide recession, gas prices will jump, and a younger generation burdened with weighty student loans will want to buy something small, fun — and weird.