The Tokyo Motor Show is known for interesting (and yes, occasionally just odd) concept cars that may seem bizarre or cartoonish to western eyes, but often reflect developing trends. They also seem to remain an outsized influence long after the show closes and the cars are parked back behind the design studios.
Such was a strange little car from Honda, which appeared at the 40th Tokyo Motor Show a decade ago. Its name was PUYO, which Honda explained was a kind of onomatopoeic expression that is the natural reaction of touching the car.
The PUYO was described by Honda as “a new idea in mobility that brings together ‘clean’, ‘safe’ and ‘fun’ functionality in an environmentally responsible, people-friendly minimalist design featuring an ultra-high efficiency, small frame and fuel cell technology to please both users and onlookers alike."
That’s quite a mouthful of a description for such a small car, but it does touch on the main goals of the PUYO.
The PUYO, which Honda described as “Seamless Soft Box”, employed a squeezable gel body surface over the lower portion of the car. This, along with its Pokémon-character shape, was an attempt to make the car friendlier to driver and passengers. It also served as a safety feature to pedestrians in the city. Additional pedestrian safety was afforded by the rounded corners and the luminescence of the exterior, allowing for greater visibility to the passer-by, whether on foot or in a car.
Underneath this soft body was a set of four small wheels pushed right out to the corners, all of which could steer. This made for an incredibly tight turning radius – perfect for urban driving and parking. On top of the squishy body was generous a glasshouse reminiscent of bubble cars from the 1950s.
All this squishy cuteness was intended to make the car like an adorable pet, a creature that was meant to be touched and squeezed. This would encourage emotional bonding with the car and eliminate feelings of a being trapped in a generic compact city car.
The interior was accessed through two scissor doors, more often seen on ultra-performance hypercars than urban car prototypes. Once inside, the driver and passengers will have discovered the two themes of the interior: silkiness and transparency.
The ‘silkiness’ theme came from the generous use of fabrics and soft, flexible surfaces, such as the instrument panel and interior finishes. The intended effect was one of welcoming softness, but of fabric, like clothing rather than the rubbery gel-like exterior skin. The ‘transparency’ theme was obvious; the generous glasshouse that allowed occupants to see and be seen as they travelled around the city.
As mentioned above, the PUYO is reminiscent of the of the 1950s. Such cars as the Heinkel, Isetta and the bug-like Messerschmitt Kabinenroller were born of necessity (the fuel shortage arising from the Suez crisis), but were also great for Europe’s tight urban streets. Their generous glasshouses, many developed from old aeroplane cockpit designs, were also ideal for driving in tight quarters.
The squeezable, lovable pet concept still has some currency too, as we saw at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show. The Gosei Flesby 2, a concept car that was built by Toyoda Gosei to showcase the supplier’s capabilities in plastics, rubber and LEDs, along with their sense of humour. Again, adorable is the theme, with LEDs that light up behind the flexible skin and “e-rubber” body parts that expand and contract, even as the body stretches and squats like a tree frog.
The Flesby 2, like the PUYO, has some serious ideas behind its cute and humorous form, as it experiments with materials, lighting and shape. These all point to a more hopeful future beyond what we all fear: the soulless transportation appliance. It’s easy to laugh at their huggable personas, but smart designers looking to the urban car of tomorrow could do much worse than imitate the ‘joie de vivre’ of a car like the PUYO.