Car: Isuzu Zen, 2001

Whimsical concepts are a Japanese thing. The biennial Tokyo Motor Show is usually crammed with them—the event is often more like a design student’s degree exhibition than a serious prophesy of the automotive future. Isuzu’s ZEN is a prime example of this left-field ideas forum.

2001 Isuzu Zen
The ZEN was a fusion of modern automotive technology and Japanese traditions of serenity, yet came from Birmingham rather than Tokyo

The only thing is, it wasn’t created in Japan at all, but at Isuzu’s European design center in the UK. The premise was to package some tranquil Japanese-style living space within the proportions of a typical delivery van. Why any driver might want this wasn’t clear, but Isuzu talked of it as mobile office space or, for crowded Japanese cities where offspring often live at home with their parents, an annex-on-wheels for meditation, tea, even passion.

Chief designer Geoffrey Gardner trawled the modern art collection of London’s Tate Modern gallery for inspiration to mix with Zen Buddhist principles of harmony, respect, and purity. Viewed side-on, the nose section housed the turbodiesel engine; the passenger compartment resembled a radiating Japanese paper fan; and the cargo cube was tacked on the end.

The “Transformer”-style interior converted into a serene traditional Japanese tearoom, with bamboo flooring and tatami woven mats, by folding the steering wheel and the silk-covered, aluminum-and-wood front seats away into the dashboard. Other signature touches included the opaque roof light and lower tailgate panel sliding upwards to reveal a view of the outdoors.

“The effects of incorporating Japanese architecture and culture into the ZEN looks fantastic.”

Stephen Newbury, The Car Design Yearbook 1, 2002

Video: model of the car Isuzu Zen

Specification: model of the car Isuzu Zen

PLACE OF ORIGIN: Birmingham, West Midlands, UK, and Tokyo, Japan
ENGINE: V6-cylinder, 183ci (2,999cc) diesel
LAYOUT: front-mounted engine driving all four wheels
BODYWORK: two-door, four-seater station wagon
TOP SPEED: unknown