I still remember squinting at the photos of the Isuzu Zen.
"How do the seats fold away? How big is it inside? Why are the side windows like that? What were they thinking?"
Today, I can answer a few of those…I hope.
The concept is very simple: an Isuzu Trooper-sized vehicle that can travel off-road if need be. Stop somewhere nice. Sit and have a tea. Relax.
For the longest time, I thought that the Zen was a Japanese design, born during Izuzu's long slide before ceasing its automotive operations in North America. But I was wrong.
Designed mainly in Britain, the Zen is the work of designers Geoffrey Gardiner, Ian Nisbett and Atsuhiko Yamada. Gardiner is now the director of Dacia-Renault Design Central Europe, based in Bucharest. Yamada was at Mazda until 2008, helping to lead their advance design teams. He now creates abstract artwork. Nisbett operates his own design consultancy Britian.
Back in 2001, Isuzu had an Advanced Design Center in the UK where all three had a chance to produce an outlandish concept car for that year's Tokyo Motor Show.
Its simple-looking design hides a number of interesting—and reasoned—details. First, and most obvious, the steering column retracts, the first row of seats fold forward to hide the dashboard, the second fold into the floor, and traditional Japanese Tatami mats are placed on top to create a large open space.
Its side windows are modelled after traditional Japanese fans—the panes of glass open and close like a hand-held paper fan.
Like a bridge, its roofline curves in a continuous ark, anchored at the rear. Also at the rear, a split-folding tailgate allows for an uninterrupted view out the back of the Zen if you so desire.
All of the elements seem a little disjointed at first, but start to make more sense the more you look. I think there's a lot of appeal in a vehicle that can reconfigure its interior to suit a variety of functions, whether a Japanese tea room as in the Zen or folding and hideaway details for a future Westfalia-like RV.
One last note on the Zen: It's drivable. This is no styling study—built on Isuzu SUV mechanicals, with a diesel V6 motor and four-speed automatic transmission, the Zen is a fully-functioning machine.
In this case, "fully-functioning" is obviously not quite up to what you'd expect from a production car. If you're a fan of transforming cars, well, there are plenty more to talk about. But that's a story for another day.