Muji made a car? Yes, but it’s not as cool as you might think.

January 2020

Some weeks ago, I was excited to learn that MUJI, the Japanese minimalist brand, made a subcompact car back in 2001; yet as I searched both online/offline and gathered more information, I had a mixed feeling toward the car.

MUJI’s first endeavor with car design was a joint venture with the Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan. The result was a thousand copies of the MUJI+Car 1000, a simplified and $164 cheaper version of Nissan K11 March in the most basic spec. It was the polar opposite of a fully-loaded SUV. The car was sold online-only (quite a move in 2001) with one available color, white (of course).

Cover of the original MUJI+Car 1000 brochure

MUJI+Car 1000 brochure

In terms of design, MUJI only did some minor adjustments. If you are not a car aficionado, you will have a hard time telling which is which. Below is a comparison of MUJI+Car 1000 and the Nissan K11 March of the same year.

MUJI+Car 1000

Nissan March 2nd-Gen

The most obvious difference is the bumpers of the MUJI’s car is unpainted; the owners do not need to worry about paint loss in minor collisions. Just like MUJI’s own products, badging and branding were removed from the car, except the debossed Nissan logo on the steering wheel (I guess Nissan really pushed hard). The front grill was also redesigned as the original logo was removed.

According to the MUJI’s brochure, the vinyl folding backseats are divided into 6:4 sections so that in the scenarios where only one seat can be folded down (three people in the car), there is a slightly larger space for storage.

Illustrations of 6:4 backseats

Most of MUJI’s design decisions on the car were not novel; nevertheless, they embody MUJI’s principles: it is unbranded(almost), minimalistic, inexpensive and utilitarian. It was not about 0-60 miles acceleration nor to show off class, but a pursuit of simplicity, ease, and genuineness.

However, it is missing a touch of excitement and timelessness that is prominent in MUJI’s most successful and iconic products, such as the CD player designed by Naoto Fukasawa. I guess this was another reason that the project has been covered by the dust of time in less than two decades.

MUJI wall mounted CD player designed by Naoto Fukasawa

Furthermore, MUJI did not push their principles to the next level. All of the design adjustments were minor and some were even superficial, partly because it was a small-scale joint venture. Collaborations between companies of completely different fields are often exciting and great marketing campaigns, yet sometimes the results turned out to be weird compromises.

Closing Thoughts

The MUJI+Car 1000 somehow reminds me of the Motorola Rokr, which was an awkward collaboration between Motorola and Apple. It was such a disaster that right after the launch Steve Jobs said "This is not gonna fly. I’m sick and tired of dealing with bozo handset guys." [1] Just as this setback help motivated Jobs to create a phone that changes the world, I hope MUJI’s ongoing self-driving bus project Gacha can finally produce a revolutionary automobile that truly holds up its philosophy.

Motorola Rokr

Photos courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku (MUJI), Motorola.

Siguang Ma

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