Japanese Auto Art: Toyota’s Wooden Roadster

Posted by Stephen On Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

Of the world’s top 10 largest automobile manufacturing names, Japan currently has six on the list, but only one of those companies has built a fully functional wooden car. Yes, you read that correctly. In an age when chopping down innocent woodland has fallen somewhat out of favor, some bright spark has decided it would be a great time to make a car out of dead trees. Not exactly what springs to mind when you think of “green motoring”.

Toyota Setsuna wooden concept car

Anyway, this particular wooden roadster showcases the beauty of okuri ari — a Japanese housed dovetail technique that requires no nails or screws. Toyota is unveiling this stunning car at Milan Design Week in Italy (April 12 – April 17, 2016). Filled with events, presentations, and exhibitions, the prestigious extravaganza is renowned for revealing forthcoming trends in the world of design. Except, perhaps, the likelihood of wood being the next carbon fiber still seems rather low to this writer.

A modest two-seat roadster, the Setsuna is a concept car that Toyota is tagging as a ‘Time Machine,’ though not for its ability to leap backward or forwards across the space-time continuum. In fact, the underlying focus of the entire campaign Toyota is touting centers around moving away from technology and being more cognizant of how significant and fleeting time is in the real world. Toyota engineer Kenji Tsuji, together with Kota Nezu of znug design, wanted the primary structural element of their design to illustrate aging and the passing of time. Wood, while unconventional, was precisely the material needed to embody their message.

Presumably, the point being that wood ages and decays. Of course, the same sense of the passage of time can also be seen on Japanese family cars from the eighties, as they rust and corrode. But that was a design flaw. This, however, is art.

Setsuna: Time and Timeless

The name Setsuna means “moment” or “instance” in Japanese. With this design, Toyota is appealing to the kind of old-school attachment car owners had with their vehicles over half a century ago.

They are seeking the kind of bond fanatical auto enthusiasts, and club members have for their hot rods. The minds inside Toyota want to tap into that feeling of owning an heirloom, and passing it down through multiple generations. The following are a few examples of just how passionate everyone involved in the project is about how and why the Setsuna is destined to be timeless.

The 100-Year Meter and the Setsuna Emblem

Setting a tone that denotes the “accumulation of moments” in a gradual and consistent manner, these two elements are beautiful examples of form over function. Their purpose is served by the sense they strive to evoke — the feeling of family roots.

The vintage-style meter of brushed aluminum is set in the stunning wood grain dashboard just to the right of the wipe-lacquered wood steering wheel. Two red hands tick off the time of day and the passing of days while a counter at the bottom logs the years as they go by. Perfect for anyone stuck in a Tokyo traffic jam, then.

The car’s emblem, which at first glance looks like a rotary saw blade, is actually a combination of much milder metaphors. The circular pattern is modeled after the rings inside a tree, which represent strength; they also signify a moment unfolding like a flower.

Although, if your eyes are not, in fact, deceiving you and it really is supposed to look like a saw blade, well how appropriate for a car made of wood. The fleeting nature of life as embodied in a wooden car meets its inescapable rendezvous with the circular saw of time, perhaps?

Which wood to choose?

To ensure that the Setsuna lasts as long as its lavish meter, the type of wood used was carefully selected based on where it would be in the car.

Exterior panels: Japanese cedar, known for its flexibility and vivid color along with a wood grain of refined character was a natural choice. Straight-grain panels achieve a sharp and even pattern because the cut is made toward the log’s center. Cross-grain panels have a softer appearance with a more irregular pattern which Toyota lauds as fostering a “quaint and friendly impression.”

Car frame: Supporting the weight of the vehicle and its occupants required an extremely rigid and sturdy variety of wood. The perfect selection was Japanese birch, which is similar to paper birch trees with the signature chalky white bark.

Floorboard: A species of flowering plant commonly used in the art of bonsai or as an ornamental tree, the Japanese Zelkova was chosen for its strength and durability.

Seats: Part of the ginseng family, the Castor Aralia is valued for its timber quality. Growing to nearly 100 feet tall with a 40-inch trunk diameter, this particular species was picked for the smooth texture of the wood. Designers sought to offer a feeling akin to sitting on a wooden park bench — in this case, a leather-covered bench.

Of course, as any environmentalist knows, if you want a material that lasts for centuries without decaying, you need look no further than the almost immortal plastic used to make grocery bags.

Put Together Like a Puzzle

The body of the Setsuna is built using 86 wood panels that have been fitted together in a way that enables single panels to be removed and replaced as necessary. Traditional Japanese techniques that use the interlocking methods of housed dovetail joints add to the overall strength and durability of their auto’s wooden body.

With this being a one-off, I assume that crash safety was not uppermost in the designers’ minds. While Japanese wood-framed houses rarely have to endure impacts, it’s not clear what protection the Setsuna would afford its occupants. Having dropped a few jigsaw puzzles on the floor in my time, I suspect it would be very little. And at speeds above walking pace, getting a splinter would be the least of your problems.

Toyota is sure to receive myriad accolades in Milan because their concept car — conceived by clever minds daring to push the boundaries of design — makes a beautiful statement both visually and conceptually. With a single electric motor as its only power source, the prototype can achieve a top speed of 28 mph and travel approximately 16 miles before needing to recharge.

To state the obvious, Toyota has no production plans for the wooden Setsuna. But this is not a bad thing. It’s a hugely flawed design boondoggle that sneers in the face of environmentalism – cutting down trees instead of hugging them.

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