Japanese concept cars were unlikely visitors to the Geneva Motor show in the 1970s, and the one that appeared at the 1978 show was especially shocking. Its dramatic wedge suggested the latest from Italdesign or Bertone, but something about the detailing suggested another, unknown provenance – as did the name: ‘Dome Zero’. A mystery wedge from an unknown Japanese manufacturer.
Minoru Hayashi was born in 1945, just at the end of World War II. As a child he was fascinated with building things. He started with simple models and then radio controlled toys. From there he moved on to audio equipment and bikes. He started hanging around a local race track and, in 1965, was commissioned to build his first racing car, a rebodied Honda S600 coupé.
It was called the Karasu (crow in Japanese) due to its shape and flat black paint. Despite being built by a total amateur, the Karasu won its first race on the Suzuka Clubman circuit.
The next year Hayashi built the Macransa, an extensively modified Honda S800, to compete in the Japanese Grand Prix sports car race.
In 1975 Hiyashi formalized all his racing car ambitions into a new company, Kabushiki Kaisha Dōmu, or Dome for short. The full name translated literally into “Child’s Dream”. The goal of Dome was to continue to build race cars, and to use the lessons learned from those projects to create a series of limited production street-legal cars. The first of these would be called the Dome Zero.
The Zero started as a build project among Hayashi’s close associates, but soon drew in trusted mechanics and craftsmen from all over Japan. Sequestered in Hayashi’s shop in Osaka, and sleeping only occasionally in a nearby hotel, the project became an epic marathon of designing, fabricating and building.
Sleeping and bathing regimens were cast aside as the crew obsessively toiled away for days at a time. Wives and girlfriends and families were abandoned. Before it was over, four wives divorced their absent husbands.
The Dome was styled in the wedged supercar style of the time by Hayashi himself. Remarkably mature for an amateur, it showed a keen eye for proportion and details.
Still, the undeniable influence of Italian wedge styling was apparent. Sharp-eyed observers see elements of the Alfa Romeo Carabo, and Navajo, the Stratos Zero (note the name), and the Lamborghini Bravo among others.
The Dome looked huge in photos, but in fact was very compact. It was less than four metres long and only 980mm in height – lower than a Ford GT40, which exaggerated all of the other dimensions. The wheels – 13-inch at front and 14-inch at the rear – would be laughably small now.
Equally laughable, looking back, was the engine, a standard Nissan Fairlady Z straight-six that produced only 145 horsepower. But then, the car was light, only 920kg, so the engine could move the car along at a good clip. Still, compared to Lamborghini Countach, which was a bit larger, half-again as heavy and with massive horsepower, the Dome Zero seemed a supercar lightweight.
Step through the scissor doors and launch yourself over the wide sill, and the spartan, velour-covered interior awaited. Niceties such as climate control and entertainment systems were not provided in the prototypes, not even as mock-ups. The seats were molded to the floor, with minimal curvature to support the body.
But no matter; taken as a whole, the car looked spectacular on the stand in Geneva, and attendees and the press were delighted. But the influx of orders and investors didn’t materialize, at least not in sufficient numbers.
Salvation came in the form of Japanese toy manufacturers, who lined up to license the wildly popular design. The licensing deals provided much needed cash to keep the company afloat, at least for a while.
Hayashi had planned to build thirty Dome Zero cars, but could not get them certified through the Ministry of Transport. A second prototype – the Dome Zero P2 was built and brought to the US for possible production and homologation. The car was shown in Los Angeles and Chicago, even tested by Road and Track, and Car magazines, but to no avail. Homologation, so desired by Dome for future racing, was not possible.
After the homologation failure, Hayashi decided to build a race car variant to call attention to the Dome prototypes. The Zero RL cars were raced at Le Mans in 1979-1981, but were less than successful, always finishing near the back of the field when they finished at all.
Undaunted, Hiyashi and his team would return to Le Mans over and over again (17 times at last count) in the coming decades. The record of success is spotty at best, but winning was not necessarily Hiayashi’s goal. He would explain his philosophy like this:
“As I always explain Dome is not interested in being the best at 24 hour race strategy because we are a racecar constructor. Le Mans 24 Hours is an endurance race indeed, but what Dome aims for is the speed in the qualifying sessions in which the true performance of the racecars is tested. Incidents that could happen during the 24 hours, such as being collected by the car in front, engine blow, and punctures, are as out of our control as a natural disaster for a racecar constructor. For that reason our pride will never be hurt by a bad result due to such incidents during the 24 hours.”
Then, there is the romance of just being at Le Mans. Like Antarctic and Everest explorers of old, conquering the terrain was the goal, but the real goal was just being there. Again Hayashi explains:
“There is no necessity for us to go to France. We don’t have plenty of spare money, either. Our cash flow is as if an extravagant and wasteful son keeps borrowing money to spend on a Geisha, which is why we don’t have a choice not to enjoy the race. All the above are absolutely correct but are not enough to stop us from going crazy about her”.
The Dome cars, as well as a huge collection of Dome toys, now reside in the Dome Museum at the company headquarters. The Dome cars still make the periodic appearance at Concours in various places, where they are always greeted with great interest and respect. The Zero itself lives on in the virtual world in the Gran Turismo series.
A few years ago, in 2012, Hiyashi decided to retire and hand the business over to his longtime friend and associate Hiroshi Fushida. It was a transition long in the making, and welcomed by more than a few in Japanese automotive and racing circles. Hayashi always struggled to work with colleagues in more sedate professions, or who spent the majority of their automotive careers behind a desk. He wrote a wry blog post about his imminent retirement:
“I can hear some of you opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate my resignation.
The serious nuisance for the Japanese motor racing has gone. I am looking forward to seeing it reforming and reviving drastically. If you say Dome has been like a sushi bar run by a stubborn boss, the new Dome managed by President Fushida will be a traditional restaurant famous for its welcoming atmosphere. Don’t hesitate to pop in for the reception, everyone.”
You can visit Dome here at their website: http://dome.co.jp