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The smallest of the smallest road cars was a true vision of brilliance from the Japanese car manufacturers. Various limits and restrictions were put in place to uphold that vision, thereby creating the dogma: Keitora –  軽トラ

Some time ago, a very small and very square-cut automobile arrived outside my hobby workshop. It was a vehicle which I struggled to identify – in fact, I’m pretty sure I had never seen one before. But I knew the man sat behind the wheel, and he’s well-known in our little circle of classic car enthusiasts for having a somewhat alternative taste for cars. He jumped out of the tiny car, slammed shut the door with great confidence and shouted: “Isn’t it just ultra cool?”. Judging by the size of his smile, it was quite obvious that he at least thought so.

It can of course be somewhat challenging to find a suitable reaction when exposed to a surprise attack on your senses from a man who is clearly on a severe overdose of endorphins. Still, everyone present in the workshop that day managed to catch their bearings again, and proceeded to curiously inspect the unusual little vehicle. We quickly learnt – thanks to the badges on the car – that it was a Subaru Sumo, and it was so small in size that it immediately spoke to the part of the brain – or perhaps rather the heart – which appreciates scale model cars or well-pedicured lady feet. It most certainly is NOTa vehicle worth considering if you seek high status or if you’re the overcompensating kind of guy. The performance-obsessed will look elsewhere too, as the Sumo – despite its name – only sports a humble 1-litre engine. But at least you get a 5-speed transmission. But the real fascination obviously lies in its size – or rather, lack of size.

Truth be told, knowledge of Japanese microvans is not one of my core competencies. I needed to visit the world wide web and do a bit of homework. A Subaro Sumo has several identities. It’s best known as a Subaru Sambar, but has also been named Domingo, Libero, Columbuss, E10, E12 or Estratto all depending on which continent or country it was been marketed for. But it all started in 1961 with a Sambar.

The first generations of the Sambar was built on a very simple chassis and was offered as both microvan and pick-up.

After World War II, Japan was in need of very small vehicles to aid rebuilding their country. Business and the private consumer alike required mobility. But the vehicles needed to be both physically small and not least frugal to buy and run. Limitations to ensure this would be the case were put into place, and was called KEI which stems from the Japanese kei jidōsha which means something along the lines of: A light vehicle. These guidelines dictated – at least in the beginning – that cars could not exceed three meters in length or 1.3 meters in width. Furthermore, the engine was limited to a capacity of 360cc.

Date Maximum length Maximum width Maximum height Maximum displacement Maximum power Maximum passenger capacity Maximum load capacity
four-stroke two-stroke
8 July 1949 2.8 m (9.2 ft) 1 m (3.3 ft) 2 m (6.6 ft) 150 cc 100 cc N/A 4 350 kg (771.6 lb)
26 July 1950 3 m (9.8 ft) 1.3 m (4.3 ft) 300 cc 200 cc
16 August 1951 360 cc 240 cc
4 April 1955 360 cc
1 January 1976 3.2 m (10.5 ft) 1.4 m (4.6 ft) 550 cc
March, 1990 3.3 m (10.8 ft) 660 cc 47 kW (64 PS; 63 hp)
1 October 1998 3.4 m (11.2 ft) 1.48 m (4.9 ft)

A diagram displaying the requirements for KEI-cars since 1949 up to current day. Source: Wikipedia

As can be seen from the diagram above, the regulations were changed and modified as time progressed, and naturally the KEI-cars changed with them. Therefore, the fourth generation of the Subaru Sambar had grown in every dimension compared to its predecessors.

The majority of Japanese car manufacturers joined in and developed their own KEI-cars. It was a dogma which conquered approximately half of the domestic market, however it had very little impact on export markets. The rest of the world didn’t really embrace microcars until the eighties. Here we have the Subaru 360.

When the first Sambar was launched in 1961, it was no secret that Subaru had kept a close eye with Torino in Italy, and duly noted how FIAT built one of the world’s very first microvans – the now legendary FIAT 600 Multipla. Whether the Japanese made a visit to the VW factory in Wolfburg before or after Torino is unknown, but the Sambar name certainly bares a rather obvious resemblance with that of the VW Type 1 bus with the many windows.

I’m happy to confess that I’m amoung those who are drawn to the cuteness factor of the miniscule Kei-cars – and perhaps even more so the vans. Which probably explains why I ended up sitting behind the wheel of the eighties Subaru Sumo for so long that day outside of my workshop. However, what I would actually do with a Sambar of any vintage is a little unclear to me, and therein lies my scepticism. It’s a little bit like an oversized model car where everything works. Its tiny dimensions render it somewhat unfunctional as a load-lugger and I struggle to justify why I would need one in my garage. Nonetheless, the Japanese were clearly onto something with their microcars as a sensible vision of what the future would need. To this day, Subaru still produce the Sambar – now in its seventh incarnation on its homemarket – and it seems inevitable that small, frugal and practical cars are the future of our roads here in Europe as well. Should limitations ever be imposed to the size of cars we can drive, that will definitely be when I start seeking out an early sixties Subaru Sambar…


3 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    As most of our trusty readers have probably gathered by now, I’ve got more than just a bit of a weakness for all things classic Nippon. Needless to say, that includes all those cute little KEI-cars and vans.
    Those early Subaru Sambar are cool little things. Like you Søren, I’m really have no use for one, but we should be mighty careful not to end up having to justify through logics and practicality everything we do – that would just get awfully boring… ;-)

  2. YrHmblHst

    “As most of our trusty readers have probably gathered by now, I’ve got more than just a bit of a weakness for all things classic Nippon. ”

    Yes, we are feverishly working on a vaccine for that…

  3. Anders Bilidt

    @yrhmblhst, it warms my heart to know you care so much… ;-)
    However, scientists and doctors have been working on that for the past two decades, and still nothing! By now, I’ve simply accepted that I’ll probably have to live with my fascination of Japanese classics for the rest of my life…


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