CC Outtakes: Welcome To The Wild World Of Kei Vans

Japanese carmakers are well versed in the art of making large and exciting wares, but let’s not forget that small and dull has always been in their DNA. The issue, for a site like CC, is to make these unremarkable things palatable within a post. Thankfully, Japanese folks find kei vans rather boring too, so they like to dress them up. And I’ve been collecting some of the most interesting specimens for a couple years, saving them for a special post. The time has come…

But let’s hold off on pressing “Cosplay” right away. We should first take a look at present-day kei vans in 100% grey-scale stock/base form. We have here the Nissan NV100 Clipper, the Toyota Pixis and the Suzuki Every. Be still, my beating 660cc triple.

Let’s start with the Nissan, I guess. This is a late model (2012-13) of the 1st generation NVs, which was sold from late 2003 until September 2013. It’s actually a rebadged 6th generation Mitsubishi Minicab, as Nissan historically never dabbled in keis prior to their tie-up with Mitsu.

Since 2013, Nissan and Mitsubishi have switched to rebadging the Suzuki Every instead, as we can see on the right in this picture. The other big player in this field has always been the Daihatsu HiJet/Atrai (10th generation (2004-21) pictured on the left above).

Now that Toyota has fully digested Daihatsu, they have also started branding kei cars and trucks based on their junior partner’s designs. So we have the Pixis, seen in the middle here, and in the interior shot below. The consolidation of the kei sector being a continuous thing, these are also sold as the Subaru Sambar now. Confused yet?

It’s all pretty simple, really: there are now more brands selling kei vans, but only three basic designs: the Daihatsu-Subaru-Toyota, the Suzuki-Nissan-Mitsubishi-Mazda and the Honda N-Van. Since the 2010s, all kei vans have been disassociated from kei trucks, due to differing safety standards, but the Daihatsu and Suzuki platforms still bear the truck hallmarks of having a front engine / RWD layout and a live rear axle, though the truck platform’s leaf springs are replaced by coils.

There is a bewildering amount of variants on offer, with different types of roofs, interior appointments, seating arrangements and the like, but the basic vehicle remains the same, with a petrol 660cc triple driving the rear (or all) wheels via either a 5-speed manual (now very rare), a 3- or 4-speed automatic, or a CVT.

This is the current Suzuki Every (6th generation, built since 2015). Homey, isn’t it?

There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. One is the Mitsubishi Minicab EV Van, which remained in production for about a decade longer than the ICE 6th generation Minicab. These are very often seen, as is the case here, in Japan Post livery.

And then there is the odd one out: Honda plainly and simply went to FWD with the N-Van since 2018, leaving the truck chassis completely behind. This model’s great party trick is its lack of a B-pillar on the passenger side.

So that’s the standard, no-frills kei van of the 21st Century. All very vanilla. Let’s add a few sprinkles.

It all started with the ‘90s retro madness, really. And the OEMs were keen to jump in on the bandwagon. We’ve seen this Daimler-flavoured Daihatsu Classic, which I caught back in Thailand years ago.

Suzuki proposed their own “Classic C” in the late ‘90s. They were certainly more inventive with the looks than with the nameplates.

But the one maker that really embraced this the most was Subaru. Their rather British-inspired Sambar Dias Classic debuted in 1993 and was a hit with the buying public. Quite a few are still about.

The 2nd gen Dias Classic (1999-2012) also did pretty well. This one was further customized by being comprehensively resprayed, chrome bits included.

Through an affiliate, Subaru even did a limited run of this special Sambar Dias, styled to look (a bit) like the 360 – the company’s first kei car, and the reason why this generation of vans still sported a rear-mounted engine, like the first Sambar did in the ’60s. However, for some real kei van madness, we’re going to have to delve into the weird and wonderful world of kits.

Let’s start with the all-time favourite, the undisputed star, the one and only VW Transporter. I’ll just post a few gazillion examples here, because although these are absolutely ubiquitous, each one has its own quirks. And colours. Lots of colours.

The harlequin pattern upholstery in that last one was something else. But wait, there’s more.

As we can see, there are at least three different kits, either from different makers or fitted to different platforms, I’m not too sure. The best of the bunch is below.

The near infinite variation in terms of colours, extra trim (eyelashes included), wheel styles and so on, is astounding. And that’s just one type of kit.

The T2 Transporter kit is much rarer. T3 kits exist, but I’ve only seen them applied to Toyota HiAces – and those are twice the size of a kei van. Another great classic is the Citroën H van. Let’s have a look at a few of those…

These are more of a coherent bunch, usually with no-frills interiors. But there are some subtle differences from one to the next, depending on the van they’re based on.

Another great classic is the UAZ Bukhanka kit, dubbed “PAZ” by their maker. Not nearly as common, but a great look, especially in army-drab khaki. The fourth type is less readily identifiable as an homage to an actual van, but is very popular: the ‘50s American kit.

Lots of variation on this one. Some of these have a British vibe, but put some DeSoto-esque teeth on that grille and a slight bump on the hood, and the Detroit feel is unmistakable. That green one, oddly enough, has a Fiat badge on its rear end. Let’s look at one of these in a bit more detail.

Modest is the kit-maker, and these are called “Poos” or “Picot,” depending on whether they’re based on a Suzuki or a Daihatsu. I have a soft spot for these. But let’s not forget Honda…

These last two are a take on the ‘70s kei Life Van – a beautiful (but short-lived) little thing that presaged the present-day N-Van. I found one curbside. Need to write that up…

I’m going to call this one the School Bus, obviously. Some look very school bus-like, others not.

And then there’s this one, which really nails it. No idea who the maker is, though…

We’re now reaching the point of this post where the weird is going to be pushed to 11. There are plenty of kits that have few takers, so some I only know about from online photo searches. But there are some that I’ve encountered in the fiberglass.

No idea what this one is supposed to look like, but I do like the micro-RV arrangement at the back.

Same with this one – a bit of a Jeep vibe, maybe?

Never mind, that’s the Jeep. It’s also a truck, strictly speaking.

This looks like it has the Jeep kit base, but with extra vegetation. Flower power truck!

You have to be a pretty hard-core Alfista to even know about the F12 van from way back when (1967-83, to be exact). It seems there’s enough of a Japanese fan base for a kei van kit. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “false modesty.”

Here’s the latest one: the Camaro kit from Gibson, one of the other major kit and aftermarket parts makers. The main question I have is: what face will they go for next? BMW Neue Klasse, AMC Pacer, Toyota 2000GT? Or will they go for the obvious and do the Cord L29? It’d be perfect. Maybe all of these will exist in kei kit form, someday. Stranger things have happened, as I hoped to have shown in this post.