Curbside / Junkyard Classics: Somebody Likes Old Vans And Oddballs

I’ve seen this motley group quite a few times, as they are located pretty close to where I’ve been staying for the past couple of months. I think it was the Ford Econoline that caught my eye first. You just can’t miss it, with that layer-cake paint job. However, once I stopped for a closer look, some of the other vehicles (none of them qualify as “cars” in the accepted sense of the word) were just as unusual.

Let’s start with that Econoline, then. For all you US readers, this may be a familiar sight, but out in Japan (and Asia / Europe / Africa in general), we’re not too accustomed to these. This is a 3rd generation model and the blue Ford badge on its grille indicates it came off the Lorain, Ohio assembly line sometime between 1983 and 1991. I’m sure someone will be able to narrow that down a bit more.

This classic van packs a sturdy IH-sourced Diesel V8, either a 6.9 (170 hp) or a 7.3 litre (185 hp), depending on the model year. That’s not a lot of power for what seems to be a lot of van, but these Diesels are apparently built for economy and pretty reliable.

I couldn’t resist a peek inside and was not disappointed. The ambiance is about as un-Japanese as it could be, with the cupholders and the button-tufted seats. I would be interested to know what that row of unlabeled chrome switches is for in the dash, though. I’m sure someone will enlighten us.

Fords of any sort are very rare here, unlike most of the rest of the world. Strangely enough, big American vans are not uncommon in Japan. I’ve seen a few recent GMC and Chevrolet units about, as well as a Dodge or two – all LHD like this one. But this is the only Ford I’ve seen here so far. Maybe the Blue Oval used to offer these in Japan back in the day and stopped doing so at some point. Maybe this one was imported privately as a one-off. No idea how this got here.

Moving on to the Econoline’s neighbour – a good old Chevrolet C/K GMT400 pickup, made sometime between 1987 and 1999. This one was badged as Silverado, but I will readily admit to being completely ignorant about these vehicles. I trust the CCommentariat will be far more competent than me in identifying the particulars of this pickup.

One thing that does seem clear is that this one was bought new in Japan. It has the typical small Japanese plaque indicating its maximum load on the right of the rear bumper, which I assume is not something one could just tack on for the heck of it.

Finding these American giants was already something to behold, but they were sharing a plot of land – part junkyard, part front yard – with a bunch of other bizarre things. The white van on the far end was of no interest, but on the other side, near the caravan, were a few local contraptions that warranted further investigation, if that was possible.

For this egg-shaped… er… thing, further investigation was decidedly not possible. It was completely boxed in from all sides. I could not even ascertain the marque or get a decent photo, but the one clear factoid was that it lacked a proper steering wheel. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.

But next to that were two examples of one of the oddest kei derivatives ever made. Take a 6th generation (1989-93) Mitsubishi Minica (though you could do this with a Daihatsu Mira if you wish) and slap a great big box on it with folding doors on the left side: welcome to the wonderful world of the Japanese Walkthrough Van.

The driver’s side door is of a more standard design, obviously. As far as the rear hatch is concerned, there were several options available, including folding bus-type doors, as well as a large top-hinged hatch. The Minicas I found both had the more old-fashioned split tailgate.

The headroom inside these things is incredible. Driving one must feel like being in a square goldfish bowl. The 6th generation Minica bowed just before the kei car regulations changed in 1990, so these either have a 548cc or a 657cc 3-cyl. engine, depending on when they were made. Nowadays, pretty much all kei cars are automatics. Seems this 30-odd year old one has one too, but that would have been less common back then.

It’s not clear to me why these “Walkthrough” vans exist. I get the idea of a cheap boxy conveyance and the low floor / high roof, but surely a cab-over design would be far superior in terms of use of such a limited wheelbase. Maybe this is cheaper to make than a high-roof CoE kei truck, but the goofy look and brick-like aerodynamics are positively jarring. Another Japanese oddity.

Speaking of which, there were a couple of literal Easter eggs hidden behind the vans out front. When I first decided to photograph the area, sometime in late July, the overgrowth was such that it prevented investigating the matter further. But even this seemingly unattended plot of land was subjected to the traditional national pastime: tidying. A few weeks ago, someone carefully cleared the wilderness from the yard but left the junk. I decided to take more pictures, having finally got access to the mysterious minicars within.

Here they are in all their tiny glory. There are not many of these minuscule things around on Japanese roads – far fewer than on French roads, for instance. The white one seemed obvious to identify, as the marque or model was pretty prominent, but I had no idea what I was looking at, really. I sure am glad to be living at a time when the Internet and Google translate can enable one to one’s curiosity satisfied for free and without breaking a sweat.

So according to my research, this is a Takeoka Abbey Type 4, built sometime in 1988-90. It has a 50cc 2-stroke air-cooled Honda engine in the rear, cable-operated “bicycle brakes” and room for one lucky (and patient) owner/driver. It’s unclear what kind of “bicycle brakes” were installed on these things – perhaps some sort of caliper system within the wheel or a rim brake. The bodyshell is naturally made of GRP, which is one of its marker’s signature products.

The Takeoka Automobile Crafts Co., based in Toyama City, started making three-wheelers in 1982. Four-wheeled microcars followed by 1984 and gradually grew ever so slightly wider. This Type 4 was not a particularly popular model, as the brakes were not entirely satisfactory under all weather and road incline conditions. After all, most people who bought these needed them because they had a disability, so the thought of crashing in one probably didn’t appeal.

Soon after this type 4, Takeoka launched a revised model called “Carrot” whose brakes switched to cable-operated drums. The engine eventually changed to a Yamaha 4-stroke and an EV version became available. The Abbey Carrot became something of a success and Takeoka are still making them, along with a growing array of other microcars.

Tax-wise, these are considered to be motorcycles, so they’re probably quite a bit cheaper than a kei car. However, unlike the French system, you still need a full car license to drive one. And getting a car license is no joke in this country: you have to sit in class for several hours, practice driving for yet more hours, pass a battery of written, practical and emergency-preparedness tests before you can drive. It takes about six weeks and costs around US$ 4000. And only then can you drive a Takeoka Abbey. Harsh.

The other vehicle had me stumped for a little bit. This canvas roof thing is always a sad sight on junkyard vehicles, but especially so here, as the poor thing even lacked solid doors. Whoever zipped the right-hand side door off did me a favour tough, as it allowed me to look at the luxurious interior of this luscious limousine to my heart’s content.

The front end of this thing was just as enigmatic as the side. From this angle, it really looked like something out of an amusement park. Actually, this kind of reminds me of the photos of Pripyat, that abandoned Soviet town just outside Chernobyl. Maybe it’s because of those strange “radioactive” reflectors. Gotta love the go-faster stripes on a vehicle that could not top 60 kph if its life depended on it.

Here’s the rear of the beast – and the end of the guessing game. It’s a Mitsuoka MC-1. The rear is definitely this Mitsuoka’s coolest angle, with those rear lights on stalks. Imperials used to have a similar gimmick in the Exner era, but this takes it to a whole new level.

Mitsuoka made the MC-1 between 1998 and 2007. Power came from either a 1-cyl. 49cc (6.1 hp) with a CVT or a fully electric motor. I have no idea which one I found. This car was available in kit form as the K-1. Being Mitsuoka, they fashioned a sporty roadster K-2 kit as well, which looked like a Messerschmitt.

This was not Mitsuoka’s first foray into the microcar arena, as they had gotten started in the carmaking game back in the early ‘80s with the Bubu 501, incidentally with a plastic body made by Takeoka. From this MC-1 to the gaudy heights of the Galue limousine, is there anything Mitsuoka cannot do (besides something bland)?

Well, that’s it for this little multi-CC junkyard special. From massive Murican metal to diminutive domestic plastic, this place has everything but what you’d expect. If there is a theme to this collection of rotting relics, it might be “eccentricity, dialed up to 11.”


Related posts:


Cars Of A Lifetime: 1988 Ford Diesel Van – A Killer Van Or Big Ugly Number Two, by JunkHarvester

Curbside Classic: 1990 Ford E-350 by Cabriolet – Purpose-Built Fifth Wheel Trailer Hauler, by Jason Shafer

CC Capsule: 1994 Chevrolet 1500 Pickup – Still Hard At Work, by Joseph Dennis